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From the Marshy Hollows to the Bright Lights: Cincinnati's Pioneering Journey into Night Football

With the newfound lighting capabilities, a bold idea emerged: why not play games at night? In 1923, the Bearcats set out to make history by playing the Midwest's first intercollegiate night game.

In a narrative spanning over a century, the University of Cincinnati's football journey embarked from humble beginnings in 1901, setting the stage for a groundbreaking moment in the world of college football. The Bearcats' first foray into on-campus football took place in the rustic confines of what we now know as Carson Field, nestled within the "Burnet Woods hollow." It was a choice dictated not by grandeur, but by necessity; a sunken marshy expanse that seemed tailor-made for intramural sports and spirited roughhousing, overlooked by the student body. Soon enough, the burgeoning athletic department saw potential in this natural amphitheater, thanks to the vantage point it offered for spectators, perched atop the surrounding hills.

The University of Cincinnati, true to its mission of providing accessible education, made waves in 1906 with the inception of cooperative education. This innovative approach allowed students to gain real-world experience by working during the day while pursuing their studies. Dean of Engineering Herman Schneider's audacious vision faced ridicule and skepticism from contemporaries who couldn't fathom university students toiling in factories. However, the experiment not only survived but thrived, becoming an integral part of the university's identity.

By 1909, a new challenge emerged. Cincinnati's football team needed practice time, but the majority of its players were factory-bound during daylight hours. Schneider ingeniously arranged the co-op students' schedules so that they rotated between factory work and classes, but it still wasn't sufficient for adequate game preparation. The solution? Practicing under the cover of night, a concept that was both practical and unprecedented.

On September 27, 1909, the team ventured into uncharted territory, holding their first night practice. The Enquirer recounted the scene: "They went through a stiff workout, lasting over two hours. About a half dozen electric poles have been erected in the hollow, each suspending large electric lights. The lights did not give forth expected rays... No punting can be done by the present system." Yet, they persisted. Head coach Robert Burch ensured an electrician was on hand to adjust the carbon arc lights as needed. The ball itself was painted white to ensure visibility. Nighttime practice soon became the norm, a testament to the blue-collar ethos that defined Cincinnati's pursuit of education and football.

In 1921, a breakthrough arrived in the form of electrical engineering student Jack Bernard Silverman's co-op thesis: an incandescent lighting system. This innovation featured 28 towering light poles, providing five times the illumination of the original setup. The Cincinnati Enquirer praised it, proclaiming, "They make the field almost as bright as day after dark."

With the newfound lighting capabilities, a bold idea emerged: why not play games at night? In 1923, the Bearcats set out to make history by playing the Midwest's first intercollegiate night game. The Cincinnati Post sent a photographer to verify the legitimacy of the spectacle, but the game exceeded all expectations. Cincinnati defeated Kentucky Wesleyan 17-0 under the gleam of massive searchlights, with every play visible to the 5,000 spectators.

Word of the experiment's success spread far and wide, capturing the attention of newspapers across the nation. The game's popularity was undeniable, and even the Bearcats attempted to schedule more nighttime contests that season. However, not all opponents were eager to participate.

Despite the initial excitement, Cincinnati's 1923 season opener remained its only night game that year. Tragically, the team's captain, Jimmy Nippert, met a heartbreaking end. Injured during a game, he developed a fatal infection, passing away on Christmas Day 1923. In a remarkable turn of events, Jimmy's grandfather, James N. Gamble, offered to fund the completion of the stadium around Carson Field, adding 18 sections of seats, state-of-the-art training facilities, and on-site medical care. Nippert's legacy lived on through his words etched into a memorial at the stadium.

The stadium was completed and dedicated the following year, cementing night football as a tradition. However, the spread of night football in college didn't unfold as swiftly as anticipated. Kentucky was the first SEC program to host a night game in 1929, followed by others over the decades. Many schools clung to Saturday afternoon games, and it took time for night football to become widespread.

Fast forward a century, and Cincinnati's pioneering idea has become a hallmark. Iconic victories, like the 2006 upset of 7th-ranked Rutgers, have occurred under the lights at Nippert Stadium. The Bearcats have a remarkable 39-12 record in Nippert at Night games since.

This journey, born of necessity and propelled by ingenuity, showcases football's evolution from the marshy hollows of Carson Field to the bright lights of Nippert Stadium. It all began with a group of blue-collar factory boys and their pursuit of both education and football excellence.

Austyn McFadden


September 16, 2023 at 12:00:00 AM

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