This has been a hard week for Bob Huggins. First, a last-second loss to Xavier and now a lasting image problem courtesy of Sports Illustrated. The University of Cincinnati's head basketball coach heads for his holiday turkey resisting the urge to give thanks for nothing.
Life in the spotlight is not all autographs and acclaim. There are also bumps and bruises and injurious innuendo. Huggins has led his Bearcats to the top of the mountain - college basketball's No. 1 ranking - only to discover it's all downhill from here.
''I always thought six years from now, when I'd retire, I'd go fishing, have fun and enjoy life,'' Huggins said last week. ''But I'm going to come back and make those bastards' lives as miserable as they made mine. And I don't do things that I don't do well."
Bob Huggins is a formidable adversary in the best of moods, and he approaches greatness when carrying a grudge. Reckless radio gossip Andy Furman, and the people who publish him at the Cincinnati Post, are presently atop Huggins' enemies list because of an erroneous item that suggested Sports Illustrated's story would reveal NCAA rules violations.
A hard look at UC
SI's story, to be sure, is no puff piece. It dwells on the academic and police records of Huggins' players, many of whom have been recruited from junior colleges, and draws unflattering comparisons to Jerry Tarkanian's tenure at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas.
Some of the questions raised by author Alexander Wolff - particularly those pertaining to Art Long's enrollment - echo concerns conveyed hereabout the propriety of putting felons on scholarship. Some of the story's most damning quotes are attributed to UC icon Oscar Robertson.
''I don't think the university really gives a damn about those kids,'' Robertson said. ''I think they're just cannon fodder to win...
''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."
Bart Giamatti, the late baseball commissioner who was president of Yale, believed serious scholarship and big-time athletics were virtually incompatible on a college campus. Robertson's remarks underscore the perception that UC has cut more corners than most.
Questioning his integrity
Still, it is one thing to question the academic credentials or criminal behavior of athletes; quite another to suggest they have been improperly induced by their coaches. If Bob Huggins seems a little sensitive on this point, it is only his integrity at issue.
''You know what bothers me?'' Huggins said. ''Guys who are around a lot know we've got good kids and we don't cheat. Couldn't cheat. Not the way our guys dress. They don't have cars. They don't have jewelry. They don't have any of that stuff. Not unless they're putting it in a Swiss bank account, and none of them are smart enough to do it.
''I understand the national thing - people nationally thinking that we had to do something (improper) or we couldn't be as good as Kentucky or (North) Carolina or Kansas or some of those people. But... to have people in your own town constantly take shots at you and try to destroy you, that's very disheartening. It hurts. It hurts recruiting. It hurts everything."
Huggins is not to be confused with Father Flanagan. His primary purpose in recruiting Art Long, Nick Van Exel and Dontonio Wingfield was to win basketball games. In big-time college basketball, this is the only purpose that pays the bills.
Some UC players have reflected badly on Huggins through academic sloth and anti-social behavior. Conversely, some lost souls have found themselves while under his thumb. Ultimately, however, college basketball coaches are not judged by their ability to develop choir boys. If they were, Bob Huggins would do it well.
Tim Sullivan is an Enquirer columnist.