By Steven Gorgei
LOS ANGELES — Over the span of 30 days, the University of Cincinnati Bearcats became the first non-Power Five team to appear in the College Football Playoff and the Cincinnati Bengals advanced to their first Super Bowl since 1989, transforming the Queen City into football royalty and giving long-suffering Cincinnati sports fans something to celebrate.
Bengals punter Kevin Huber is the longest-tenured Bengal, a Cincinnati native and a member of the University of Cincinnati’s athletics hall of fame, which makes him uniquely positioned to understand the impact the success of both teams is having on local residents .
“It’s meant so much to the city,” Huber said. “Both on just the fans that have been here long and that have been through a lot, but also just the recognition for the city. The amount of pub that Cincinnati’s been getting. I just think it’s huge for the city overall.”
As Huber noted, being a Cincinnati football fan hasn’t always been a joy-filled experience. Both teams have suffered through long periods of losing over the course of their histories.
The Bearcats didn’t make a single appearance in the AP Top 25 between 1977 and 2006, and after enjoying several years of success under head coaches Brian Kelly and Butch Jones, the Bearcats slumped under Tommy Tuberville as they failed to crack the AP poll at any point during his four-season tenure between 2013 and 2016. The Bengals history is just as bleak.
Despite making two Super Bowls in the 1980s, the Bengals missed the playoffs in 14 consecutive seasons between 1991 and 2004. Even as former head coach Marvin Lewis led the Bengals to seven playoff appearances over his 16-year tenure, which started in 2003, they still carried an eight-game postseason losing streak, dating back to 1991, into this season’s playoffs. But over the last four months everything changed.
First, the Bearcats beat Notre Dame in South Bend, won the American Athletic Conference championship and earned a bid to the playoff, where they faced Alabama on New Year’s Eve. Leading up to the Alabama game, the energy in the city was palpable, according to Bengals head coach Zac Taylor.
“I was excited to get out of practice that day and go watch the game,” Taylor said. “So, I think I was just kind of one of those Cincinnatians at that point and pulling for the Bearcats there.”
The Bearcats fell to the Crimson Tide 27-6, but some fans said they believe the energy created by the Bearcats was just transferred to the Bengals after the loss.
“I feel like the city was just so excited with UC going where they went and doing so well,” said Tamara Johnson, a Bengals season-ticket holder and University of Cincinnati graduate who traveled to LA for Sunday’s Super Bowl matchup with the Rams. “And that just builds up the spirit and momentum for the Bengals.”
Two days after the Bearcats lost to Alabama, the Bengals clinched the AFC North title with a 34-31 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs. Two weeks later, the Bengals snapped their playoff losing streak with a 26-19 win over the Las Vegas Raiders and then earned walk-off victories over the Tennessee Titans and Chiefs to reach their first Super Bowl in 33 years.
The dramatic victories became a rallying point for both Bengals fans in Cincinnati and those scattered throughout the country.
“Being a Bengals fan in LA is always kind of a dicey situation. They look at you and laugh,” said Todd Armstrong, a founding member of the Los Angeles-based fan group BengalsWest. “They’re not laughing anymore.”
The Bengals are no longer comedic material, but they also haven’t reached the pinnacle yet. A Super Bowl win would give Cincinnati its first championship since the Reds won the 1990 World Series and provide a generation of Cincinnati sports fans with their first taste of championship success.
“This city would just implode if we win this game,” Huber said. “It would mean everything to this city. They would be just completely on cloud nine.”
Steven Gorgei is a sports media graduate student at Medill. You can follow him on Twitter at @GorgOnSports.