These ‘Cats Are Unbearable : Under Bob Huggins, Cincinnati Is About as Subtle as a Punch in the Face--and Proud of It
Chronicling University of Cincinnati basketball and its “madman” coach, Bob Huggins, would prove difficult.
Capturing the essence of Huggins, the 42-year-old time bomb, referee-baiter, court-side screamer, was going to be problematic.
Getting inside the head of this leader of college basketball rogues, or so the perception goes, to find out what makes one of the country’s top coaches tick, tick, tick, would take some reconstruction.
Why? Because you can’t hear the guy.
You were forewarned about this and distinctly remember cranking up the tape recorder to full volume before inching it forward on Huggins’ desk.
Yet, what you hear later sounds likes short-wave radio. The coach who berates officials for a living is speaking like a golf analyst.
The man who turned the Bearcats into a rough-and-tumble national power preaching the gospel of forearm shivers?
He’s Mr. Peepers off the court.
Later, through a hurricane hiss, you make out the faint sound of a human voice explaining how things aren’t always as they seem.
“There are a lot of misconceptions about a lot people,” Huggins says, quietly.
And, he says, about a lot of programs.
Huggins has fought the bad-boy tag since he arrived at Cincinnati in 1989, taking over a program on NCAA sanctions for that bureaucratic offense, “lack of institutional control.”
Because he turned around a bad situation so quickly, going 20-14 in his first year, sirens sounded.
Because Huggins relied on junior college transfers to build the Nick Van Exel-Corie Blount Final Four team of 1991-92, some cried foul.
There has been some explaining to do.
Last summer, one of his players, Art Long, was accused of punching out a horse. It’s a Long story.
The Bearcats under Huggins are, in fact, as subtle as a punch in the face. They hit the weights, the boards and pretty much anything that stands in their way.
During a recent visit, star forward Danny Fortson flexed his biceps proudly after concluding a pre-practice trip to the weight room.
Today, in the second round of the Southeast Regional at Orlando, Fla., the Bearcats (26-4) will muscle up against Temple (20-12) in a game that might start out as basketball but end up as wrestling.
Going against the Bearcats has become WRIP in Cincinnati.
“That’s the kind of reputation he wants,” says Van Exel, the former Bearcat and current Laker. “He wants to be an intimidating team. He wants to go out and bury you by 100 points if he can. Play hard, scratch, elbow--whatever it takes.”
Tough team. Tough coach.
Huggins, however, resents the lack of distinction between tough and dirty. He cringes at comparisons to Nevada Las Vegas teams of yesteryear and, in Gary Hart bravado, welcomes NCAA inquisitors to rummage through his program’s chest of drawers.
“There are people who write columns about us who have never spoken to me,” Huggins says. “They never talked to our kids, never talked to any former guys. Don’t have any idea about the way things are.
“Just look at my kids when they come in here, see how they dress. Go look in the parking lot. See if you see any cars. Totally different deal.
“Ask Nick [Van Exel] what he got? Ask Corie [Blount] what they got. They got a new pair of sneakers and a hard time. That’s it.”
There are two sides to Bob Huggins, two sides to Cincinnati’s story.
There is Huggins in the morning, quiet as a mouse. And then there is Huggins on a rampage. During the recent Conference USA tournament, which the Bearcats won, Huggins was reprimanded for criticizing the officials. And Huggins and his players are not reluctant to scream at each other in public view.
“As soon as the whistle blows, he’s not the same guy you talked to in the morning,” Fortson says.
Huggins explains wryly, “Wouldn’t it be refreshing if people went about their jobs with enthusiasm and vigor?”
From a distance, Cincinnati is what you read in the press clippings.
Perception: Look at all those junior college transfers. Something must be crooked.
Reality: To revive a depleted program, Huggins restocked with junior college players. To the chagrin of many, he found good ones: Van Exel in Texas, Blount in Los Angeles.
Only three players on this year’s roster of 12 are JC transfers.
Perception: Huggins recruits wayward kids.
Reality: Cincinnati has had its share of problems. Dontonio Wingfield, a brilliant player but bad egg, lasted only a season.
The horse story? Last spring, starting center Long and Fortson were involved in an incident in which Long allegedly assaulted a policeman’s horse. Long was acquitted. Fortson was never charged.
Long, a senior, attended three junior colleges before moving on to Cincinnati and once pleaded no contest to selling marijuana to an undercover police officer.
Huggins took some heat when he took Long.
“It wasn’t like Arthur wasn’t recruited [by other schools],” he says. “They were lining up.”
Darnell Burton, a 6-foot-2 guard, was suspended last fall for the 1995-96 season after, according to published reports, he tested positive for marijuana in a random drug test. The offense carried a one-year suspension by university mandate, but that policy was amended this year, reducing the penalty for first-time offenders. Burton was back in the lineup after three games.
Huggins says his team’s roughneck image and on-court success make him an easy target.
“You could say that about anybody,” Huggins says of the credibility question. “What if I take the guy from Kentucky who actually took money?” Huggins says.
Huggins was referring to Chris Mills, the Fairfax High player who transferred from Kentucky after it was revealed that his father, Claud, received $1,000 in cash from a Wildcat assistant coach.
Mills ended up at Arizona.
“Now, I’m not saying that’s good or bad, but they don’t say that about Lute,” Huggins says of Arizona Coach Lute Olson. “I’m not suggesting any impropriety, but what if I would have taken the kid? I’d have been the only guy in America who would take the guy, the only guy who would touch him. I mean, look around.”
Huggins says he likes reclamation projects.
“In most segments of our society, if you took a troubled youth, worked with him, spent time with him, cared about him, he’d be a whole lot better person,” Huggins says. “And you’d get a medal. When we do that, we’re bad guys.”
See Bob coach. See Bob get mad.
“In the Cal game [Dec. 20], he kicked a trash can and it almost hit me,” senior point guard Keith LeGree recalls. “I’ve seen him punch three or four chalkboards. It gets your attention in a hurry. He knows we got talent, that we can win it all if we play up to our potential. He knows how good we can be. He likes to win, you can’t fault him for that.”
The Bearcats were 81-117 in the seven seasons before he arrived. Since, Cincinnati is 164-62 and has made either the NIT or NCAA tournament each season.
A victory over Temple today would put Cincinnati in its third Sweet 16 of the Huggins era. Huggins has restored respect to a program that fell into a black hole after winning national championships in 1961 and ’62.
The Bearcats have made their mark by, well, making marks.
Their practices should be sanctioned by the World Boxing Council.
“There are no fouls at practice,” junior guard Damon Flint says.
Players fight, scrap, dive for loose balls. Some players get kicked out.
“He doesn’t care about your feelings,” says Fortson, a second-team All-American. “I respect guys like that. He’ll tell you he doesn’t care what you’re feeling. He told me, ‘If you’re soft, don’t come.’ Recruits come, see practice, and they get scared. I think Huggins does that for a reason.”
There is method to Huggins’ madness.
He was born to coach, the son of Charlie Huggins, who won four Ohio state championships at two high schools.
Bob played for his father at Gnadenhutten Indian Valley South High, winning the state title his senior year. Huggins was 27 when he got his first head coaching job, at Walsh College in Canton, Ohio.
Charlie was a no-nonsense coach and father, and his traits have come down to his son.
“He’s very emotional, crazy,” Van Exel says. “He loves to win and you can tell that without too much trouble. But once you walk away from basketball, it’s like a father-son relationship with him. He really cares about the guys.”
Fortson, from Pittsburgh, came to Cincinnati because of Huggins’ tough-love reputation.
Not that getting screamed at is pleasant.
“The way he yells, it’s terrible,” Fortson says. Sometimes he makes you feel like--well, he tells you the truth. But after practice, he’ll tell you why he was doing that, and it lifts you back up.”
This is something Huggins’ father rarely did.
“It was, ‘Do this.’ There was no why,” Huggins says about playing for his dad. “It was just because. So I did it. But I really believe my heart would have been into it a lot more if I knew why I was doing it.
“At least I try to explain why I do things.”
Huggins weeds out the weak before they get on the court.
Van Exel says he used to be “sometimes scared to go to practice.”
Bearcats will not be bullied or bothered.
“Everyone seems to think we’ve got a bunch of thugs,” LeGree says. “That we don’t take no crap, that we foul hard. I hear that all the time. I think we just play hard. We take after our coach. We don’t have soft people on our teams. We won’t back down on anybody. That’s just what we do. At practice, we get in fights. Don’t come here if you’re babied.”
Most players appreciate Huggins more after they leave.
Many, including Van Exel, still call Cincinnati home and stay close to the program.
You don’t hear much about Cincinnati players getting in trouble after they leave.
“I want guys who want to get better,” Huggins says. “I get a lot of guys who people say are hard to coach. I take them because they have good hearts.”
And clenched fists.
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