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Notre Dame - Cincinnati Connection Runs Very Deep

Despite only playing one game in their history the connection between Notre Dame and Cincinnati runs deep

Notre Dame hosts the Cincinnati Bearcats this Saturday in South Bend in what figures to be a closer matchup than the only other time these two programs met – a 58-0 Irish victory back in 1900. However, even though Notre Dame and Cincinnati have met only once on the field, the Irish connection to the Queen City runs deep and touches both the peaks and valleys of Notre Dame football history.

A SHARED CATHOLIC IDENTITY

Historically, Cincinnati is one of the most Catholic cities in the United States, and as really the first major city west of the Appalachian Mountains, attracted a heavy influx of predominantly Catholic immigrants from Germany, Ireland, and other European countries in the decades leading up to the Civil War, including my ancestors who emigrated to Cincinnati in the 1830s from southwestern Germany.

One of the ways that these immigrants tried to preserve their culture and ethnic traditions was through the establishment of a parish and school, and the skyline of Cincinnati is still pierced with the steeples of these historic churches. That tradition of Catholic education remains as well, as Cincinnati still ranks in the top ten U.S. metros for the percentage of students enrolled in private schools according to data from the online real-estate marketplace Trulia. 16.9% of students in Cincinnati (around 38,500 students) are enrolled in one of the city’s almost 150 private schools.

Since the early 1930s, many of Cincinnati’s Catholic high schools have competed in the Greater Catholic League (GCL). These high schools, such as St. Xavier, LaSalle, Moeller, and Elder, have achieved national recognition for their successes on the gridiron and have consistently produced a pipeline of high-ranked recruits. Many of those athletes – and one coach as well – found a natural home at Notre Dame, the predominant Catholic university in America.

THE FAUST ERA

Probably the most famous connection between the Cincinnati high school football pipeline and Notre Dame is found in the person of Gerry Faust, who served as Notre Dame’s head coach from 1981-1985 after Dan Devine stepped down after the 1980 season. Faust was a legend in the Greater Catholic League, having literally built the football program at Cincinnati Moeller from scratch into a national powerhouse. Under his leadership, Moeller had 7 unbeaten seasons, claimed 4 “national” championships, and won 5 Ohio state titles.

Faust was a man of impeccable character also had a strong reputation for developing talent, which made him attractive to university leadership. One of the main reasons that he was even a contender for the Notre Dame job after Devine’s retirement is the number of players that he sent to Notre Dame from Moeller. In total, 18 of Faust’s players at Moeller would go on to play at Notre Dame, most notably DL Steve Niehaus, OL Steve Sylvester, TE Tony Hunter, and of course LB Bob Crable, arguably one of the top 3-5 linebackers in Notre Dame history and still the record holder for most career tackles with 521.

Unfortunately for Notre Dame, Gerry Faust’s tenure saw the Irish fall into mediocrity. Despite strong recruiting classes that led to talented teams, Faust never enjoyed the same player development success with Notre Dame that he did at Moeller. He even admitted it – stating in a 2008 Los Angeles Times interview that “I wasn’t as tough on the kids at Notre Dame as I was on the kids at Moeller High School. I felt they would be more mature, better athletes. If I would have gone the same route and been as tough and demanding as I was at Moeller High School, it could have been a different story. We lost 16 games by seven points or less.”

Many of those close losses that Faust referenced were a result of wildly inconsistent performances from week-to-week. In addition to a victory at LSU in his first game (which vaulted the Irish to #1 in the country), his teams would go 3-2 against USC and defeat strong Michigan, Colorado, Pittsburgh, and Penn State teams during his tenure, yet post the Irish’s first losing season since 1963 in 1981, end his tenure with losses to Air Force in 4 straight seasons, and infamously lose 58-7 at Miami in his final game as head coach, leaving his career ND record at 30-26-1.

Even though the Faust era fell well short of expectations, he remains a strong ambassador for the university and is often quoted saying, "I had only 26 miserable days at Notre Dame; that's when we lost. Other than that, I was the happiest guy in the world. I loved walking on the campus, loved being there, loved being a part of Notre Dame.”

COACHING CONNECTIONS AND REBUILDING THE PIPELINE

Lou Holtz took over as head coach following Faust’s retirement and revitalized the Irish program, winning the 1988 national title and controversially finishing 2nd to Florida State in 1993 after defeating the Seminoles during the regular season. Holtz’s defensive coordinator during the 1992 and 1993 seasons was Rick Minter, who would depart to take over as head coach at the University of Cincinnati, a position he would hold until 2003.

The Cincinnati to Notre Dame high school pipeline began to dry up during the Holtz tenure – apart from FB Marc Edwards – and then subsequent coaches Bob Davie and Tyrone Willingham did not prioritize recruiting Cincinnati at all. In a 2005 article, the Cincinnati Enquirer reported that between the late 1990s (Rocky Boiman) and mid 2000s (Kallen Wade) there was nearly a ten-year drought in a Cincinnati-area recruit committing to Notre Dame, and between 1990 and 2005, only 5 players from Cincinnati even put on the gold helmets. The Enquirer quoted former St. Xavier QB Robby Schoenhoft, who was one of the top QB recruits in the nation and enamored by Notre Dame, but was put off by Willingham and his staff, leading to his commitment to Ohio State.

Perhaps it is no coincidence, then, that those years were some of the leanest in recent Notre Dame history, because as the Enquirer points out, when Notre Dame recruits Cincinnati, it typically works out well. In total, 50 players from the Greater Cincinnati area played for Notre Dame between the late 1960s and 1989 (many of them coached by Faust), and there was a total of 18 players from Cincinnati across the 1973, 1977, and 1988 national championship teams.

That began to change during the Charlie Weis era, as Weis hired Minter back as his defensive coordinator. Though that hire would not work out on the field, Minter did use his Cincinnati connections to help the Irish land TE Kyle Rudolph, one of the top-ranked players in the country.

Rudolph would play his final season under head coach Brian Kelly, who took over after Weis was fired following the 2009 season. Kelly came to Notre Dame from the University of Cincinnati, where he had coached from 2007 to 2009 following the departure of Mark Dantonio. Kelly was the hottest name on the college football coaching carousel, having led the Bearcats to double-digit wins in all three seasons, including an undefeated 12-0 regular season in 2009.

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While at Notre Dame, Kelly has continued to rebuild the pipeline between Notre Dame and Cincinnati – both for players and coaches. In recent seasons, OL Tommy Kraemer, OL Zeke Correll, and TE Michael Mayer have represented the Greater Cincinnati area on the Irish roster, and in both 2020 and 2021, Kelly dipped into the coaching staff at the University of Cincinnati to hire cornerback coach Mike Mickens (who played for the Bearcats under Kelly) and defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman. Both Mickens and Freeman grew up in Dayton, Ohio, just north of Cincinnati as well.

The pipeline also goes the other way too, as Irish fans will recognize a couple familiar names on the Bearcat sidelines. Former Irish WR Michael Young, Jr. is one of QB Desmond Ridder’s top targets, and the man calling those pass plays is none other than former Irish coach Mike Denbrock, a long-time friend of Brian Kelly.

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In the end, when Notre Dame and Cincinnati meet on the field Saturday, even though the scant gridiron history between the two programs is only captured in grainy photos or newspaper archives, there is plenty of history between Notre Dame and both the city of Cincinnati and its hometown university outside of the lines.

From the coaching staff, to players on the field; from heroes of past falls to those who ultimately came up short; from a strong sense of Catholic identity to a belief that in the early days a Catholic education would preserve the ethnic identity of immigrants, Notre Dame and Cincinnati have much in common. And perhaps it is fitting too, for the university dedicated to the Queen of Heaven and the Queen City to be such kindred spirits.

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