The University of Cincinnati’s Nippert Stadium has been called “The Wrigley Field of College Football”, as the stadium has been hosting games on this urban campus since 1924, making it the fifth oldest stadium in college football. However, the site has been hosting games going all the back to 1901.
The football team itself is actually even older than that, as the team is currently celebrating its 125th year, making it one of the oldest programs in college football. Though, for all this history, Bearcat football has often been an afterthought, in recent times, while the basketball program surged through the 90’s in front of regular sellout crowds, the football team struggled. The team has played as an independent for four stretches over its history, with the most recent being a period from 1978-1995, when all of UC’s teams were brought into the cross-continental Conference USA.
With the move to the Big East in 2005, a plan was put in place to raise the competition level of all the school’s varsity sports and that meant a renewed focus on football, which at the time was already building momentum in Conference USA. The ‘cats claimed their first Big East title in 2008, with an additional Big East championship in 2009 (plus a berth in the Sugar Bowl) and were co-champs in 2011.
The stadium has grown with the campus, its walkways intertwined with the flow of campus life. Nippert is more than just a home of the football team, it’s a part of the campus and its multi-purpose nature makes this one of the most unique stadium settings in all of college football.
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One unique thing about the U of Cincinnati's venues (including Fifth Third Arena) is they actually sell beer. The school upgraded the beer offerings this year, in addition to the standard domestics available throughout the stadium, you can get decently priced ($6.50) pours of local brews like Hudepohl and Christian Moerlien. The stand is located just inside Gate 2, and being up on a plaza above the stadium concourse makes it less busy than most others.
As for food, the standard fare of hot dogs, and nachos were just okay, nothing spectacular but nothing here is overpriced. Don't bother trying to get to the concession stand on the east concourse. This is an old stadium, and the concourse is almost always clogged with people trying to get to/from the nearby student sections, or the restrooms nearby. Rather, there's the Stadium Zone cafeteria at the top of the north end zone, or you can hit one of the standalone food stands from Donatos Pizza ($3 a slice) on the east side, next to a Budweiser stand near the Bearcat Plaza steps. There's also the City Barbecue stand at the end of the west concourse. No matter where you go though, this stadium is on such a small footprint, if you wait until halftime you're going to have to wade through some amount of crowd, so this is one venue that it may be worth missing the last few minutes of the first half.
Nippert Stadium can get so loud you may question that it only seats 35,000. Nippert's lower bowl is actually sunk below grade, with the only structure to the stadium being the upper deck and the pressbox. In addition, the Campus Rec Center looms over the north end while a historic building from the music college marks the south end, both helping to amplify the crowd noise.
The ROTC are posted up in the endzone in front of the students awaiting orders to do pushups for however many points the team has amassed at that point. In addition, the Bearcat mascot and an actual Bearcat (yes, it is a real animal, otherwise known as a binturong, but this one's named Lucy) roam the sidelines. There are few stadiums in Division I football that can match the uniqueness of this setting.
Since the resurgence of Bearcat football, the on-field squads have been quick, pass-heavy and fun to watch. The team is currently (2012) in a bit of a regroup behind QB Munchie Legeaux, but still boast incredible speed in the run game. All this makes for some great football to watch.
In addition to atmosphere, this is where Nippert really shines. In most cases, when a stadium isn't in use by its respective team, it usually serves as just a monument or landmark to be admired from outside its locked gates.
In the case of Nippert, the stadium is an integral part of this tight, urban campus. Space is at a premium and the school simply can't afford to cut off this much real estate. Therefore, its walkways and concourses serve as corridors to connect the Varsity Village athletic complex and College Conservatory of Music to the south with Tangeman University Center and the Main Street area, the pedestrian corridor that slices through the campus.
The bleachers serve as another place for people to gather and relax. On any given day, you'll see people exercising by running the stadium steps and if a sports team or the marching band isn't practicing on it, the field is open for student use.
As for the rest of the campus, over the last 15 years the university has been in a transition from a commuter school dominated with surface parking lots into one with striking architecture and a vibrant campus life. Rather than try to adopt a signature building component, the campus is dotted with unique buildings by some famous names in the architecture industry. Names like Frank Gehry (Vontz Medical Center), Thom Mayne (Recreation Center), and UC alum Peter Eisenman (College of Design, Art, Architecture, and Planning) amongst others. In fact. TopCollegesOnline.com included four of Cincinnati's campus buildings on a recent list of the top 50 examples of college architecture, the most of any school.
The neighborhood surrounding the UC campus can be hit or miss. The university has bought up and demolished a lot of buildings along McMillan Ave., the southern border of the campus. In their place, construction of mid-rise residential and street-level retail is taking place. The independent restaurants were mostly bought out and moved on and have been replaced by many a fast casual restaurant chains like Chipotle, Jimmy John's, Potbelly Sandwiches, Five Guys, etc. While it is certainly a "nicer" environment than the previous setting, it's a bit generic.
The school has done a great job of firing up its student population and has really made football games an important event for students. The student section is overflowing with fans clad in red and black, screaming their heads off. Now they need to focus on the residents of Cincinnati.
In the shadow of the Bengals, the more traditional football schools like Ohio State and some powerhouse high school programs, the Bearcats can get overlooked in the local media. It's hard to talk about the future expansion of Nippert when the games now in this 35,000-seater aren't always sold out.
Tailgate culture is a rather new phenomenon for Bearcats football and the school has been adapting and trying to improve that experience for fans. Last season, they introduced "The Grid", an on-campus tailgate area and started blocking off the nearby Short Vine area and creating a block party before games. Again, these are things that lend themselves to one of the more unique game experiences in Division I football and may be serving as the building blocks to a stronger, more reliable fan base.
The UC campus is easy to get to from either of Cincinnati's major highways as it sits within a few minutes' drive of either highway (71 & 75). The campus is in the neighborhood of Clifton, just minutes north of downtown. There are parking garages on campus you can use, though the ones closest to the stadium are reserved for parking pass holders.
The public garages on campus are Campus Green, Eden, Clifton Court and Woodside, all of which are on the opposite side of campus (about a 10 minute walk and Eden has a shuttle) and cost $15. If you have time before the game, you can forego the garage and try to find free on-street parking in the residential area to the west of campus, but be wary of blocking driveways and no parking zones or you'll head back to your car and find a nice ticket from the CPD, or worse yet, had your car towed.
Tickets range from $26-$61 for games against Big East opponents, a really good deal considering the level of football and how close you are to the field. Add in food costs and you can still watch a game from the endzone or upper deck for less than $50 a person. The $15 parking charge is less than ideal, but as I mentioned, you can find on-street parking if you're willing to hunt a bit.
One point for the on-campus setting and the open nature of the stadium in relation to the rest of the campus.
One point for the school taking steps to build a true tailgate & fan culture while adapting the tradition to its urban setting.
One point for the Catskellar, an adventurous beer list (8 rotating drafts & 40 bottles) has earned this place an 'exceptional' rating from BeerAdvocate, though its on-campus locale makes it a hidden gem in Cincinnati's bar scene.
All in all, this is a great football experience. There is an incredibly unique stadium in addition to a competitive on-field product making this a trip worth your time and money. Despite the history of the Bearcat football program, the local college football fan culture is still in a nascent stage, and hopefully, with time will grow and continue to fill Nippert with an intimidating crowd, despite the small capacity.
The school has acknowledged the need to consistently be selling out its current capacity, so the latest rumors of any expansion have focused on building more luxury seating options. There's been talk of filling in the rest of the upper deck while perhaps shifting the press box to the other side. No matter what the plan of attack is, it will be a challenge to fit it all into the site. I hope the school is able to retain the character of Nippert, as it provides a great home-field advantage and serves as a source of pride for Bearcat fans.
Nippert Stadium is a beautiful football venue located in the middle of the University of Cincinnati's campus. As fans walk through the campus to Nippert, there is a ton of activity. In the shadow of academic buildings and sports facilities, fans are tailgating, eating carefully prepared feasts, playing corn hole, tossing balls around as they prepare to watch their Bearcats play football and the amazing thing is they have been coming to this campus location to watch football since 1902. That makes it the fourth-oldest playing site and fifth oldest stadium in college football. Take that Ohio State Buckeyes!
Since this is such an old stadium a little history lesson is in order.
In 1915, construction began on a permanent brick-and-concrete stadium structure, which was completed, section by section as funds were raised.
During a game with rival Miami (OH) in 1923, Jimmy Nippert sustained a spike wound injury and died a month later from blood poisoning. His grandfather, James N. Gamble of Proctor and Gamble, provided the funds needed to complete the horseshoe-shaped structure and the James Gamble Nippert Memorial Stadium was dedicated on November 8, 1924.
Over the years Nippert Stadium has undergone a series of renovations including in 1936, the field was lowered 12 feet to allow spectator seating to increase to 24,000. In 1954 a pavilion/upper deck was added to bring the capacity up to 28,000 and in 1991 the upper deck was extended to bring the capacity up to 35,175 and a new press box was constructed.
Even with all the improvements Nippert Stadium still has early-century brickwork combined with wrought iron gates and trim, that give it a comfortable old-time stadium charm, while continuing renovations have enabled it to remain what I think, is a classic showplace for college football.
University of Cincinnati is a beautfiul campus, an dthe location and history of Nippert, as well as their other sports facilities makes this a great hub. There are plenty of interesting dining options as well. Cincinnati is definitely a fun sports town with plenty of options any time of th eyear within an hour or so radius.
Just a caveat that I last visited Nippert pre the most recent renovation, so may be even better now. But when I was there, the crowd was great, and there were a lot of cool food options, and the fans were loud but the seats definitely weren't full. Cincinnati is a great place to visit, though, and if you love football as much as I do, you could pair your visit here with a Bengals game (who are having a phenomenal year btw).
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