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Huggins Was a Victim of His Own Success

By Bill Peterson · August 31st, 2005 · Sports
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Extrapolating from the accounts of Nancy Zimpher's dream for University of Cincinnati basketball, she wants to turn Vegas East into Xavier West. Jeff Fogelson and Pete Gillen are available, which is probably just a coincidence. A very instructive coincidence.

The Big East is a big opportunity for UC, just as the big time once was a big advance for Fogelson and Gillen. It's also a big shark tank where the difficulty of winning turns the best people with the best intentions into outcasts.

Fogelson, the former Xavier athletic director who became Seton Hall's AD in 1998, resigned effective Sept. 30. By some tellings, health was a concern, though louder tellings cast Fogelson as the fall guy for backing up his basketball coach, former Withrow High star and Xavier assistant Louis Orr.

Following last year's 12-16 season, Orr elevated former Withrow coach George Jackson on his staff, upsetting Hall backers who wanted a local guy with deeper ties to the New York recruiting circuit. Though Fogelson recommended alternatives, Orr chose his childhood friend and Fogelson still stuck with him.

Eventually, Orr was told to report to the president's office rather than the AD. Personal loyalty can be a job killer in the Big East. And a program killer.

Gillen's star was on the rise when he left Xavier in 1994 to coach Providence College. A deep run in the 1997 NCAA Tournament advanced his career to Virginia, a traditional ACC loser except during the Ralph Sampson years. But Gillen made it to only one NCAA Tournament in seven years at Virginia, lost 45 of 56 ACC road games and took a $2 million buyout in March.

This is the world UC basketball is entering. It's the big time. It's tough to win in the big time because the people who are already there are better than you right now, and they aren't necessarily as nice or as highly principled.

Which is not to say Zimpher made a huge mistake or took an outrageous chance by forcing Bob Huggins to move on. We have no idea how Huggins would have fared in the Big East. None. It's a different world. Your problems aren't Charlotte and Memphis anymore -- they're Syracuse and Connecticut. We haven't seen Huggins play at that level. We've seen him over-achieve, and we've also seen him lose his cool under less pressure.

According to the Sagarin ratings at the end of last season, UC finished 0-5 against Top 30 teams. Among the Top 30 were six teams, besides UC, in the new Big East, which, on a nightly basis, more or less replicates the NCAA Tournament, where UC hasn't been especially successful since 1996.

One could argue, in other words, that replacing Huggins at this time makes basketball sense in addition to all the other reasons given. It would have been more fun to find out.

And we thought we'd get two years to find out. Last we heard, back in May, the university declined to extend Huggins' contract beyond the two years remaining and offered a buyout. Huggins announced he would stay, and the university promptly announced the end of negotiations.

But this shaped up as a fight from beginning to end, which meant the end would be ugly, and it was. Huggins wasn't about to let it go with two years remaining. He continued pressing for a contract extension. He resolved to fight.

So Zimpher had a basketball coach she wanted gone with two years to fight and, at the end of two years, it was going to be him or her. She didn't want to leave it to chance, which would have favored Huggins because he had nothing to lose.

Zimpher forced a conclusion last week with an ultimatum for Huggins: Resign or be fired. In the end, Huggins and the university negotiated their separation. Just like that, UC is without a basketball coach who won a staggering 399 games in 16 years.

It can be argued at length whether the removal of Huggins should be good for the university's prestige. What can't be argued is that it has been.

The university's constituency goes well beyond sports fans, and those who don't care about sports aren't compelled to side with Huggins. More often than not, also, a chorus of angels, those guardians of higher education who write America's sports columns, have sung Zimpher's praises, so seldom does a story come along in which a college trying to move up in the athletic world sacks a winning coach.

The point here is not to bury Huggins. That's been done. But not for long. If a job comes along with strict conditions on who he can recruit, Huggins can win. We've seen him win with athletes who weren't blue chip recruits. And he was a two-time academic All-American at the University of West Virginia.

Except for a few years, the Huggins Era raised that question. He's a good enough coach to win without guys who were going to sabotage him. Yet there's a strong element of Huggins the Miracle Worker helping these fellows live better lives.

But too many of these guys were too much bad news, and there's no way around it. Giving university scholarships to good basketball players who don't want the education is a perversion that lies at the heart of what makes people cynical about college sports. That's happening everywhere. Even at Duke. At UC, though, too many of the recipients were thugs who didn't even turn out as especially good ball players, and that's a deep well.

For all that can be said against Huggins, he's deservedly beloved. In the past 16 years, he's made more people happy than anyone in town. Even when team tensions flared in the media, he averaged 25 wins a year and the Bearcats always fueled anticipation that something great could happen.

Huggins was always there with an NCAA Tournament appearance for Cincinnati fans suffering mediocre pro teams. In the past 14 years, the Reds and Bengals have combined for four winning seasons and one playoff appearance, all for the Reds. During those years, UC averaged a 26-7 record, going to the NCAA Tournament every year. Of course fans love Huggins.

Honestly, though, with UC entering the Big East, it's more likely that the bad news would have continued. In a way Huggins, who put UC into the Big East, is a victim of his own success.

 
 
 
 

 

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