Zimpher Goes, Huggins Comes Back and UC Is Close to Winning Again

Imagine the scene in a week. Nancy Zimpher is leaving, Bob Huggins is returning, Fifth Third Arena could be full and the University of Cincinnati's basketball team could be headed back to the NCAA Tournament. Can it be that the more things change the mor

Feb 17, 2009 at 2:06 pm

Imagine the scene in a week. Nancy Zimpher is leaving, Bob Huggins is returning, Fifth Third Arena could be full and the University of Cincinnati’s basketball team could be headed back to the NCAA Tournament.

Can it be that the more things change the more they stay the same? Of course not.

Everyone is better off from that bizarre saga ending three years ago except Andy Kennedy, and he’d be better off if he hadn’t returned to town this season. As it happens, Kennedy shouldn’t be back next week while his Ole Miss Rebels fight through the Southeastern Conference.

It was August 2005 when Zimpher, as UC’s president, forced out Huggins as UC’s basketball coach. The following March, Zimpher went with the local kid, Mick Cronin, as the new head coach over Kennedy, who carried the flame for Huggins supporters.

The very idea that Zimpher is mostly noted for removing Huggins illustrates that universities are poorly understood, since so many believe they exist for the promotion of sporting entertainments. But even many of us who thought it best for Huggins to go are still delighted that he’s landed and doing well at his alma mater.

Zimpher finished the task that Huggins is rightly credited for starting. It’s unfortunate that Huggins couldn’t coach UC in the Big East after Zimpher put the finishing touches on the university’s entrance.

It’s even more regrettable that the president’s office didn’t handle the Huggins affair with more finesse. To this day, Fifth Third Arena is half-empty because so many fans of UC and Huggins encountered a choice between the two.

The president made the change. Her call. Academia is a prestige business, and the university was entering a prestige league.

Zimpher must have heard more than she wanted from academics as she went to those last meetings that sealed the university into the Big East. UC’s reputation was about to be forged in the eastern media, and that reputation simply couldn’t be Vegas East.

So Zimpher had to do it. She didn’t have to make such a show of her power, because the power is there whether she shows it or not. Then again, maybe the show of power was an announcement, a very loud announcement, that UC was upgrading.

She certainly did enough else to support that. Since Zimpher arrived, UC is drawing the largest and best-prepared freshman classes in its history, bringing enrollment up 10 percent. UC’s reputation as a research university has climbed to a new level, and, just because she’s lucky, that mountain of debt she inherited has also built a striking campus.

Zimpher moves on to an enormous task as chancellor at the State University of New York (SUNY) system, which involves 64 campuses, 427,000 students and a $10 billion budget, which is 10 times UC’s budget.

UC also prospered athletically under Zimpher. The Orange Bowl comes to mind, other athletic programs are picking up and UC’s academic performance in the athletic department is competitive in the Big East. If UC has lost low-quality basketball fans, it has gained high-quality students, and if it had to make a trade that’s the right trade to make.

Meanwhile, Cronin is doing a delicious job. He’s not a miracle worker, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t a basketball coach.

Three years ago, Cronin really did start in the basement, as he’s said. Because players couldn’t fathom life after Huggins at UC, six non-seniors made it a self-fulfilling prophecy by leaving. And even though not all of Cronin’s acquisitions have panned out, his teams have consistently revised their standards upwards, particularly in the last month.

The Bearcats have done what they were supposed to do since Jan. 20, winning five of seven in the Big East. They beat Notre Dame, Georgetown (twice) and St. John’s (twice). But they also haven’t done what they needed to do, like beating Villanova and Pittsburgh.

If the Bearcats win all the games they’re supposed to win, they still can’t count on going to the NCAA Tournament. It would break them even in the Big East, which would amount to a decent argument even if it isn’t ultimately persuasive.

To really persuade the selection committee, they would need a winning record in the Big East. As it looks right this moment, merely winning the games they’re supposed to win would still bring them up a game short of that standard.

But they’re setting that bar higher, so the pool of games they’re supposed to win could grow large enough to put them in the tournament if they win them all. Three weeks ago, the thought here was that the Bearcats would do well to win two of their three upcoming games against Notre Dame and Georgetown (see “Bearcats on the Verge of Returning to Basketball Respectability,” issue of Jan. 28). They won all three.

Now comes a much tougher stretch. Judging by how poorly the Bearcats fared against Villanova and Pittsburgh, they can’t look very strong Saturday against Louisville. Maybe we now see that Huggins’ return to Fifth Third Arena with the West Virginia Mountaineers on Feb. 26 is a game they’re supposed to win, and so is a March 1 game at Syracuse.

West Virginia has lost six games in the league, five of them the league’s top powers (Connecticut, Louisville, Marquette and twice to Pittsburgh) and the other to Syracuse. The Orangemen have lost six games in the league, only three to the top powers (Pittsburgh, Louisville and Connecticut) plus two to second-tier teams (Villanova and Providence) and another to Georgetown.

The Bearcats look comparable with Syracuse, considering only their league losses. UC has lost three to the top powers (Marquette, Connecticut and Pittsburgh) with Louisville coming up Saturday on campus. UC has three losses to second-tier teams (once to Villanova and twice to Providence). So the Syracuse game really should be considered a toss-up.

But if they could pick one of those two games to lock up a bid to the NCAA Tournament, how would the Bearcat faithful like it if that win came against Huggins? How would the Huggins faithful like it? Wouldn’t that close the circle just right?

And if they do fill 13,176 seats on Feb. 26, compared with their usual 7,500 or so this year, the crowd mix stands to be as fascinating as the game. Suppose 7,500 are UC fans, 7,500 are Huggins fans and about 4,000 are in both camps simultaneously.

It’s a scenario worthy of changing history. Which might make it a scenario worthy of re-establishing reality.

CONTACT BILL PETERSON: [email protected]