Tuesday, June 15, 2004

UC makes fair call for Huggins


Last week UC President Nancy Zimpher and athletic director Bob Goin faced a situation that Bob Huggins has repeatedly encountered as a coach: what to do when somebody with star talent and a great future steps out of bounds with behavior.

Huggins was charged with driving under the influence, and the UC leaders reacted quickly. They could have fired him. They could have given him little more than a warning. Instead Zimpher and Goin chose a wise middle course, suspending Huggins from his duties but doing it with a level of compassion that may save not only his coaching career, but his life.

Goin worried over Huggins' health, and no one doubted that he meant it. He also warned Huggins that the suspension should be viewed as "a divorce" - and no one doubted that he meant it.

Ironically, that's the kind of tough love skeptics sometimes found lacking in the UC basketball program - when bad behavior erupted among players, it was punished but rarely really treated.

Now Bob Huggins needs somebody to care about him enough to hold a mirror to his behavior. He needs to see that UC administrators value his worth as a human being over his worth as a successful coach. He needs some incentive to adopt that philosophy himself.

In sending that message Zimpher and Goin have taught Huggins' players and all UC students a lesson about the correct priorities in life. Basketball is merely a sport, real life is serious business and rules apply to everyone, even when they're painful. The UC leaders should be applauded - and encouraged to hold tight.

There is no doubt that, in the short term, the suspension is going to hurt Huggins, and what hurts Huggins will very likely hurt UC. It appears that Huggins will miss the first part of the recruitment season. In recent years, that season has been shortened, and a growing number of strong high school players have made oral commitments in the summer. With the absence of Huggins - who is surely the key draw for most players - some prospects may decide to go elsewhere.

We hope, like the UC administration, prospective players and their families will give Huggins a second chance. On the eve of one of UC's greatest athletic moments - joining the Big East conference - Huggins deserves credit for turning the Bearcats into a national contender. No one has ever questioned his knowledge of the game, and few have questioned his genuine concern for his players. We believe his dedication to the game has earned him this chance.

But Huggins must realize that national prominence is no blank check for bad behavior, and that third chances are too much to ask of anyone.

The Big East is the big time. UC can benefit from more national exposure for its athletics and its fine academic programs.

It's a chance to reinvent one's self, to step up to a new level of conduct and performance. Both UC basketball and Bob Huggins should jump at the chance to do it well.

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