Cover Image via Sports Illustrated
When you think of rivalries, the cities of Cincinnati and Pittsburgh tend to come to mind. With the battles between the Bengals and Steelers, and Reds and Pirates, there is a long-standing history with the two cities, even all the way down to the NCAA, between the Cincinnati Bearcats and the Pittsburgh Panthers.
Nicknamed the River City Rivalry, 287 miles separates the two universities. These two teams have faced off twelve total times, with the first meeting dating back to 1921, resulting in a Panther win 21-12. The rivalry wasn’t made “official” until Cincinnati joined the Big East Conference in 2005, and the Paddlewheel Trophy was introduced to further solidify the rivalry. This trophy was designed and named to honor the historic link between Cincinnati and Pittsburgh when paddlewheel boats would travel along the Ohio River between the two cities. The Bearcats wouldn’t find their first win against Pittsburgh until 2008, with former NFL Quarterback Tony Pike throwing for over 300 yards and three touchdowns. However, the game that most seasoned Bearcat fans remember would come the following year in 2009.
Described as “the most fascinating game I’ve ever seen” by former CBSSports.com writer Gregg Doyel this game was seen as essentially the Big East championship game between first-place Cincinnati and second-place Pittsburgh, with the winner earning a BCS National Championship Berth. The Bearcats would head into halftime trailing 31-17, after a Mardy Gilyard 99-yard kickoff return for touchdown. The second half would be Bearcat driven, successfully tying the game at 38 with 5:46 left in the fourth quarter. The Panthers would score a go-head touchdown soon after, but a bobbled snap would prevent the extra point from being made.
Now down 44-38, Cincinnati had one final chance to complete the comeback. With 33 seconds left, from the Pittsburgh 29-yard line, Tony Pike completed a 29-yard touchdown pass to Armon Binns, followed by a Jake Rogers extra point to put the final nail in the coffin. Cincinnati would win 45-44 and earn their first and only BCS National Championship berth in program history (before the CFP format was implemented in 2014). Cincinnati would lose the Sugar Bowl to Tim Tebow and the Florida Gators 51-24, after also losing head coach Brian Kelly to the Notre Dame Fighting Irish just before the bowl game.
Since then, the two teams have met three other times before conference realignment happened in 2013, with Cincinnati leading that stretch 2 games to 1. The Bearcats would be sent to the American Athletic Conference (AAC) and the Panthers would go to the Atlantic Coastal Conference (ACC), and the rivalry would go on an unfortunate hiatus. In that time, the Big East would lose the sport of football within the conference.
Cincinnati would win three Conference titles in the American and would become the first Group of 5 school to reach the College Football Playoff under head coach Luke Fickell. Pittsburgh would boast one conference title in 2021 and two division titles in the ACC. Both teams would also produce plenty of NFL talent, with Pittsburgh getting 29 players drafted, and Cincinnati getting 23.
Cincinnati and Pittsburgh will revive the rivalry with a home-and-home series between 2023 and 2024, starting with the Bearcats taking a visit to Acrisure Stadium (formerly known as Heinz Field), the home of Pittsburgh’s NFL Franchise the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The Bearcats will face off against the Panthers on Saturday, September 9th at 6:30pm on The CW and 102.7 WEBN.