Why Is Cincinnati’s Football Team Called the Bearcats?

The Cincinnati Bearcats have become one of the hottest up-and-coming college football programs in America. But since they are just now entering national relevance, you may not be too familiar with what a Bearcat is and why it’s UC’s mascot.

Fear not, though. This is the history of Cincinnati’s football program and why it’s called the Bearcats.

The Cincinnati Bearcats’ football program is one of the oldest in the country

The Cincinnati Bearcats mascot at a football game in 2021.
The Cincinnati Bearcats mascot during a football game against the SMU Mustangs on Nov. 20, 2021. | Dylan Buell/Getty Images

Believe it or not, Cincinnati actually has one of the oldest football programs in America. According to WLWT, it began play all the way back in 1885, which makes it older than its in-state foe, the Ohio State Buckeyes, as they played their first game in 1890.

However, Cincinnati has never had national relevance. Despite being around for over 130 years, it has failed to win a national championship so far.

That doesn’t mean the program hasn’t had success, though.

After decades of not even ranking in the Associated Press poll, Cincinnati started becoming a powerhouse under coach Brian Kelly in 2007, ranking as high as No. 15 that season. They then followed that up with an 11-win campaign in 2008. However, in 2009, Cincinnati cracked the top five, going 12-0 in the regular season. The program even reached the Sugar Bowl that year, where it faced Tim Tebow and the Florida Gators.

Since then, Cincy has been one of the most consistent programs in the NCAA. It had two consecutive 10-win seasons under Butch Jones in 2011 and 2012, and after four years of irrelevance with Tommy Tuberville, Luke Fickell has turned the Bearcats into a perennial top-25 team throughout the last four years.

There have also been numerous outstanding players to come through the program. Travis Kelce, one of the top tight ends in NFL history, played at UC, as did his brother, three-time first-team All-Pro center Jason Kelce. Former Pro Bowlers Trent Cole and Connor Barwin are also Cincy alums.

The players on the 2021 UC team, though, have made history. Thanks to a 13-0 season, Cincinnati became the first-ever Group of Five school to make the College Football Playoff, putting the Bearcats on a national stage.

A Bearcat is a real animal, but Cincinnati wasn’t initially named after it

Cincinnati’s athletic teams are currently named after the bearcat, an actual animal that is also known as a binturong. It’s neither cat nor bear, though, and is a part of the civet and mongoose families. But according to the Cincinnati Zoo, it’s “agile like a cat in the canopy and less adept on ground, walking flat-footed like a bear.”

However, the mascot name didn’t originally come from the animal.

The school’s athletic department says that in 1914, Cincinnati football was playing the Kentucky Wildcats. A cheerleader then made up a chant about the team’s star fullback, Leonard “Teddy” Baehr. It said, “They may be Wildcats, but we have a Baehr-cat on our side.”

UC then won 14-7, and the student newspaper placed a cartoon of the “Cincinnati Bear Cats” on its front page a few days later.

The school didn’t adopt the name immediately, but while reporting on a game against Tennessee in 1919, a writer for the Cincinnati Enquirer called the team the Bearcats, and the moniker has stuck ever since. The program’s mascot is even a depiction of the animal, and a live bearcat that lives at the local zoo has attended athletic events throughout the past decade-plus.

So, whenever you watch the Cincinnati football from now on, you can thank a cheerleader and Teddy Baehr for them being called the Bearcats.

The Cincinnati Bearcats have also had tremendous success in basketball

Before becoming a strong football program, the Cincinnati Bearcats had a ton of success in basketball.

More recently, UC made nine straight NCAA Tournaments under Mick Cronin from 2011 through 2019. It also reached the Final Four under Bob Huggins in 1992 and had arguably the best team in the nation in 1999-2000 before an injury to star player Kenyon Martin led to its season ending prematurely.

However, most of the program’s success came in the 1950s and 60s. It reached five straight Finals Fours from 1959 through 1963, won back-to-back national championships in 1961 and 1962, and reached the championship game for a third consecutive season in 1963. Oscar Robertson, one of the greatest players in NBA history, led the Bearcats to two of those five Final Fours. He even averaged 33.8 points and 15.2 rebounds during his college career.

Sure, Cincinnati is just now entering national relevance when it comes to football, but it has been a powerhouse basketball school for decades. The Bearcats have always been a force to be reckoned with.

Stats courtesy of Sports Reference

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