Wednesday, January 27, 1999

Huggins keeps focus on court

UC succeeds in season of distractions

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Bob Huggins hugs Pete Mickeal after beating top-ranked Duke last November.
(AP photo)

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        There is always another hurdle. Bob Huggins clears one as though he's Renaldo Nehemiah and finds still another placed in his path.

        He leaves the trashing of his basketball program by Sports Illustrated behind in the fall of 1996 behind, hard as that was to shake, and suddenly he's looking at an internal investigation of possible NCAA rules violations.

        He clears that one carrying a conference championship, NCAA Tournament appearance and top five recruiting class under his arm, wins the first 15 games of the 1998-99 season, and then, when his Cincinnati Bearcats are about to pursue No.16, come ESPN and reporter Curry Kirkpatrick.

        These hurdles aren't what they used to be. “I would never think or say he's a bad guy,” Kirkpatrick said. “I happen to think he's great for the game. I think he's a charming, roguish sort of guy. Thank God he's not like every other coach.”

        It may be that Huggins is winning. The NCAA investigation expected to undermine recruiting for this team and the next did not prevent the addition of such talents as Pete Mickeal, Eugene Land and Steve Logan or New York guard Kenny Satterfield, who will join them this fall.

        The Bearcats will carry a No.5 ranking and 18-1 record into the Skyline Chili Crosstown Shootout against Xavier (15-4) at 9:30 p.m. Thursday at Shoemaker Center (ESPN).

        Even the emergence of Kirkpatrick as a Bearcats target may have less shelf-life than a loaf of San Francisco sourdough.

        Kirkpatrick came to Cincinnati in early January to gather material for an ESPN The Magazine piece that appears in the Feb. 8 issue. It is an article Huggins would need to work very hard to dislike, comparing the NCAA investigation to Kenneth Starr's report on the Clinton administration, allowing Huggins to describe how the national media prejudged his team at the 1992 Final Four and explaining how Huggins' methods made better players of Ryan Fletcher, Kenyon Martin and Melvin Levett.

        Unfortunately, it showed up in the nation's mail 12 days after Jan. 14. That was surely Huggins' least favorite night of the current season.

        First came a SportsCenter piece Kirkpatrick reported for ESPN after he worked on the magazine story. The TV feature dwelt upon Huggins' and UC's image in a manner reflective of the SI article. Five hours later, UC concluded a 62-60 loss to UNC Charlotte.

        “With television, you can't misquote anyone. I don't think we broke any new ground; we just portrayed the program and the image,” Kirkpatrick said. “If Bob's upset, I'm disappointed. I think he's a heck of a coach and a heck of a guy.”

        UC claims it was promised ESPN intended to take a fresh look at the Bearcats program. The feature that aired included more footage of previous teams than the one unbeaten and ranked No.3 in the nation at the time.

        There were references to the team's black road uniforms and the black shirts Huggins often wears. “They want to portray us as the bad guys,” Huggins said. “That's quite obvious.” Duke and UCLA do not face such inferences even though each has taken to wear ing black on the road, and neither has that as a school color.

        Much of the videotape included in the ESPN piece concentrated on Huggins' outbursts from early in his UC career. The pictures were so dated, they might as well have been from his high school prom, although Kirkpatrick said old footage was used because ESPN was not allowed to shoot recent practices for this piece.

        “Name me a guy that you can't find tape like that on. Name me one,” Huggins said.

        Huggins contends he has changed, matured during his time at UC. He still has many moments when he stamps his foot over a call or blisters a Bearcats player for a lack of defensive attention or a general absence of effort. He does not intend to change this approach.

        The same night the ESPN feature aired, the Bearcats lost their only game this season in part because official Tom O'Neill lost track of the game situation and stopped Levett from completing a fast-break when the Bearcats were down two points. Huggins did not chase O'Neill off the floor, as he might have done in previous years, as another coach might now.

        “How did I handle an inadvertent whistle that cost us a game?” Huggins said. “I hope I've grown. I hope I'm a lot better coach. That's what we all try to do. We all try to get better.”

        In the aftermath of the ESPN television piece, Huggins became less trustful. The Washington Post was denied the opportunity to conduct interviews even as practice was opened to CBS sportscasters Gus Johnson and Bill Raftery. The New York Daily News sent in Dick Weiss, one of the nation's most respected basketball writers. After spending time with Huggins and several players, he produced a piece that attempted to reverse some common perceptions about the Bearcats.

        “It's obvious in that business, you can't take people for what they say,” Huggins said. “So you do what you have to do.

        “I've got great kids, and it's a shame that people consistently want to put them in a bad light, because they don't deserve it. They can say whatever they want about me. But the players don't deserve it. We're not going to let that happen any more.”

        As bothered as he was by the tone of Kirkpatrick's TV piece, Huggins was outraged by the introduction read by anchor Bob Ley, in which it was stated no freshman recruited by Huggins had graduated from UC.

        Although this is not true — 1992 freshman Keith Gregor earned his degree, along with a dozen others who entered as four-year or junior-college transfers — ESPN has maintained it stands by the information Ley reported.

        “I think it's inexcusable that a guy would go on national TV and give facts he doesn't know about,” Huggins said. “It's not doing your job.”

        Huggins remains devoted to the concept of professionalism, to the idea that hard work is seldom unrewarded — even if the only reward is the work itself.

        This is a part of him to which Huggins frequently refers — his upbringing in northeastern Ohio in a community in which the singular ambition was to not wind up as a coal miner.

        He believes it defines him. But many of those telling the UC basketball story are more taken with the question of whether the Bearcats are properly defined by an outlaw image.

        “Most people don't know Bob Huggins,” said Angelo Colosimo, UC's team orthopedist. “What hurts me, because Bob's a friend, is he's a good man, he cares, and nobody knows.”

        When Colosimo was serving a fellowship at Duke, he worked with the Duke basketball team and was around coach Mike Krzyzewski. He sees more similarities than most would believe.

        "There's the same mentality,” Colosimo said. “The difference is Mike doesn't show it all. Bob leaves it right there on the court.”

        Huggins believes UC was penalized more harshly at the conclusion of its NCAA case because the basketball program continued to flourish as it was conducted. The Bearcats were placed on two years' probation and lost three scholarships over the next two years.

        It is one more hurdle Huggins appears to be clearing with ease. UC remains among the final choices for 6-9 DerMarr Johnson, rated by one scouting service as the top prospect in prep basketball.

        UC basketball's continued success would seem to be the only revenge it can exact for the nearly two years it was scrutinized by the NCAA and independent investigators.

        “I don't worry about that. I just do my job,” Huggins said. “I can't waste time and energy on that. I've got too many things I've got to do.”


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