Still, every other school in Division I faces the same challenge of graduating its players, and few do as bad a job as Cincinnati. Around campus there's no shortage of voices alarmed by the implications of basketball success combined with poor academic achievement. "I don't think the university really gives a damn about those kids," says Oscar Robertson, who graduated from Cincinnati. "I think they're just cannon fodder to win. Why should [school officials] care? They've got tenure.
"I think it's grossly unfair for a school to take junior college kids who had difficulty getting out of high school and expect them to play ball and breeze through a real college. A lot of these junior college kids are never going to graduate. But winning is utmost. It starts at the top. with [school president] Dr. [Joseph] Steger, then on to the teachers, then Oscar Robertson. I'm part of the problem, too, because I don't get more involved and say this has got to stop."
Cincinnati sits in the hills of southern Ohio, a big city with a small town's soul. The local industry is bright and clean: Jergens, Procter & Gamble, Gibson greeting cards. "It's wonderful, isn't it?" says Huggins, who lives with his wife, June, and their daughters, Jenna, 14, and Jacqueline, 11, in a northern suburb with the elysian name of Loveland. "Nobody's dying of black lung."
That comment reveals the alloys of dark and light in the 43-year-old Huggins's personality, his program and his past. He grew up in Midvale, a hardscrabble coal-mining town in northeastern Ohio. His dad, Charlie, was a stern but famously successful high school coach in Midvale, so Bobby was spared the depredations of the miner's life. But he grew up with kids whose fathers had dropped out of high school to make the daily descent into the shafts, and there was no escaping the mining-town culture: the street fights (Bobby didn't back away from them, which reinforced his combativeness); the crowds at the bars on payday (Bobby would help his pals carry their drunken dads home, which reinforced his sense of compassion); the storms that besieged Tuscarawas County (Bobby would hear the radio news reader recite the school closings and just as surely intone, "Midvale Mine Number 7 will work," which developed his esteem for giving an honest effort every day).
When Huggins arrived at Cincinnati, the Bearcats had just suffered through six seasons under his genial, feckless predecessor, Tony Yates, who had pulled off the dubious hat trick of recruiting academic nonqualifiers, getting the school put on NCAA probation and losing regularly. At his first press conference Huggins announced his intent to reach the Final Four immediately, a prediction all the more brazen given that he was inheriting just five players and assorted pretenders. After kicking one of the five, point guard Elnardo Givens, off the team for lollygagging through summer school, Huggins had to turn the offense over to Andre Tate, a passer so inept that during drills he sometimes missed the Toss-Back entirely. But Huggins made good on his promise. He drove the Bearcats to the NIT in that first season and to the Final Four two years later, and since then his teams have never failed to make the NCAAs.
Off the floor Huggins can be so soft-spoken that sportswriters leaving his office after interviews have sometimes found their tape recordings inaudible. But he possesses an old-school toughness that distinguishes him from other baby boomers in his profession. Even though Huggins majored in physical therapy and minored in health in college and briefly considered becoming a trainer, injuries are essentially against his team rules. Fortson practiced for more than a week during his freshman year without realizing he had pneumonia; he finally saw a doctor, who, horrified, sent him straight to a hospital. Flint spent much of his sophomore season complaining of turf toe. It's a malady that has a hangnail sound to it. so Huggins was skeptical, and Flint didn't want to confirm his coach's suspicion that he was a malingerer. So he gimped through much of the season. Not until broadcaster Thom Brennaman mentioned offhandedly that turf toe had forced Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Jack Lambert, one of the toughest guys ever to play in the NFL, into retirement did Huggins have any appreciation for what Flint was going through.
Given Huggins's confrontational style, the scene on the Bearcats' bench can sometimes look like a daytime-TV shout show. When Huggins asks the musical question, How could you do such a dumb-ass thing? it's not just rhetorical, as it is for, say, Bob Knight. Huggins expects an answer—and he listens. "That's what's fun," says Fortson. "You can yell back at him. You don't make it a habit, but if you've got something to say, you say it. He might sit you down, but after the game he'll hug you and tell you why he yelled at you."
Says Huggins, "You ask guys questions, you can't get mad if they answer you. And sometimes they're right. When they are, we change."
Examine the case of Long, however, and you might conclude that Huggins's "tough love" gets meted out according to a sliding scale. When Long failed to hustle in practice early in the 1994-95 season, he was suspended for two games. When he missed class a year later, Huggins sat him down during preseason practice and didn't start him in the Bearcats' opener against Wyoming. But when Long attempted to choke a girlfriend in October 1995—a charge to which he would eventually plead no contest—he received no punishment at all from Huggins.
When Cincinnati started recruiting Long after his drug bust at Dodge City, former Bearcats athletic director Rick Taylor told Huggins that Long would not play for Cincinnati as long as Taylor was on the job. Sure enough, soon after the university admitted Long, Taylor left. Taylor won't say much about Huggins, the man he hired eight years ago, but he does say, "I happen to feel kids who start college should graduate. I happen to feel athletes should graduate at a higher rate than the student body, because they have everything—room, board, tuition, fees, counseling expenses—paid for. I wasn't comfortable with some of the people the coaches brought in."