All I Really Need To Know I Learned In Nippert Stadium
My turn at the pop-philosophy bestseller market
Thirty years ago, times were tough if you wanted something to read while using the bathroom. There weren’t any smartphones, no social media to scroll while you attend to your necessities. You couldn’t go on Instagram and see where your friends are vacationing, nor could you go on Twitter and find out what people are mad about today. You either had to get in and get out quickly, or you had to read a piece of physical media.
You know; bathroom reading.
In my parents’ house, bathroom reading material usually meant small-format periodicals—Reader’s Digest and the like—but occasionally, a book would show up in there, too: something light, entertaining, and easy to digest in small portions.
One such book was All I Really Need To Know I Learned In Kindergarten, a best-selling 1986 collection of pop-philosophical essays by the author and Unitarian minister Robert Fulghum.
In those essays, Fulghum muses about the simple lessons children learn in kindergarten, and how those same lessons could be applied to adult life. The book is bit simplistic and overly-sweet at times, but it’s got a nice message, and as someone who writes short essays and would be very happy to turn them into a bestseller, I respect what Fulghum did there.
So I’m going to attempt my own version of it.
You’re going to notice—if you haven’t already—a preoccupation in my writing this fall with the success of the Cincinnati Bearcats football team. This is not an accident; the team representing my alma mater is currently enjoying perhaps its greatest run of success in its 136-year history, and I’m relishing every moment of it. There’s certainly no guarantees in life, but they’ve got a non-zero shot—if a lot of things go right over the next couple of months—to be the first school from outside of college football’s traditional power structures to crash the College Football Playoff and vie directly for a championship. Who’s to say? For now, I’m loving the ride.
With that in mind, I’m going to merge these two topics into one, and offer my lessons for life, success, and happiness from the last 40 years of Cincinnati Bearcats football, with: All I Really Need To Know I Learned At Nippert Stadium.
Indulge me, won’t you?
You have to start somewhere.
I’ve hit on this topic before, but college football loves to pretend that it’s a meritocracy. In theory, anyone can play for and win a title; every one of the 130 teams in FBS starts the season 0-0. In practice, this is laughably untrue; from resource inequities to preseason polls to selection committee biases, the field is heavily tilted to just a small handful of teams that have any realistic chance of success. Per Bud Elliott’s “Blue Chip Ratio”, that number might be as small as 16 teams.
In many ways, this is reflective of the promise and reality of American life at large; anyone can succeed, but the path to success is much more direct for some than for others.
In 1983, the year after I was born, the Cincinnati Bearcats were reclassified by the NCAA to Division I-AA due to perceived lack of fan support. They only spent one season at the lower level, and while they were there, they became the first team from that tier to defeat a ranked opponent, upsetting #20 Penn State in Happy Valley.
They had a long, long way to climb, but it was a start.
You have to take opportunities wherever you can find them, even if that means you’re going to get your ass kicked a lot.
From 1970 to 1995, the Bearcats played as an independent. Admittedly, this was more common in those days than it is today; current power-conference teams like Pittsburgh, Florida State, Virginia Tech and South Carolina were independents as well.
For the Bearcats, though, lacking both the prestige and on-field success of those teams and the regular scheduling that a conference might offer meant they often played the role of a sacrificial mercenary. From 1982 to 1989, the Bearcats played the Miami Hurricanes eight consecutive years, and went 0-8. The average score in those games was 41-9.
I can’t speak from firsthand experience—I was a small child at the time and not, in fact, a member of the Bearcats football team—but I suspect it was somewhat demoralizing to get throttled like that each year.
I also suspect it offered a window into how a young program could establish itself.
Sometimes, you’ll surprise everyone. Yourself included.
By the mid-90s, the Bearcats’ football program was digging out of a decades-long hole. They still weren’t any good, mind you, but they’d found a conference home, and coaches Tim Murphy and Rick Minter began to lay the groundwork for future stability and success.
Of course, almost no one could have predicted that, in 1999, a Bearcat team that would go 3-8 on the season would also upset a Wisconsin team that would go on to win the Big Ten and Rose Bowl behind the rushing of Heisman Trophy winner Ron Dayne.
Remember what it feels like to just miss out.
In 2002, the Ohio State Buckeyes won the national championship.
On September 21, 2002, the Cincinnati Bearcats were two dropped passes away from stopping that championship drive before it even started, and beating their much-larger in-state foe for the first time more than a century.
For fans of the Buckeyes and for the college football public at large, that game is a footnote, if not forgotten at all. For the small-but-growing Bearcats fanbase, it was proof that we could play with a team like that.
We could beat a team like that.
I will not ever forget this game, even though I wasn’t there.
Take something from every job, even if it’s just a painful lesson.
After that long run as an independent, the Bearcats landed their first conference home in decades in 1996, when they joined Conference USA, an uninspiring mishmash of teams from all over the country that saw them playing against such powers as Houston, Tulane and Memphis. The football wasn’t great, and the geography wasn’t cohesive, but it was a home, and a chance to build.
In 2005, they jumped to the Big East, replacing power teams that departed for sunnier pastures.
In 2013, the Big East collapsed, and they found themselves in the American Athletic Conference, an uninspiring mishmash of teams from all over the country that saw them playing against such powers as Houston, Tulane and—hey, this sounds familiar.
In 2023 or so, they’ll jump to the Big XII, replacing power te—yep, we’re in a loop now.
The point is, addresses change. The company on your business card, or the logo on your shirt? It changes too.
Learn from each stop, even if all you’re learning is how to get out.
Be prepared to get your heart broken by someone who you thought was The One.
In 2007, after successful head coach Mark Dantonio departed for Michigan State, the Bearcats hired a little-known but promising coach away from Central Michigan: Brian Kelly.
Over the next three years, the Bearcats would go 34-6, play in two New Year’s bowl games, have an undefeated regular season and Big East title, and come within—in some people’s view1—a single second from competing in the national championship game. Kelly was the program’s savior, the chosen one who was going to lead us to the promised land—until moments after clinching that undefeated season, when he skipped town to coach Notre Dame.2
It felt like heartbreak. It felt like betrayal. It felt like the end of a Cinderella story.
Don’t let one asshole ruin things for you. You’re better than that.
Go to hell, get a job, etc.
Keep plugging away; the people at the top aren’t always going to recognize what you’ve done…
The Cincinnati Bearcats went on the road yesterday to face a much-better-than-their-history-and-record Indiana Hoosiers team. They faced the largest crowd for a non-conference game in Bloomington in 34 years, a crowd that was loud and raucous from the start. They overcome early struggles to pull out an impressive 38-24 win.
They dropped one spot in the Coaches’ Poll.
… but the people who matter in the end will notice.
In 1983, it would have been inconceivable to see thousands of Bearcats fans traveling 100 miles to a road game. In 2000, when I started school at Cincinnati, the idea of a massive contingent of Bearcats fans singing “Hey Hey Goodbye” to a Big Ten team’s fans as they departed their own stadium would have beggared belief.
In 2021, it felt like just the beginning.
Perhaps this isn’t a toilet-tank-worthy book of truly transferable lessons; perhaps I’m just being wildly self-indulgent today. I’m okay with that. Regardless, it’s thrilling to see that in a sport where the haves had always had and always will, a team that by all rights shouldn’t be where it is today still is.
It’s exciting to me, and I hope it’s exciting to you.
Oh, wait. I do have one more lesson, though.
You can get arrested even when you’re wearing a mascot costume.
I didn’t think it was true until I saw it, but there it is.
He was framed.
—Scott Hines (@actioncookbook)
mine, that is.
In retrospect I should not have been as surprised as I was that a guy from Boston named BRIAN KELLY might want to coach Notre Dame, but this realization has not made me like him one bit more.