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Monday, August 29, 2005

Follow-Up on Bob Huggins

I posted this in the spring about the then-brewing battle between U. of Cincinnati President Nancy Zimpher and now former hoops coach Bob Huggins. A loyal reader e-mailed me and indicated that the press stories about Huggins always focused on the negative, but there were lots of positives about Huggins and there was serious improvement in his program from the standpoint of graduating players. As you all know, Huggins was canned less than a week ago (or, put differently, jumped before he was pushed), proving that at certain major universities coaches of prominent programs are not bigger than the school.

As for potential successors, check out the College Basketball Blog and Yoni Cohen's breakdown of possible contenders for the job, some of whom will not leave their current jobs, some of whom seem to be listed as possibilities for every major open job, and some of whom would be fools to replace a larger-than-life coach (remember what happened to Rollie Massimino when he succeeded Jerry Tarkanian at UNLV -- it wasn't a pretty sight). One intriguing name is Penn's Fran Dunphy, a finalist for both the Ohio State and Georgetown jobs two years ago. Dunphy has itched to ply his craft on a bigger stage, but he's come up short, and time is running out on him (he's about 56 years old). He's an excellent coach, and he'd bring instant respectability to Cincinnati. Whether he could pack the arena and offer a Top 25 team every year is an open question. He'd certainly be a safe pick for Nancy Zimpher.

I don't know enough about the merits of the case to know who is right or wrong here. What I do know is that lots of bad things seemingly happened within the basketball program and to its players during Huggins' tenure. The image of the program was one of recruiting players from the Last Chance Corral, some of whom had pre-existing character issues or manifested them while at Cincinnati (which, to John Wooden's way of thinking, would explain why Huggins didn't win a national title). If you're a university president of a school that isn't an automatic magnet to good students the way, for example in the Midwest, Northwestern is, all you have is your image to go on. You're in sales just like anyone else, and you want parents of responsible young adults to select your school. It certainly doesn't help when one of the main images attached to the name "University of Cincinnati" was, rightly or wrongly, one of having the most controversial hoops program since UNLV's and some kids who did bad things therein.

In making her decision, Nancy Zimpher did demonstrate character. There was enough smoke around the hoops program to suggest that some serious fire damage occurred over the years, and she had to make a stand for the greater good of the entire university. No one person, no one program, is larger than the overall school. In making that call, she also took a stand that at least in the short-term runs against her overall economic interests, because it risks a large number of ticket sales and post-season appearance money that a successful hoops program like the Bearcats' could get by going far in the NCAA tournament. But to the good student in suburban Cincinnati who might have a casual interest in hoops but a more serious interest in attending medical school or starting his own business one day, it sends a message that Cincinnati is taking each student's education more seriously than the won-loss record of a basketball program.

And it's hard to argue with that.

In fact, I'd argue that you should stand up and cheer for that.

There is, for those readers of this blog, a serious difference betweeen Penn State, on the one hand, and Cincinnati, on the other, in terms of letting one individual become larger than the school. In Penn State's case, Joe Paterno's "trademark", as it were, is so positive that letting him remain does no damage to the school's excellent image and, if anything, helps enhance it (even if it a) diminishes the football program in the short term and b) creates a bad precedent of letting an individual have too much authority with the confines of the university). In Cincinnati's case, Huggins' "trademark", as it were, didn't have the same effect and, in fact, probably had the opposite, creating an image of a university with lax standards. If you're a university president, the choice is pretty simple -- the hoops coach had to go.

And he was probably there too long to begin with.

Sure, Cincinnati fans will be angry with Zimpher, but what's to say that the next coach they hire won't be better? What's to say that they can't win with kids who don't get their names in the papers for the wrong things? Again, that's not to paint the entire team with a broad brush, because my loyal reader who's a Bearcat fan reports that there were solid citizens on that team, and I'm sure there were. But the issues that permeated this program are more complicated than that, and the Bearcat hoops program needs a new beginning while the university gets a better perspective of the importance of winning college basketball games.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

History shows the next coach won't be better. The previous 4 coaches at UC averaged 16-11 over 24 years with 4 NCAA appearances (2-4 record). Two (Gale Catlett, Tony Yates) left the team on NCAA probation.

Huggins averaged 25-8 over 16 years with 14 NCAA appearances (20-14 record).

Huggins graduated 30 players from 1990-2005 (yes, 3-0. Thirty) but his predecessors (Yates, Badger, Catlett) didn't graduate that many over 17 years.

UC is not Stanford, Duke, or Vanderbilt after all.

7:23 AM  

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