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BREAKING THROUGH
Alexander Wolff
December 02, 1996
BOB HUGGINS HAS TAKEN CINCINNATI FROM THE PITS TO OUR NO. 1 RANKING, BUT GIVEN HIS PLAYERS' HISTORIES OFF THE COURT AND IN THE CLASSROOM, HAS HE DONE IT THE RIGHT WAY?
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December 02, 1996

Breaking Through

BOB HUGGINS HAS TAKEN CINCINNATI FROM THE PITS TO OUR NO. 1 RANKING, BUT GIVEN HIS PLAYERS' HISTORIES OFF THE COURT AND IN THE CLASSROOM, HAS HE DONE IT THE RIGHT WAY?

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•A coach both respected and loved by his players: Like Tarkanian, whose hangdog countenance is now seen on the Fresno State bench, Huggins cuts his own distinctive figure—one that Terry Nelson, who was a forward on that 1992 Final Four team, describes as "this guy whose tie is wrapped around his shoulder and hair is everywhere and cheeks are swollen and has officials ducking." Nothing puts the Bearcats on alert quicker at a morning practice than the appearance of Huggins with mussed hair, glasses (instead of his usual contacts) and a cup of coffee. "That means he has been up all night watching tape and knows everything you've done wrong," says Fortson. "If you don't practice hard, you're going to run hard. So you might as well practice hard."

But Huggins also stands stoutly by his players. "The majority of black athletes who come here don't have a father," says Nelson, whose dad died when he was nine. "I never had a father figure until I came here."

Flint also grew up without a dad at home. "He's not even like a coach anymore," he says of Huggins. "He's like a best friend—and a father."

No Bearcat has found this Ohio River port-in-a-storm more welcoming than Fortson. According to affidavits filed in federal district court in Pittsburgh by Danny, his sister Tonya Bridgers and a legal aid lawyer, Danny moved to Pittsburgh with his mother, Deloris, in 1992 after spending most of his childhood in Altoona, Pa., because Deloris could no longer stand the physical abuse she suffered from her alcoholic husband, Daniel. Daniel also abused Danny, according to the court papers, until Danny grew big enough to defend himself. Furthermore, Danny had to cope with his mother's periodic hospitalizations (both for diabetes and for injuries from fights with Daniel), his own dyslexia and an eligibility controversy that cost him his junior season at Pittsburgh's Shaler High.

"I knew coming here that I was going to be part of a family," says Danny. "What do you get here? A pair of gym sneakers and some hard times. You don't get no favors."

Huggins has heard the Vegas East tag applied to Cincinnati and doesn't much care for it. "To the degree that you compare us to the success that UNLV had on the floor, that's flattering," he says. "But to imply in any way that what's happened off the floor is similar, that's demeaning and degrading. I mean the problems with the NCAA, of which we've had none."

As a further riposte, Huggins says, "Our guys have done a good job educationally." Then, perhaps remembering that he counts Tarkanian as a friend, he adds, "and I don't mean that Vegas didn't."

In fact, Cincinnati has not done a good job educationally not according to the yardstick the NCAA uses: whether an entering freshman graduates within six years. Only one player who has exhausted four years of eligibility under Huggins has graduated. And since Huggins took over at Cincinnati, only three of the 11 juco transfers he has brought in—players who upon arrival needed only two years' worth of credits—have come away with a degree. In toto, as Huggins begins his eighth season he has seen just seven players get degrees.

"You're required to do so much as a player at UC that you just want to get away when your eligibility runs out," says Nelson, who will serve as team manager this season while continuing work toward his liberal arts degree.

To be sure, several sheepskinless former Bearcats got opportunities in pro sports: three are in the NBA (Van Exel and Corie Blount with the Lakers and Wingfield with Portland), a number of others have played overseas, and Keith LeGree is an outfielder in the Minnesota Twins' organization. "People can say it's a cop-out, but if these guys have a chance to play and make $60,000 or $70,000, they're not going to make that much their first couple of years out of school," says Huggins. "I don't see anything wrong with them coming back later to graduate. I don't know when it became a race."

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