Thursday, March 14, 2002

UC Final Four Flashback

1991-92 team keeps special bond

By Michael Perry
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        It is 10 years later. The bonds are strong. Tarrice Gibson punches up A.D. Jackson on his cell phone's speed dial; the two talk daily. Jeff Scott has just spoken with B.J. Ward. John Jacobs is e-mailing Erik Martin in South Korea.

The 1991-92 Bearcats are honored at the final home game March 3.
(Steven M. Herppich photo)
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        Terry Nelson and Curtis Bostic coach together at Western Hills High School. Corie Blount was in Herb Jones' wedding.

        Scott wanted Nick Van Exel to stay with the Denver Nuggets (he didn't) so he could see him play when he is in Denver.

        Anthony Buford is trying to organize a reunion for this summer. Mike Reichenecker is awaiting the information to see if he can attend.

        This is the University of Cincinnati's 1991-92 Final Four team, as close as ever.

        “No matter what we did outside of practice, it was always together,” Nelson said. “If we went to the store, it was eight, nine guys walking to the store. If we went to the club, the whole team went to the club. It was like brothers.”

        “These are my closest friends in the world,” Martin said.

Tarrice Gibson (10) and John Jacobs celebrate after a second-round win over Michigan State in '92.
(Enquirer file photo)
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        “We were like a family away from the court, and I think that carried over onto the court,” Van Exel said. “That's what made everything so special. I tell people to this day, my two years at Cincinnati, I would never trade that for anything in the world.”

        Cincinnati had not been to the NCAA Tournament in 15 years and had not advanced to the Final Four in 29 years. It had not been nationally ranked since 1977-78. Bob Huggins was in his third year as UC's coach; his first two teams went to the National Invitation Tournament.

        But the Bearcats broke into the Associated Press Top 25 late in the 1991-92 season and finished at No.12. They got past Delaware, Michigan State, Texas-El Paso and Memphis in the NCAA Tournament to earn a trip to the national semifinals in Minneapolis, where they would lose to Michigan and its Fab Five freshmen 76-72.

        There was no way to predict what was going to happen that March, nor how it would affect the university, the city and the college basketball landscape.

Advantage, UC

        The success of that team opened recruiting doors for Huggins, who has brought in five McDonald's All-Americans (Damon Flint, Danny Fortson, DerMarr Johnson, Kenny Satterfield and Dontonio Wingfield) and coached three AP first-team All-Americans (Fortson, Kenyon Martin and Steve Logan).

        The Bearcats went from one nationally televised regular-season game during the Final Four season to six in 1992-93. This season, there were 12.

        Average attendance was 10,111 in 1991-92 and has not gone below 11,000 since.

        Total gifts to the University of Cincinnati Athletic Teams Scholarships organization increased by more than $150,000 in 1992-93. It has gone from $993,000 in 1991-92 to $3.56 million this year.

        “There's no question once we had the success, it raised the profile of the program,” senior associate athletic director for development Bill Mulvihill said. “And when you raise the profile, that brings new people to the table; and at the same time, people who are already in want to do more.”

        In 1997-98, UC was among three teams — St.John's and North Carolina A&T were the others — to begin wearing an exclusive line of Air Jordan Nike uniforms.

        UC was bringing in next to nothing in merchandise royalties 10 years ago. Soon after the Final Four season, it began working with the Collegiate Licensing Company. The university now nets about $400,000 a year and is among the top 40 colleges in the country in merchandise sales, said Carla Crabtree, UC's director of licensing.

        “When I got to town, I would go to the mall and they wouldn't have any UC stuff,” Huggins said. “None. They'd have a little bit of Xavier stuff, a bunch of Kentucky stuff and a little bit of Ohio State stuff. I used to go in stores on purpose and say. "I'd like to buy a University of Cincinnati sweatshirt.' And the guy would say, "We don't have any.'

        “That changed within a year.”

Cincinnati or bust

        They came from Alabama, Massachusetts, Wisconsin, Texas, Georgia, Michigan, Indiana and California, as well as from Cincinnati. Ten players on the Final Four team were transfers from four-year schools or junior colleges.

        Look at them now. Of the 13 Bearcats who took the city and the college basketball world by surprise, eight live and work in the Greater Cincinnati area.

        That doesn't include Blount, who said he recently purchased a home in Middletown, and Martin, who is in South Korea playing ball but lives in Cincinnati during his offseason.

        Six members of the team have earned their degrees, and two others are continuing work on theirs.

        “I probably won't ever leave Cincinnati,” said Gibson, an Alabama native. “This is no lie: I can go out to Loveland, in a restaurant, and somebody's going to recognize me. I can go to Beechmont or Avondale, and somebody's going to recognize me. You can't get that everywhere.”

        The seeds of that season were planted before preseason practices even started. Jones, Buford and Gibson wanted to teach some of Huggins' basic principles to the newcomers so the team would be ahead once Huggins took over.

        UC's 7-0 start gained only minimal national attention. Then Cincinnati lost to Michigan State and 10th-ranked Indiana within two weeks and stood at 8-2.

        But the Bearcats won 11 of their next 12.

        The players said individual egos didn't get in the way of the team concept, which was crucial for the pressing defense that would be the team's trademark.

        The Bearcats were co- champions of the Great Midwest, then won the league tournament. They finished 29-5, tying a school record for victories in a season.

        Martin remembers returning after UC had secured its spot in the Final Four. It was rainy, cold and windy. Still, when the players got off the airplane, almost 1,000 fans were lined up to greet them.

        Martin turned to Nelson and asked, “Terry, does this happen everywhere?”

        “I think this city just fell in love with the team,” Martin said.

        Perhaps it didn't realize at the time just how special it was. UC fans were talking openly about expecting annual trips to the Final Four.

        Even the Bearcats weren't thinking about how many great college players, teams and coaches have never been to even one Final Four.

        “It hit me, like, three years later,” Jones said. “I was watching it (on TV), and boom ... I started thinking, "That's a big accomplishment.' You can take that to your grave.”

A national program

        College basketball has had to accept the UC program. The Bearcats are a fixture on ESPN. They have finished their regular season ranked in the Top 25 in nine of the past 11 years, including six times in the top 10. They have won 25 or more games seven consecutive years, something no other program has accomplished.

        On Friday, they will play Boston University in the first round of their 11th consecutive NCAA Tournament.

        What irks Huggins to this day is how his program and players were portrayed, because so many were former junior-college players. “They were bright, articulate kids, and they continually got slammed and they were tired of it,” Huggins said. “They really developed that bunker mentality. People just killed us. This guy in Denver writes that the program can't be sustained and we'll be on probation in three years and we bought all those guys and they can't talk. You don't get any more articulate than Nelson and Martin and Buford.”

        Cincinnati also was developing a national reputation as a hard-working, relentless, intimidating program that took on the personality of its coach.

        The Bearcats pressed full-court. They ran and dunked and smiled and looked like they were having fun, which they were.

        “We played 110 percent every night, and we played with no fear at all,” Van Exel said.

        Nelson said he is writing a book he plans to title, The Brothers, about the 1991-92 season. “It was sort of like the Super Friends,” he said. “Everybody had a special talent. So everybody only did what they could do and tried to perfect it.”

        After their season-ending loss, the UC players were as despondent about no longer playing together as they were about the defeat.

        “All the guys are going to go their separate ways,” a quiet Buford said after the game. “But I hope that we'll always stay in touch with each other.”


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