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Thuggish Basketball Program Bogs Down UC's Larger Mission

By Bill Peterson · May 18th, 2005 · Sports

Fairly or not, the general knock against Bob Huggins is that he doesn't recruit bright kids. So he finally brings in Roy Bright, and look what happens.

If this kid has anything in his head, it's going to be on his head that he brought down Huggins, allegedly by bringing a gun to the University of Cincinnati campus. As a UC graduate school alumnus who's taught a handful of classes there, let the following be said in the spirit of understatement: Not good.

If the university president must roll a head or two to put it across, then roll those heads. No guns in school.

OK, UC's city neighborhood is struggling, maybe the kid was scared, and cutting Huggins loose won't fix that problem. The city and the university need to arrange for more patrols on the streets surrounding the campus. But on whose account have some of Clifton Heights' most high-profile hoods even been at UC?

If Huggins is recruiting kids so poorly acculturated to academia, he's really lost track -- and with his track record that's a hell of a statement. Accusations that he bottom feeds on the recruiting trail have never been far from true. But who cares if a kid comes from a bad environment? At this point, we need to ensure that UC graduates don't come from a bad environment.

UC's Vegas East image should be long gone. Way back in 1998, after fans in Boise practically booed a truly adorable UC team out of the NCAA Tournament because the program's image overshadowed reality, Huggins seemed serious about changing the perception. For a couple of years he succeeded.

Then we started turning up characters. First up, B.J. Grove, suspended from the team in June 2000 after accusations that he beat and threw bottles at his pregnant girlfriend, the mother of his two children. Grove beat the rap when his girlfriend refused to testify. In 2003, once off the team, he faced firearms charges for an incident near campus.

Next up, Donald Little. In one glorious month, May 2001, he was alleged to have kicked a Clifton bar employee in the ribs and punched a bartender in the face and then, in a separate incident, faced charges of driving drunk with an open container and no driver's license in hand. He wound up pleading guilty to persistent disorderly conduct, down from an assault charge, for the bar incident. He also pled guilty to reckless driving, down from a charge of DUI, for the driving incident.

But Little was just warming up. The next April, he noticed $2,500 missing, so he summoned his roommate. On arrival, the roommate alleged he was hit in the head with a whiskey bottle, stabbed, struck in the face with a weight bar and scalded with cigarettes and a heated coat hanger. At the end of the party, Little is alleged to have told his friends to dump the roommate's body in Columbus. Originally charged with felonious assault and kidnapping, Little copped to a lesser charge of aggravated assault, for which he took 30 days in jail with five years probation.

Last summer, of course, Huggins put his own name on the police blotter with his infamous DUI.

Police found vomit on his car door and he couldn't count backwards from 67 to 54 after he took 10 seconds to move off a green light at an intersection. We won't even mention various peccadilloes and discipline problems involving Eric Hicks, Robert Whaley and whoever else.

Enough is enough. It's become impossible to believe this is ever going to stop under the present arrangement. Big questions? Get serious. But if you won't, here's a big answer: The wins aren't worth it, especially in UC's upgraded environment. If basketball coaching is such an honorable profession, UC can find a coach who will win often enough without dragging the university's name through the mud every single year.

For way too long, college basketball coaches, including Huggins, have printed money on the badly aimed argument that their programs serve the greater good by remediating the lowest elements of society. See that kid over there with the 40-inch vertical jump? Before coming to college, he couldn't even read a restaurant menu. No, he didn't earn a degree, but when he goes to Maissonette for dinner he'll figure out the Foie Gras a la Rhubarbe et aux Pignons de Pins cost $3 more than Salade de Homard au Choux Fleur, Pomme Verte et Haricots Vert.

Is the kid better off for the experience? Of course. Is it the university's role to make that happen? Absolutely not. It's past comical listening to avowed enemies of the welfare state lavish praise on UC basketball's posture as an incubator for social deviants. Two words: Job Corps.

Some kids will pay attention in class and some won't, but everyone should be safe, which is a matter of perception and reality. Hey, kid, if you don't want to argue that Wallace Stevens is a better poet than Pablo Neruda, pulling a gun really isn't going to change anyone's mind. Here in civilization, we talk through differences of opinion. That's what they're for.

The sad episode of Roy Bright and his gun apparently is the last straw for University of Cincinnati President Nancy Zimpher, who had just come on the job last summer when Huggins set himself up for the DUI conviction. Sports fans who see the university as a front for mass entertainment aren't entitled to vote on this one. The stakes belong to those with academic posts at the university, with degrees from the university, with aspirations and interests in the university's enhancement.

Zimpher has given Huggins two years to live as the UC basketball coach, the time remaining on his contract after his rollover provision went away with the DUI mess last summer. Huggins said May 15 he's not taking the buy-out.

UC Athletic Director Bob Goin, who will only be around one more year to support Huggins, told the morning paper late last week that negotiations are ongoing. But the UC administration ended that dream with its recent statement that negotiations are done. Apparently, all that remains is anti-climax.

Tristate sports fans are in a lather. The majority, who've never set foot inside a UC classroom, see nothing good coming of Huggins' likely departure, which is understandable considering that without him they'd have seen nothing good for the past 15 years.

Except for contending Reds clubs nobody watched in 1994, 1995 and 1999, the pro teams in town are mediocre at best. Xavier basketball pulled a surprise in 2004 but generally struggles in the Atlantic-10. UC football is a worthy enterprise, but it's hard to argue its successes are pleasurable for local sports fans since they pay so little attention.

Every winter, when it's cold and bad lives are worse than usual, Huggins is a compensatory hero for thousands. His teams electrify university life for those who aren't greatly interested in the big questions (or the little ones) and bring a rare kind of happiness to water coolers across Cincinnati office spaces. Despite frequent early exits from the NCAA Tournament, Huggins wins 25 games almost every year, and much is to be respected about his performance and good works in the community.

Without Huggins, UC wouldn't be headed to the Big East this summer. To say UC is going to the Big East mainly because of football is like saying spaghetti is the main ingredient in Cincinnati chili. Before Huggins arrived, the Bearcats couldn't draw flies to an outhouse because their basketball teams stunk too much.

Zimpher has to know she's taking an enormous risk by replacing Huggins, because you know exactly what he'll deliver every year -- 25 wins, a set of continuing UC-related crime stories in the media, too much derisive publicity having nothing to do with the university's academic mission and not enough good athletic publicity to offset it because the Bearcats don't survive long enough in the NCAA Tournament.

Granting that UC wouldn't be going to the Big East without Huggins isn't granting that he's the coach they need once they're in the league. If you think UC's name is dragged through the mud now, wait until UC becomes a quasi-local entity, a name with a three-dimensional reputation attached, for the Eastern media, where the mud is a lot deeper. The move to the Big East places UC within orbit of America's high-cultural capitals, but not if UC's image is attached to renegade basketball that mocks higher education.

The university is serious business. UC's prestige might not make a lot of difference for young graduates seeking jobs in town, and decision-makers around the country who are attuned to UC's many virtues can overlook tawdry news coming from the basketball program. But for the overwhelming majority of folks out here on Planet Earth who know only what they hear, UC's name isn't especially good right now.

Good heavens, UC is beginning to sound like a corrupt, neglected urban high school. If you've been to the campus, which is unrecognizeable from even five years ago with all the gleaming construction, you know that's not true. But if you're just choking down mass media from the grant-funding meccas of New York or Washington, you don't.

Are Huggins' 16 years at the university worth anything? Well, they haven't fired him, and the university rightly cut him slack for his DUI last year. He's being given a good bit of time to scout out his good next opportunity so he can land gently.

Anyone paying just a litttle attention to the university's goals understands higher education is a prestige enterprise and that the new president is keen on springboarding the university's image through Big East membership, improved facilities, quality initiatives on the academic side and, honestly, a heavy dose of marketing. But the basketball operation refuses to get with the program, undercutting the university's larger goals with its thug persona and never-ending crime story sideshows.

It's all UC, you see. See you.



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