Saturday, March 14, 1997
History still to judge
Catlett reign at UC


BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

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Gale Catlett restored the Bearcats to prominence but left them with probation.
(Enquirer file photo)
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BOISE, Idaho - Gale Catlett coached up a storm in Cincinnati. His teams were like a tornado, chewing up almost everything in their path. The problem was that there was a lot of cleanup to do when he left.

Catlett won 74 percent of his games at the University of Cincinnati, but the other part of his legacy was probation. He left for West Virginia in the spring of 1978, citing a hankering for home, skipping town just ahead of the sheriff. UC was subsequently slapped with a two-year penalty for ''a pattern of willful violations in the sport of basketball,'' sanctions that contributed to a 15-year drought between NCAA Tournament appearances.

Ancient history, Catlett declared Friday. ''Not relevant.'' The stuff of ''gossip columns.'' West Virginia and UC will meet this afternoon to seek a spot in the NCAA Tournament's Sweet 16, and Catlett was about as interested in revisiting the past as he was in being audited by the Internal Revenue Service.

''It's been so long ago,'' he said, ''that I hardly remember it.''

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''It's been so long ago that I hardly remember it.''
(Enquirer file photo)
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Catlett has been more candid than he was Friday, but rarely more cantankerous. His attempts at humor were awkward, and his attempts at evasion were edgy. He was like a Catlett on a hot, tin roof.

He has always been a curious character, a self-styled bumpkin with a street shark's savvy, prone to homespun homilies and strange bouts of self-promotion. He wore the wildest clothes in his first seasons in Cincinnati because they cost him nothing, and later gravitated to gray pinstripes as more reflective of his real personality.

I covered Catlett's last season in Cincinnati, lost money to him at poker, lunched with him at Skyline Chili. Once, in the middle of a game, he borrowed my scoresheet to check the personal foul totals. Another time, in New Orleans, I went to his hotel room one morning for an interview, and he answered questions from beneath his bedspread. Catlett allowed reporters an unusual amount of access, but I never thought I really knew him, and wasn't sure I ever scratched his surface.

Similarly, Catlett's place in UC history remains unresolved. Long before the field swelled to 64 teams, Catlett took the Bearcats to three NCAA Tournaments in six seasons. His 1976-77 team beat Indiana and Marquette, a year after Bob Knight's first national championship and two months before Al McGuire's one and only.

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''I think that was handled very poorly after I left, obviously,'' Catlett said of UC's probation period.
(Enquirer file photo)
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Judged solely on wins and losses, Catlett was enormously successful in Clifton. Until the Bearcats beat Northern Arizona Thursday afternoon, Catlett's winning percentage at UC was higher than that of Bob Huggins. It might even be argued that some of Huggins' success owes to a seed Catlett planted more than 20 years ago in Clifton.

Among Catlett's most overlooked contributions to the UC program was the recruitment of an unremarkable point guard named Mick Shoemaker, whose family's political connections helped make the Shoemaker Center possible. Catlett generated so much financial support for his program, in fact, that UC boosters were eventually found to be making monthly cash payments to several players and, in at least one case, direct deposits into a player's checking account. (Catlett was not specifically named in any of the violations cited by the NCAA, but they all occurred on his watch.)

''I think that was handled very poorly after I left, obviously,'' Catlett said of the probation period. ''If it was done properly, it would have been OK.''

Asked to elaborate, Catlett said the subject was not pertinent to the game to be played. He invited a reporter to call him after the season, jabbing a precautionary finger in his chest. He sought to steer questions to the game at hand.

Perhaps this was appropriate. Most of the fans who found Catlett a convenient scapegoat during UC's dark ages now direct their abuse at Xavier. Most of the players who will compete in today's game were in diapers when Catlett moved to Morgantown. Maybe it's time to move on.

''I've been here four years,'' said Mountaineer forward Brent Solheim, ''and I haven't heard him mention Cincinnati one time.''

It was a long time ago. UC took a long time recovering.

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