The Cincinnati Bearcats are officially set to depart the American Athletic Conference (AAC) and join the Big 12. Cincinnati has been a dominant threat in the AAC since joining in 2013, and was a part of the Big East for eight years before that.
Joining the Big 12 means the Bearcats will face stereotypically more dominant athletic programs, including West Virginia, Kansas, Iowa State, and Oklahoma State.
There is a 27-month notice and a $10 million buyout fee required to leave the AAC, so it is most likely that Cincinnati won’t reach the Big 12 until at least 2024, although other dates are in play.
The Bearcats’ departure from the AAC creates an opportunity for schools such as Memphis, South Florida and Tulsa to take the top ranks of the conference that are usually occupied by Cincinnati and the University of Central Florida (UCF).
UCF is also joining the Big 12, along with AAC counterpart Houston and the West Coast Conference’s Brigham Young University (BYU). BYU has been a member of the West Coast Conference since 2011.
With the addition of the four schools—UC, UCF, Houston and BYU—the Big 12 would reach 14 total members. With the onset of these schools' departures, the AAC will be left with just nine universities.
In his public address following UC’s announcement of acceptance, UC President Neville Pinto recognized AAC commissioner Mike Aresco for all he has done for Cincinnati’s student-athletes.
“It is a great day to be a Big 12 Bearcat,” said UC Athletics Director John Cunningham.
Cunningham said “the people” are what led the Bearcats to be able to join the Big 12, acknowledging UC’s coaches as what he considers some of the best in the country, as well as the financial investments made by UC Athletics.
“As soon as we had the opportunity that was presented by the announcements of Texas and Oklahoma, our athletic director John Cunningham reached out to Bob Bowlsby to rekindle that earlier connection,” said Pinto, speaking on how talks of UC joining the Big 12 date as far back as 2016.
Texas and Oklahoma are currently members of the Big 12, but are slated to move forward in joining the Southeastern Conference (SEC). Their set departure is one of the leading reasons as to why the Big 12 was interested in taking in new schools.
A pivot to the Big 12 won’t be an unfamiliar challenge for the Bearcats, as they have been a part of conference re-alignment a few times, with stints in both the Conference USA and the Mid-American Conference.
“This is really a dream come true to a lot of people,” said Cunningham, who has had conference re-alignment on his mind since his first day at the helm of UC Athletics.
According to Bowlsby, the re-alignment likely means that the Big 12 will split into divisions with fairness, competitiveness and traditional rivalries in all respect. He adds that the college football playoffs will inevitably increase in size, it’s only a matter of how and when.
For now, all Bearcat programs are focused on securing a 2021-22 AAC championship.