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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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Steger, the university's president, says Taylor "missed our mission. Our future will be more and more in dealing with what's happening with inner-city high schools, and we're going to accommodate the student who's not well prepared, whether he's an athlete or not."

Both Steger and Dr. O'dell Owens, a black physician and former chair of the school's board of trustees, signed off on Long's admission. But Owens makes this confession: "Was there a selfish aspect to accepting Art Long? Yes. We needed a center. The question was, Did we think we could change this kid? And basically he did well, except for, well, one incident."

Owens, overlooking Long's altercation with his girlfriend, is referring to the infamous Blazing Saddles episode that occurred outside a bar on May 3, 1995, when Long and Fortson allegedly shouted obscenities at a mounted policeman and ended up in an altercation. Long punched the officer's horse four times, according to police reports and court testimony. (Both Long and Fortson were later acquitted.)

Another example of the lengths to which Cincinnati has gone to accommodate its basketball program is the case of 6'2" senior guard Darnell Burton, who was suspended before the beginning of last season, reportedly for failing a school-administered drug test. The suspension was in accordance with a policy, enacted under Taylor, that called for a one-year ban after an athlete's first positive test. But after Burton's suspension, the university's substance-abuse committee—on which Huggins sits—changed the policy with the support of Taylor's successor, Gerald O'Dell. In accordance with O'Dell's belief that the policy should be "educational, not punitive," the rules were softened to a suspension of 10% of a season after the first positive test and an entire season after a second. Conveniently enough, the change was made after the Bearcats had played 10% of last season.

Then there's the case of Wingfield, the 6'8" forward who left Cincinnati after one season and was a 1995 second-round draft pick of the Seattle Super-Sonics. By the end of his senior season at Westover High in Albany, Ga., Wingfield had led his school to an unprecedented four straight state titles, but he didn't have the required courses or test score to play Division I ball as a freshman. Suddenly, in April 1993 he moved to Cincinnati—he had already signed a letter of intent with the Bearcats—bunking in with relatives of his legal guardian, the Reverend Ronald Smith of Albany, and enrolling at Cincinnati's Taft High. "I needed some core courses in order to be eligible," says Wingfield. "The only school [in Cincinnati] willing to give me those core classes was Taft, so I went to Taft." By July he had his core courses completed and had also made the requisite standardized test score after five failed attempts. Huggins insists that Cincinnati had nothing to do with Wingfield's transfer to Taft.

Raise these issues with Cincinnati faculty members and administrators, and there's much throat-clearing and foot-shuffling. It's as if you've wandered into the local art museum, where the curator wants to show off the galleries hung with Wyeths and Homers and Cassatts, but you've asked to see the room with the Mapplethorpes. "At times I say that absolutely everybody who represents the University of Cincinnati should be like Caesar's wife, above reproach," says education professor Nancy Hamant, who's the Bearcats' NCAA faculty representative. "At other times I think that's living in a dreamworld. I'm realistic enough to know what we're doing, even if I don't like it. Would I like them all to graduate and be Phi Beta Kappas? Yeah. Would I like to see that worked on? Absolutely. Am I that unrealistic? Nope."

Perhaps architecture professor David Smith, president of the faculty senate, gets it best. "This reminds me of the movie Rain Man, which was filmed partly here in Cincinnati," he says. "Dustin Hoffman plays an idiot savant, and Tom Cruise, his brother, takes advantage of this one thing he does extremely well. The problem is we, like Tom Cruise, tend to celebrate an idiot savant-like activity such as winning at basketball. In many spheres, if you were to celebrate something like that at the expense of the whole, you'd be institutionalized. Why do we celebrate it? Because there's an economic advantage."

Rain Man also includes scenes shot in Las Vegas, where seizing an economic advantage is called "beating the house," which Hoffman does by counting cards. On the idiot charge, the jury at Cincinnati is still out; Huggins and his tough love may yet whip everyone who has played for him into getting a degree. But the Bearcats are doubtlessly basketball savants. And this season it would be foolish to bet against them.

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