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Huggins, UC the Winners in Last Week's Coaching Carousel

By Bill Peterson · March 29th, 2006 · Sports
Jerry Dowling

We wondered back in August if the University of Cincinnati basketball program could take it. And we didn't even know what it was going to take. Now we know, and we knew it all along.

Can UC basketball stand conflict and controversy? You don't have UC basketball without conflict and controversy. It's just the way of UC basketball, where there's always a pot boiling, where someone's always giving or taking offense, where there's always some kind of trouble, where suffering and redemption leave neither the time nor the space for blissful vapidity.

Victory is always sweet, but bitter. Adversity is always tense, but bracing.

Every resolution opens a new conflict, which leads to a new resolution and then a new conflict. In other words, we're not out of these woods yet, and we're not getting out.

The latest soap opera began in August, as the administration refused to negotiate a contract extension with basketball coach Bob Huggins, who took a forced buy-out. With few exceptions, pundits praised UC for its defensible and appropriate action even when they cringed at the ugly finish. Others went to far as to praise UC as a champion of academic perspective.

Unfortunately, UC's high-minded grown-ups in this process lacked a certain adult high-heartedness. The UC administration, fashioning a research university after a higher game than basketball, somehow never grasped that constituencies care about basketball, to say nothing of gratitude, communication and some concern about their opinion.

On March 23, all the pieces of this messy puzzle fell into place, one after another. First, the university suspended seniors James White and Jihad Muhammad for academic reasons, taking them out of that night's NIT game at Fifth Third Arena with a chance to go to Madison Square Garden.

Next, Huggins, who proved to be a divisive figure in Missouri's coaching search, ended up with the job at Kansas State, where he walks into practically an ideal situation. The Bearcats lost that evening to South Carolina, after which the administration killed the public address system so the program's biggest supporters couldn't hear their new hero, interim coach Andy Kennedy, on his postgame radio show.

Athletic Director Mike Thomas took the blame.

But Thomas and Kennedy both agreed earlier last week that Kennedy wouldn't be the permanent UC coach anyway. Shortly after the game, Kennedy accepted the job at Mississippi. And UC turned to its former recruiting coordinator, Mick Cronin.

So after all this anguish and recrimination, after all the posturing and snowy dreaming about changing the orientation of UC's basketball program, can it be that the difference-maker is the recruiter who brought in B.J. Grove and Donald Little?

Being fair to Cronin, he earned his first promotion to assistant coach at UC in 1997, after former assistant coach John Loyer took the fall for fiascoes involving Ruben Patterson, Charles Williams and Johnny Carson, resulting in a decision of minor wrongdoing by the NCAA. And it was during Cronin's tenure as UC's recruiting coordinator, 1997-2001, when the Huggins Bearcats were at their best in terms of recruiting low-risk, high-quality players.

A couple recruits went bad. It happens. A kid in his mid-20s running through the minefield of college basketball recruiting might boot a couple. On the whole, Cronin served UC very well during his apprenticeship, bringing in DerMarr Johnson, Kenny Satterfield, Jason Maxiell and two-time Conference-USA Player of the Year Steve Logan.

Cronin's last three recruiting classes at UC were considered Top 10 stuff, as were his two recruiting classes as Rick Pitino's recruiting coordinator at Louisville before he became head coach at Murray State and earned two NCAA Tournament bids in three years.

To those who aren't going to make it past the Huggins firing or the mess of events that ended in not hiring Kennedy, what are you going to do? Boo Mick Cronin?

Being honest, Cronin is a better choice than Kennedy, which isn't to put down Kennedy. But Cronin comes in with a better recruiting track record, he's run his own program for three years and he's worked for two of the best, Huggins and Pitino.

On top of all that, Cronin is something neither Huggins nor Kennedy could ever be. He's a Cincinnatian, born and raised. That's going to matter in many ways, large and small. Cincinnati is more like France than America in that respect. Anyone can become an American, but one must be born a Frenchman or Cincinnatian.

As a Cincinnatian, Cronin firmly believes there is no better place to be than Cincinnati. If everyone plays this right, UC has its basketball coach for the next 25 years and, in the end, he'll eclipse Huggins in the hearts and minds of UC basketball fans. So a messy process ends with an excellent selection.

In the end, perhaps, everyone is enhanced and redeemed. Unless or until Cronin's program falters, UC President Nancy Zimpher has replaced her high-baggage basketball coach. Thomas, who began AD duties in December with neither a honeymoon nor a margin of error, now has dispatched his most important and politically sensitive duty by hiring a promising young basketball coach with local ties.

Maybe now Thomas can paper over some of the public relations mess he entered and extended. Sending big supporters a letter saying no search firm will be involved in the search, then turning around two weeks later to hire the search firm that helped him land the job at UC, smacks of kick-back and interest conflict, to say nothing of indecisiveness.

But if Cronin succeeds, then Thomas has done what he's supposed to do by finding the best coach for UC. Obviously, much rides on Cronin's performance for Zimpher and Thomas.

Kennedy goes home to Mississippi, where he becomes the basketball coach at Ole Miss. If Kennedy thinks this year at UC was tough, wait until he starts up at Ole Miss, where the Rebels lost 13 of their last 14 games this year.

The Rebels are very young and haven't been very good for a very long time. If Kennedy turns that operation around to where it can compete with Kentucky, Florida and Louisiana State, they'll name a coliseum after him.

And who comes out of this the best in the short term? No one other than Bob Huggins. Kansas State finished 6-10 this year in the Big 12, but seven of those losses came by a total of 15 points, including one-point losses to league leaders Texas and Oklahoma. The Wildcats already are tough in the Big 12.

Now they lose only one player who averaged as much as five minutes per game this year. And they've added a coach who will really turn up the heat. Huggins joins a league that already includes coaching stars like Bob Knight, Kelvin Sampson, Rick Barnes, up-and-coming Billy Gillespie and, for the time being, Eddie Sutton.

Huggins didn't leave a mess at UC. He simply left UC basketball in pretty much its usual state, a tale of tribulation that winds back to well before he arrived.

Mick Cronin knew about it then. And he'll know what to do about it now.



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