Unheralded-Rivalry Report: Cincinnati vs. Xavier

Joe Robbins/Getty Images

While the rest of the college basketball world focused its attention on Duke–North Carolina Wednesday night, I was in the enormous airplane hangar that the University of Cincinnati calls a basketball arena, taking in my first Xavier-Cincinnati game. I’ve lived in Ohio for almost nine years, and in that time it’s been hard for me to pin down the statewide importance of the Crosstown Shootout. You know how you never think about your tongue? It’s so important to everyday life, but you probably never stop to think, I’ve got this weird ball of muscle in my mouth that tastes stuff and helps me speak. That’s the Crosstown Shootout for me. I watch and enjoy it every year, and two days after it’s over I go back to forgetting that it deserves more credit as one of the sport’s best rivalries.

It shouldn’t be this way. I’ve lived within 130 miles of Cincinnati my entire life and I’m a college basketball junkie. How can one of the sport’s fiercest rivalries remain under my radar? Because that’s how the people of Cincinnati want it. The Crosstown Shootout is unapologetically local. Outsiders are free to check it out, try it on for size, take it for a test drive, and get a little taste. But they better be damn sure to put it back where they found it before they leave, because the Shootout belongs to the city of Cincinnati and it’s not interested in selling.

This makes sense. Cincinnati is located pretty much where Ohio, Indiana, and Kentucky meet, which makes the city a little bit of all of those states while at the same time none of those states. It’s as if Cincinnati, in its early days, had a citywide meeting to decide which state to associate itself with and the residents picked none of the above and decided to just do their own thing.1 In a similar vein, Ohio has Ohio State–Michigan, Indiana has IU-Purdue, and Kentucky has UK-Louisville. And instead of picking which rivalry to care about, Cincinnati just made its residents choose between UC and Xavier.

This is an attempt to make sense of the Crosstown Shootout by one non-Cincinnati native.

Why Is This a Rivalry?

Xavier v CincinnatiJoe Robbins/Getty ImagesIt’s probably worth mentioning that the University of Cincinnati is a massive public school of around 43,500 students, while Xavier is a tiny Jesuit private school with an enrollment of 4,600. But let’s just cut to the chase: Fewer than 300,000 people live in Cincinnati. The next-smallest city in America to house two power conference basketball programs is Philadelphia, which has a population of more than 1.5 million. This makes the UC-Xavier rivalry feel like two big fish fighting to be the king of the same tiny pond. And it’s not just that they’re in the same city — both schools are also close to each other. Like, really close. The campuses are separated by about 2.5 miles, making Xavier and Cincinnati the two closest power conference schools in the country. I had no idea they were so close until this week, which is something I blame on the rivalry being named the “Crosstown Shootout.” When I hear “Crosstown,” I assume you have to get in a car and drive, you know, across town to get from one to the other. In truth, UC and Xavier are very much on the same side of town. Even out-of-shape people could walk from one to the other. Uncle Rico could throw a football from one campus to the other. In short, the two schools are so close that when Xavier farts, UC smells it. 

Have you ever shared a hotel room with someone for a week or more? If so, you know that it doesn’t take long for even best friends to want to kill each other when forced to share a tight space. Well, imagine sharing a tight space for almost 185 years with someone you never liked in the first place. Then think of how both schools are competing for recruits, fans, media coverage, money, status, and everything else college basketball programs need to stay relevant. Imagine the other guy having what you want and rubbing it in your face every chance he gets that you don’t have it. And when the roles are reversed, imagine him doing everything he can to take what’s yours. Imagine how much hatred would build up. That’s UC-Xavier.

When I say that these two schools hate each other, I mean they haaaaate each other. I don’t even think it’s an “I cheer against you, but I also respect you” hatred. It’s full-blown “kiss my ass” mixed with some “no, seriously  kiss my ass.” The rivalry is so heated that the people in charge stopped calling it the “Shootout” and used “Crosstown Classic” for a couple of years because they thought “Shootout” promoted violence. That’s right  the powers that be basically said, “Someone is eventually going to get killed because of this rivalry, so maybe we should change the name to make it look like we tried to prevent it.”

If you asked me to describe my Crosstown Shootout experience, I’d grab a paper bag and heavily breathe into it until you got the point and walked away. Wednesday night was two hours of butt-clenching intensity that triggered the kind of anxiety that made me want to pop a handful of Xanax, wash it down with some wine, crawl into bed, and cry myself to sleep. I saw Cincinnati fans walk around with their middle fingers in the air just in case Xavier fans happened to be nearby. Xavier fans sitting in the rafters booed the UC dance team  the dance team!  during a timeout routine as if Satan himself had stepped onto the court. I saw a white-haired man put his hands on a teenage boy when an altercation broke out because they each supported different teams.

I thought I was passionate about college basketball. Then I saw how much Xavier and Cincinnati fans care about winning the Shootout. Now I realize that nothing in my life matters.

All-Time Series: Cincinnati 49, Xavier 33

Xavier fans would like you to know that Cincinnati’s dominance in the ’60s and ’70s is the only reason the Bearcats have this advantage, and that the Musketeers are 21-15 in the Shootout since 1980. Cincinnati fans would respond, but they’re just going to let the next section do the talking for them.

National Titles: Cincinnati 2, Xavier 0

Cincinnati went to five straight Final Fours from 1959 through 1963 and won back-to-back national titles in 1961 and 1962. The Bearcats also made the 1992 Final Four. Meanwhile, Xavier has never won a national championship or even made the Final Four. If you’re a Cincinnati fan, all arguments with Xavier fans end with you pointing to your team’s banners. If you’re a Xavier fan, you probably mention that the Muskies have been to the Elite Eight twice since UC last made it there, or you say that Xavier has been to five Sweet Sixteens in the last 11 years while UC has been to only one.

Five Videos That Encapsulate the Rivalry

There’s the time Nick Van Exel hit a half-court shot to carry momentum into halftime and propel Cincinnati to an easy win over Xavier.

There’s the time Bob Huggins refused to shake Pete Gillen’s hand when Xavier beat UC in overtime, in what would end up being Gillen’s final Shootout as Xavier coach.

http://youtu.be/bX39gaJzL1o?t=2h3m49s

There’s the game in which Danny Fortson scored 40 points and grabbed 17 boards in a 99-90 Bearcats win.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5wBPV5a4B8g&feature=youtu.be&t=1s

There’s the time in 1996 when Lenny Brown hit the most famous shot in Crosstown Shootout history  a buzzer-beater to beat no. 1 Cincinnati on the Cats’ home court  prompting one of my favorite broadcast calls ever: “The UC Bearcats are no. 1 in the country, no. 2 in their own city!”

And then there’s the time in 1999 when Xavier again beat Cincinnati when the Cats were the top-ranked team in the country.

Are You Sure There Aren’t Any Other Videos That Give a Good Idea of How Heated the Rivalry Is?

Um, I guess there’s this one that was presumably made as a final project in a junior high video editing class. It’s basically just UC highlights with random disses of Xavier for no apparent reason.

http://youtu.be/mWNuJLAJTjo

Is that what you meant?

Come On — I’m Sure There’s Something Else Out There

Ooooooohhhh, you’re right  now I remember. There’s the time that Xavier and Cincinnati GOT INTO A BLOODCURDLING, BENCHES-CLEARING BRAWL.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7WouOCX5XNQ

On one hand, this was a stain on both schools and a national embarrassment for the rivalry. For thousands of casual fans, the only thing they know about either school is that they fought in a basketball game. On the other hand, THE PLAYERS BEAT THE SHIT OUT OF EACH OTHER. How crazy is that?! You know UC and Xavier fans secretly love that this happened. You know that they’re going to point to this forever as proof that their rivalry is the most heated in America, and I don’t blame them one bit.

By the way, all you need to know about the UC-Xavier rivalry is that this brawl might not even be its lowest moment. In 1958, someone threw a wine bottle at Oscar Robertson. In 1967, a Xavier player took a crutch from a fan in the stands and threw it at a UC player, prompting the crowd to throw coins and trash onto the court. UC’s Myron Hughes “decked” Xavier’s Eddie Johnson in the 1985 game. And another two-player fight broke out in the 1988 game.

Have I mentioned that Xavier and Cincinnati hate each other? Because Xavier and Cincinnati hate each other.

Vital Statistics and Characters

huggins-bob-cincinnatiDoug Pensinger/Getty Images

Top five Cincinnati legends: Oscar Robertson, Kenyon Martin, Bob Huggins, Danny Fortson, Steve Logan

Top five Xavier legends: David West, Byron Larkin, Tyrone Hill, Brian Grant, Pete Gillen

Cincinnati legends whom people 40 and under have never heard of: Jack Twyman, Ron Bonham

Xavier legends whom people 40 and under have never heard of: Steve Thomas, Hank Stein

Best all-time NBA player from Cincinnati: Oscar Robertson

Best all-time NBA player from Xavier: David West

Best current NBA player from Cincinnati: Lance Stephenson

Best current NBA player from Xavier: David West

Best Cincinnati player you probably forgot about: Ruben Patterson

Best Xavier player you probably forgot about: Romain Sato

Best Cincinnati coach who was honest-to-God named Rip Van Winkle: Rip Van Winkle

Best Xavier coach who was honest-to-God named Rip Van Winkle: None

Famous non-sports Cincinnati alumni:

William Howard Taft, George Clooney, Nipsey Russell, Charles Keating, the sixth chief justice of the USA, one of the Four Chaplains, the pilot of the Enola Gay, the chief engineer of the Golden Gate Bridge, the inventor of the Magic 8-Ball, the inventor of the Easy-Bake Oven, the inventor of Preparation H, the Naked Cowboy of Times Square, the creator of The Waltons, the first interior designer of the Playboy Mansion, the chief suspect in the 2001 anthrax attacks, and a bunch of other people who aren’t Nick Lachey.

Famous non-sports Xavier alumni:

John Boehner, the guy who played Mike Damone in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, the guy who played Michael in Mean Streets and Richard LaPenna in The Sopranos, the guy who invented a balloon catheter to make blood clots easier to remove, the “Father of Naval Special Warfare,” the guy who helped discover the cause of rickettsialpox, a co-founder of Adobe, a guy whom Jerry Springer unsuccessfully tried to unseat from Congress, and Dolph Ziggler’s brother.

Does the Rivalry Extend to Other Sports?

Xavier doesn’t have a football team, if that’s what you mean. But yes, the rivalry does extend beyond the basketball teams, most notably to the managers of the basketball teams.

On a Scale From 1 to 10, How Relevant Is the Rivalry on the National Stage?

I’d say it’s a 3. Both programs make the NCAA tournament almost every year. Both have had All-American candidates in recent years. The game itself has been competitive recently, with five of the last 12 being decided by five or fewer points. And then there was that brawl that put the rivalry in the national spotlight. But both programs are in conferences that don’t have huge national followings. It’s a rarity for both teams to be ranked when the Shootout takes place. And even though Cincinnati was pretty good last year, it’s been years since either team has looked like a national title contender. So while the games have been fun to watch and the hatred is fierce as ever, the Shootout isn’t must-see TV for people living in Texas.

And honestly, that’s just the way Cincinnatians like it. They wouldn’t care if the Shootout had zero national relevance. It would still mean the world to them. You could put Xavier and UC jerseys on some 9-year-olds, throw them on a basketball court, and point a TV camera at it, and Cincinnatians would still have an unhealthy obsession over winning the thing.

How Relevant Is the Rivalry Historically?

robertson-oscar-ncaa-cincinnatiCollegiate Images/LLC/WireImage

I give it 6 out of 10. The long-term story line is pretty fascinating. Cincinnati dominated for about 20 years, winning 22 of 24 from 1957 to 1978, often by huge margins. The Cats won a couple of national titles in that span, went to a couple more Final Fours, and established themselves as one of the best programs in America, while Xavier did a whole lot of nothing. The Muskies got tagged with the most dreaded words in any rivalry  “little brother”  and they couldn’t really argue against it.

But then a funny thing happened: Xavier got good. Not good enough to make waves nationally, but good enough to beat UC. This became a bit of an annoyance for the Bearcats, who were very much still good enough to make national waves. By the late ’90s, UC fans kept the “little brother” tag going, which was hilarious to Xavier fans who watched “little brother” dish out ass-kickings to highly ranked UC teams. Xavier still didn’t have a ton of NCAA tournament success, leaving UC fans eager to point out that the Musketeers still had a ways to go to catch their rivals. But Xavier fans could at least now fire back with, “Well, we beat you.”

Today, conference realignment has taken Cincinnati out of the best conference in college basketball history (the old Big East) and put them in a conference with East Carolina and Tulane. Meanwhile, Xavier has upgraded from the A-10 to the Big East. It could be argued that Xavier has become the big brother in the rivalry, and not just in the sense that it has gotten the better of UC recently. The Muskies seem better positioned for the future, they’ve won 13 of the last 19 Shootouts, and UC’s NCAA tournament trump card has lost some luster now that Xavier has outperformed Cincinnati in the tournament in recent years.

This almost never happens. Huge schools with a clearly inferior rival rarely have the tables turned on them for more than a few years. Xavier still has a long way to go to be considered Cincinnati’s true historical equal, but the Muskies seem headed down the right path, which means the next era in the UC-Xavier rivalry could be the most intriguing yet. Also, 82 meetings over the course of 87 years, they literally beat each other up, and did I mention the two schools genuinely hate each other? What more do you want?

The Rivalry’s High Point

1990-2005. This was Bob Huggins’s coaching tenure at Cincinnati. Huggins is the best coach in UC history and the man responsible for pretty much all of the Bearcats’ success over the last half-century. During the Huggins years, Cincinnati won 10 conference titles, made the Elite Eight in 1992, 1993, and 1996, and went to the 1992 Final Four.2 In that same span, Xavier’s four coaches  Gillen, Skip Prosser, Thad Matta, and Sean Miller  won nine conference titles and Matta took Xavier to the 2004 Elite Eight, where it was tied with Duke for a trip to the Final Four with three minutes left. These were the years that produced most of the all-time greats from both schools, and this era provided the two Xavier wins over no. 1 UC. And as if all of that wasn’t perfect enough, during the Huggins years each school beat the other eight times in the Shootout.

The Rivalry’s Low Point

gates-yancy-cincinnatiTom Maguire/Getty Images

In terms of “Are we sure this is even a rivalry?” it has to be that stretch from 1957 to 1978 when Cincinnati regularly steamrolled Xavier. In terms of “this is so humiliating for all parties involved,” it’s the 2011 brawl.

Stereotypical Cincinnati Fan’s Thoughts on the Rivalry

“F— XAVIER.”

Stereotypical Xavier Fan’s Thoughts on the Rivalry

“F— UC.”

Current Bragging Rights

reynolds-jalen-xavierJoe Robbins/Getty Images

Xavier jumped out to a huge lead in the first half of Wednesday’s game thanks to some hot perimeter shooting and a bunch of missed everything from UC. But the Muskies let up in the second half and Cincinnati clawed all the way back to take the lead in the final minute. In the end, though, Xavier held on for a thrilling win when UC’s would-be game winner missed with six seconds left.

Xavier holds the bragging rights. For now.

Filed Under: College Basketball, University of Cincinnati, Xavier University, Cincinnati Ohio, Titus’s Top 12 NCAA Power Rankings, College Sports Rivalries, Bob Huggins, david west, Oscar Robertson, Pete Gillen, Nick Van Exel, Ruben Patterson

Mark Titus is the founder and author of the blog Club Trillion. His book, Don’t Put Me In, Coach, chronicles his career as a walk-on benchwarmer for the Ohio State basketball team and is on sale now.

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