Ohio University athletics are as promising as they have ever been right now. Frank Solich has turned the football program into a respected contender in the MAC, he led Ohio to a bowl victory last year. Before his exodus to Illinois, John Groce led the basketball team to a MAC Championship and Sweet Sixteen appearance, an achievement Ohio hadn’t accomplished since 1964. It’s a good time to be a Bobcats fan.
However, few consider themselves to be a Bobcat fan, especially when compared to other schools in the region like Cincinnati and Ohio State. Peden is a nice stadium, but it’s rarely at full capacity. The Convo is the same way. You could literally count fan attendance at baseball games on your hands at points last year. Yet, we were good at those three sports. What is it about Ohio University athletics that just can’t garner respect?
I know what it is. It's the MAC and it's the jerseys.
Ohio plays in the Mid-American Conference, a solid, but not prominent conference. Very few students are interested in seeing Buffalo come play Ohio in anything. The Akron Zips are not enticing. I've never heard a fan say, "I can't wait for the Northern Illinois game." The opponents that come to Athens are rarely interesting to the casual sports fan, let alone a college student who would rather be partying or watching their favorite team on TV. Most of the time Ohio’s biggest opponent is Court Street, and Court Street usually wins.
Ohio has Russell uniforms, which are nice, but it’s not Nike or Adidas. It sounds vain, but Ohio’s Russell uniforms just aren’t cutting it. The Bobcats don’t look as legitimate as other schools that have Nike, Under Armour or Adidas uniforms. Name a respected athletic program with Russell uniforms. You can’t. Change can start by getting some Nike uniforms. Just look at Oregon, the Ducks literally rose to power because they have awesome uniforms, recruits love it.
I have a solution to the problem. It’s major, and a little obvious, but it would work.
Ohio needs to get out of the MAC and move to a bigger, more respected conference. Ohio needs to be a part of the Big East.
The Cincinnati Bearcats were a terribly uninteresting football team prior to 2005 when they played in Conference USA. Then they moved to the Big East and by 2008 they were playing in BCS games. That’s how it’s done. The Bearcats now have national respect; UC plays in primetime on ESPN every now and then. Granted they did have a respected basketball team before 2005, thanks to Bob Huggins, but you can’t ignore what happened to Cincinnati’s football program after the conference upgrade.
Ohio could follow UC’s blueprint.
The Bobcats could do something special on the hardwood this season, every starter is returning from last year’s team. Ohio basketball could start to consistently attract highly rated recruits with another tournament run. The Bobcats now have the “bracket buster” reputation after last year’s Sweet Sixteen run and 2010’s NCAA tournament victory over Georgetown.
If Ohio develops into a respected basketball program, and another tournament run this year would do that, it could get the ball rolling. That would be some solid leverage for a conference upgrade. The football and basketball teams could compete in the Big East.
If DePaul can be in the Big East, so can Ohio. It isn’t ridiculous. Cincinnati turned its program around. Boise State came out of nowhere. TCU did the same. Why can’t Ohio?
The “Athens is in the middle of nowhere” excuse is irrelevant. Look at Wisconsin, Penn State, Boise State or many other schools. Those schools aren’t in prime locations, but they have massive followings and garner respect across the country.
Ohio has the football coach to do it; Frank Solich was an assistant coach on the 1997 Nebraska National Championship team. That was a long time ago, but he knows how to win. He’s proven it here.
Ohio has the facilities to do it, Peden can hold 24,000 people. The Convo only has about 100 fewer seats than the Shoemaker Center in Cincinnati. What Ohio doesn’t have is the exposure or resources to attract big recruits. A conference upgrade would get both of those.
While joining the Big East seems daunting, it needs to be done. Ohio will never have a large fan base while it’s in the MAC. The MAC has treated the Bobcats well, but it’s time to move on. Ohio can become a relevant sports school, there’s no reason it can’t.
I know I haven't offered any of the details about moving conferences, I'm not sure how it works. But I am sure that Ohio has earned the right to have more exposure. In the Big East, the Bobcats would play well respected schools. Students would be interested in attending the games.
With a conference upgrade, maybe it would be worth it to actually go to the football games and stay after the Marching 110 performs at halftime. Maybe people other than Alums would start to become fans. Maybe Ohio could get on ESPN during prime time. Maybe Ohio could get some Nike jerseys. Maybe you could Google "Ohio football," and not have the top 10 results be about OSU. Maybe Brady Hoke would actually know that we exist. Maybe it could be fun to be a Bobcats fan.