Puttin' Out the Bone

UC Fans Must Feel Unworthy

I don't get it. No one — not any student, not any fan, not any red sweater who sits courtside, certainly not President Joe Steger — said, "Hey, let him go. It's time for a change."

No, when University of Cincinnati men's basketball coach Bob Huggins manipulated the whirlwind courtship with West Virginia University to become its head coach — probably to distract everyone from another quick NCAA tournament exit — no one said, "Just let him go."

Then, like the predictable thump of a base drum that backs up a cheap three-chord Rock & Roll song, another player, Donald Little again, gets arrested. This gives one more reason for basketball aficionados across the land to shake their heads and mumble something about the Bearcats being the "Crimecats," the UNLV of the Midwest.

If ever there were an example of a coach who is paid money and adulation to win games regardless of the cost to the program's image, it's Bob Huggins. If ever there were a men's university basketball program bankrupt of moral pride and prestige, it's the University of Cincinnati.

The failings of the men's basketball program are widely known. College degrees are rare, by any standard of measurement.

The team's collective rap sheet under Huggins reads like the cast of characters in The Godfather.

While they usually run off enough wins during their season in a sub-elite conference to snare high seeds in the NCAA tournament, the Bearcats are known for generally not needing suitcases as they head for the field of 64.

Yet boosters of the program overlook all that. In fact, if anyone — including, I bet, UC President Joe Steger — demanded a coaching change to uplift the university's out-of-town image, he'd be dismissed quicker than Simon Leis would kill a Mapplethorpe exhibit.

Sadly we're stuck with Bob Huggins and the rogue stamp he's put on the once-proud, once-respected program. What makes this so glaring is the obvious comparison a few miles away. Xavier University fans enjoy basketball success with positive core values.

If you adjust the side-by-side look for economic resources, number of students and fan base, Xavier kicks UC's ass in every category. Lately, they generally beat the Bearcats on the court, but they also have roughly the same number of graduates playing in the NBA. Well, not exactly. While all of Xavier's NBA men have degrees, none of UC's do.

In fact, at Xavier, every player under the last four coaches who finished his senior year on the team left with a college degree.

At UC, instead of making sure everyone who meets him at center court on senior night walks for a diploma in June, Huggins whines about how unfair others measure his graduation statistics.

Yet when West Virginia came calling, no one was heard to say that maybe there was a life after Huggins that could balance wins with young men's futures. No one said instead of paying a coach truckloads of money for conference and NCAA tournament wins, maybe a new coach should also be paid for the number of degrees his players earn.

It isn't that UC and Xavier have different players from uniquely different backgrounds. They often compete in the recruiting fields, both for local standouts and sometimes around the country. They each get their share of recruiting victories.

But it's what happens when the young men reach campus that the differences are stark. Xavier virtually demands its players succeed in the classroom or they don't get playing time. Sister Rose Ann Fleming, the team's academic advisor, has said coaches give her the power to hold players out of games for not meeting their academic obligations that week.

It's not that Xavier players are choir boys. But the difference is how the two schools handle situations. When Donald Little got into criminal trouble the first time last summer, Coach Huggins gave him no on-court consequences.

By comparison, a few years back two Xavier players, one a starter and another the first sub off the bench, got into a bar altercation several days before an NCAA game with Georgetown and soon-to-be-pro point guard Allen Iverson. While it would be months before the courts could even look at the incident, Coach Skip Prosser benched the two men and Xavier lost by a few points.

Yet even with all that, Xavier fans can still "let go." When Xavier coach Pete Gillen took an interest in the head coaching job at Providence College, a sizable minority of Xavier fans openly said it was time for a change, that he lost some inexcusable home games or built too weak a schedule.

Even when highly popular Prosser went off to Wake Forest, a small but vocal group of fans pointed out Prosser didn't win key games late in the season and played too few people. In other words, even with a clean and proud program succeeding far beyond its means, there are some fans who want to see the condition of the grass just over the hill. But not at the University of Cincinnati.

Maybe UC loyalists suffer from the syndrome called, "I'm not worthy." They just can't imagine that they deserve the fun of constant victories during the season, then consistent runs in the NCAA tournament on the par of their seeding and the grand finale of academic success and team integrity. They think they just get to pick one. So they choose season wins and live with being defensive about the program's reputation.

I see the syndrome whenever I talk basketball with UC fans. They squirm with the program's oily image. Yet they defend Huggins like Custer's cavalrymen did right before the arrows flew. They can't imagine having what Duke has. What Stanford has. What Kansas has. Or even what Xavier has.

Hey, wait a minute. Stay away from the Muskies' coach.

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