By Dustin Dow
The Cincinnati Enquirer
If only life could always be "happily ever after".
Xavier University's past president and chancellor James E. Hoff, left, is
congratulated by president Michael J. Graham during his induction into the XU Athletic Hall
In such a world, the Xavier community could keep basking in the glow of Wednesday night's men's basketball banquet when, in a surprise announcement, the Rev. James E. Hoff was inducted into the university's Athletic Hall of Fame.
In such a world, the Xavier community wouldn't have to deal with the fact that Hoff, the school's former president and current chancellor, is dying of cancer, which has spread to his kidney, liver, lungs and brain. His diagnosis came last month.
The news still hits hard - some friends tear up at the mere mention of Hoff's name - but Wednesday night's tribute at Cintas Center will surely be remembered as befitting a man so revered on the Evanston campus.
The induction was orchestrated by select Xavier administrators, including the school's president, the Rev. Michael Graham, who recognized Hoff, 71, for his leadership in not only first envisioning Cintas Center several years ago, but realizing that the entire university would benefit from an on-campus arena and nationally prominent basketball program.
"I'm deeply honored," said Hoff, who received a standing ovation from the 950 people present. "It's a very generous gesture of Michael Graham and the university."
Hoff, who was the university's president from 1991 to 2000, will not acknowledge it, but most officials at Xavier credit him with Cintas Center's construction in 2000, which they say helped lay the groundwork for this season's historic NCAA Tournament run.
"You're only as good as the people around you," Hoff said. "And there are some wonderful people here who did it all together."
But Hoff's influence stretches far beyond the basketball court.
"He raised the bar for the entire university and got us over it," Graham said. "As a result, the university is a remarkably different place than when he came in 1991. There is pride and tremendous optimism about what we can be because of him."
Xavier's pride and optimism were perhaps at their zenith March 26 in Atlanta, when the Musketeers beat Texas for the school's first-ever Sweet 16 win. But it was also a bittersweet day for Hoff's friends - friends like men's basketball coach Thad Matta, who had already heard about and been devastated by the news of Hoff's health.
As Matta stood in the center of the locker room talking to his team following the 79-71 victory at the Georgia Dome, Hoff, accompanied by Graham and former Xavier basketball great Tyrone Hill, stepped inside.
Matta was telling his players about all the people at Xavier for whom they had won that game.
"People like Tyrone Hill," Matta said when he saw Hill walk through the door.
Then Matta saw Hoff, and the coach stopped talking. Their eyes met. Hoff smiled. Matta walked over to Hoff, wrapped his arms around him and began sobbing, "We do it for people like Jim Hoff."
Not one to revel in his own glory or attention, Hoff began congratulating players.
"I broke down," Matta said. "Hugging him, and hearing Father Hoff say, 'I'm so proud of everybody in this room,' to date may be the best compliment I've ever been paid."
The locker room scene was captured by CBS' cameras and was replayed at Wednesday's banquet as Graham prepared for the announcement.
Almost all who know Hoff at Xavier share an immense appreciation, a sense of gratitude, that they owe Hoff so much more than they could ever repay him.
And through events like Wednesday's banquet, they're trying to make sure he knows how much the Xavier community loves him. Hoff's calendar is filled through August, and doctors have told him to keep filling it.
"I struggle to see him have to deal with this," Xavier athletic director Mike Bobinski said. "It's hard because you can't help but leap to what you know of the disease, and say, 'My God, is this really something that should be happening to this man?' That's what really hurts. Gosh darn it. Why now, and why him?"
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