Sunday, August 29, 1999

UC gets tough on crime

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Eugene Land is no different from a lot of teen-agers. There are going to be days when he does something dumb.

        Shoplifting is stupid. Land, the University of Cincinnati's sophomore forward, was not only clumsy enough to get caught, but he risked his career for a misdemeanor amount of merchandise: $256 worth of shirts, socks and underwear.

        There are abundant lessons in this episode, but perhaps the most striking comes from Bearcats coach Bob Huggins. Long seen (and snickered at) as soft on crime, Huggins has responded this time with zero tolerance.

        Land has been grounded. And before he even entered a plea.

        Land's first court hearing is scheduled for Tuesday, but he already has been suspended from the UC basketball program for the fall quarter. He retains his scholarship but must attend class, counseling, study hall and tutorials if he is to regain his place on Huggins' roster.

        “He's a good kid,” Huggins said. “I don't know what went through his mind that particular day, but he knows he made a mistake. He hasn't tried to blame anybody. He's accepted the responsibility and accepted the consequences.”

        Judgment seldom has been so swift on the Clifton campus, nor its message so strong.

        UC coaches and administrators traditionally have hidden behind the presumption of innocence, letting the courts run their course before disciplining student/athlete/criminals.

        Typically, any post-sentencing sanctions imposed by the school have been ridiculously token. This time, though, the punishment was both prompt and powerful, consistent with the grandiose mission statement of Bob Goin's athletic department. This time, UC has adhered “to the highest standards of integrity and achievement.” This time, UC's commitment is to be commended. “It was,” Huggins said, simply, “the right thing to do.”

        Among the enduring criticisms of Bearcat athletics — dating at least to the fast-and-loose days of Gale Catlett and Tony

        Mason — has been a lax attitude about lawbreakers. If a kid could play, his transgressions often were overlooked.

        UC football coach Ralph Staub (1977-1980) forgave running back Allen Harvin for possession of stolen property (including the keys to the room that had been robbed) the same year he kicked quarterback Tim Morris off the team for a comparatively petty conflict with an assistant coach.

        Minutes after Louis Banks and Elnardo Givens entered guilty pleas on possession of stolen property, UC basketball coach Tony Yates (1983-89) welcomed them back as if nothing had happened.

        “If we step on them after one mistake and not help them,” Yates explained, “then we've got a failing as individuals. If a person is not a good person and goes on and makes other mistakes, he'll eventually wash out.”

        Too often, UC coaches have excused egregious “mistakes” only to see them repeated or new ones committed. Huggins brought Art Long to campus after the junior-college star sold drugs to a decoy cop and kept him after the pugnacious player was charged with punching a police horse.

        Kids being kids, virtually every school has athletes who experience lapses with the law. But UC's failure to take appropriate action in these cases has fostered an outlaw reputation for the athletic program. While Miami University promotes itself as the “Cradle of Coaches,” UC is chided as the “Cradle of Criminals.”

        “We ought to do everything we can to help these kids get an education,” said Dr. Nancy Hamant, UC's faculty athletic representative. “You worry about the individual (cases). But long-range, you worry about the program and the university's image.”

        To that end, Goin has instituted tougher policies than any of his predecessors. A UC athlete who is charged with a violent crime — assault, sexual battery, etc. — will be suspended from all team activities until the charge is cleared up. Any athlete who pleads guilty or is convicted on such a charge is dismissed from the program.

        “Each case is different,” Goin said. “We react separately. (But) I draw a line in the sand.”

        Because all cases are not equally clear, that line may seem to shift sometimes. But Eugene Land was caught red-handed and, according to Huggins, has confessed. To withhold judgment pending his court case would have been pointless. By attacking the problem, Huggins gives himself a chance to solve it.

        “He's a great kid who obviously made a mistake and he knows he made a mistake,” said Bill Brewer, who coached Land at Roger Bacon High School. “I'll vouch for his character. I would trust him with my kids — that's how much faith I have in him.”

        UC's response to Land's mistake restores faith in the institution.

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