UC football out of league in '96 debut

The Cincinnati Enquirer

The coin toss drew nine cameras. The game ball arrived by parachute. The first play from scrimmage was delayed for a photo opportunity.

Conference USA's first-ever football contest was observed with extensive pomp and considerable pageantry Friday night at Nippert Stadium. Pity they had to play the game.

The University of Cincinnati Bearcats ended 26 years as a college independent only to debut as doormats of their new league.

Tulane thoroughly throttled UC, 34-14, to take the early lead in the race for the Liberty Bowl.

From where Rick Minter stood, Beale Street might as well be in Beijing.

The UC coach has tried to temper the rampant optimism surrounding his squad this summer, and it turns out his reservations were right.

Favored to win the conference in most of the preseason polls, the Bearcats were overwhelmed by the team considered most likely to finish last. It was 27-0 before UC scored. It was never suspenseful.

The Bearcats didn't block. They didn't tackle. Their sophomore quarterback looked suspiciously like a sophomore quarterback. Generally speaking, the Bearcats moved the ball as if it were the Carew Tower.

Careful what you wish for

Conference affiliation was supposed to be a panacea for UC football, providing a tangible goal at the end of the season and a year-round recruiting tool for the coaches. Friday's telecast was available live to an estimated 36,828,000 households through Fox Sports Net. Channel surfers in New England could see it on tape delay following Friday's AAA baseball tilt between Pawtucket and Syracuse.

Yet national exposure is no better than a mixed blessing when the ball is being systematically shoved down your throats. When the two teams went to their dressing rooms at halftime, Tulane held a 24-0 lead, a 322-146 yardage advantage and had twice intercepted UC quarterback Chad Plummer. Bearcat punter Steve Smith had his first punt blocked.

UC running back Orlando Smith went 20 yards with his first carry but was down to a total of 16 yards at intermission. As the evening wore on, even stadium security would lose some of its edge.

After the Bearcat band left the field at halftime, a few boisterous fans seized the opportunity and stormed the field. Soon the field was thick with trespassers - hundreds of them - and the best leapers tugged at the south goal post until it was no longer level.

There were two ways to look at this lapse: 1) UC needs to beef up its crowd control for football games; 2) UC finally had a football crowd bigger than it could handle.

Excitement? We'll see . . .

The turnstile count was announced as 26,493, and ticket manager Paul Klaczak reported that the day-of-game gate was so large that he wouldn't be able to produce a precise count until Tuesday.

With its student body not expected on campus for nearly another month, UC went to elaborate lengths to fill Nippert Stadium for the Conference USA opener. Tickets were sold on a two-for-one basis through Skyline Chili, and promotional efforts succeeded in raising the profile of the program among the historically apathetic. If Cincinnati was not abuzz about the Bearcats, at least it wasn't asleep.

''Based on my scientific cab driver poll,'' said Liberty Bowl executive director Steve Ehrhart, ''they're real excited in the city this year.''

Friday's score is sure to quash some of that enthusiasm. The visitors from New Orleans were 2-9 last year and allowed an average of 36.5 points in their final four games. UC had to be thinking of Tulane as a tuneup. Now, it appears, the Bearcats may have need of an overhaul.

Except in Lincoln or Tallahassee or South Bend, one game does not a season ruin. Yet it still can be mighty disconcerting.

The first impression of Conference USA football was that the Bearcats were out of their league.

Tim Sullivan is an Enquirer columnist.

Published Aug. 31, 1996.