BREAKING THROUGH BOB HUGGINS HAS TAKEN CINCINNATI FROM THE PITS TO OUR NO. 1 RANKING, BUT GIVEN HIS PLAYERS' HISTORIES OFF THE COURT AND IN THE CLASSROOM, HAS HE DONE IT THE RIGHT WAY?

December 02, 1996

The Cincinnati Bearcats are expected to maul opponents this
season with speed, tough defense and unstinting effort, thanks
largely to coach Bob Huggins's ability to keep his players in
line when they step between the lines. But scratch a Bearcat and
you'll find something of a rebel underneath: a Runnin' Rebel.

Six years ago, when the juniors and seniors who compose
Cincinnati's nucleus were impressionable ninth- and
10th-graders, Jerry Tarkanian's plunderers at UNLV ruled the
land. That's why you'll hear a common refrain when you sound out
these Bearcats, who are SI's No. 1 team for 1996-97. Listen:
"I'd have gone to UNLV if Tark was still there," says 6'7"
forward Ruben Patterson, the top junior college transfer in the
nation and one of the reasons the Bearcats' prospects are so
promising even though they have only two of last year's starters
coming back.

Another juco import, 6'2" point guard Charles Williams, liked
more than just Cincinnati's Vegas-red uniforms when he was
checking out four-year schools. "I loved the way UC pressed and
ran and the way coach Huggins kept the players intense," says
Williams, who played at Chaffey College outside L.A. for
Tarkanian's son George. "They reminded me of the old UNLV teams,
and I always wanted to play for UNLV."

"I always talk to Coach about those UNLV teams," adds 6'5"
senior guard Damon Flint, a product of Cincy's Woodward High.
"We have a similar team this year."

The Queen City will never be mistaken for Las Vegas, of course.
Sin in Cincinnati scarcely extends beyond those first two
syllables. But the parallels between UNLV circa 1990 and the
Bearcats since then are many. "We're just a modern-day form of
UNLV," Bearcats junior forward Danny Fortson says with a nod.
"Similar, but not there yet." Yet one can make the case that
Cincinnati is already there in a number of significant respects:

--Transfers and jucos: When he arrived to take over the Bearcats
in 1989, Huggins didn't intend for his program to be a refuge
for junior college imports and retreads from other four-year
schools, the way Tarkanian's Boys Town in the Desert was from
1973-74 until 1991-92, when Tark was finally forced to resign
from UNLV. But soon after landing at Cincy, Huggins sidled up to
an influential AAU coach to inquire about signing some of his
blue-chip high school-age prospects. "Good pitch," Huggins
remembers being told. "Keep coming around, and in two or three
years you'll get one of our players." Huggins decided that
unless he looked elsewhere for talent, he'd be fired before two
or three years were up. Now he has found that juco transfers are
a better fit for his clipboard-as-cudgel courtside manner. Most
of the Bearcats play with the urgency that comes when half of
one's college career has already been whiled away on some
tumbleweed-strewn community college campus. "Jucos can be more
mature than freshmen," Huggins says. "They're hungrier and more
appreciative. They've ridden 10 hours in a van and eaten cheese
sandwiches and ridden 10 hours back. And if you recruit a really
good high school player, you're only going to keep him two years
anyway."

Indeed, during the 1991-92 and 1992-93 seasons, when Huggins had
a core of jucos and transfers, Cincinnati won 56 games and
reached the Final Four that first season and the Elite Eight the
second. Over the next two seasons, when Huggins added McDonald's
All-Americas Flint, Fortson and Dontonio Wingfield, the Bearcats
won 12 fewer games and failed to reach a regional final. The
lesson seems to be that a hungry Bearcat hunts best.

--A let-bygones-be-bygones philosophy: As long as a young man is
talented enough on the basketball court, the Cincinnati
administration will, Vegas-like, enroll him despite untoward
incidents in his past. For instance, the Los Angeles Lakers'
Nick Van Exel, a guard on the Bearcats' 1992 Final Four team,
allegedly kicked an unconscious teammate during a fight and
roughed up a girlfriend (SI, April 29, 1996) while at Trinity
Valley Community College in Athens, Texas, but he was welcome at
Cincinnati. Art Long, a forward whose eligibility ran out last
season, had problems at Dodge City (Kans.) Community College
that included a conviction for selling marijuana to an
undercover cop. And Wingfield, now with the Portland Trail
Blazers, was arrested back home in Albany, Ga., right before he
enrolled at Cincinnati. He got into a heated argument with his
mother, Gloria, who refused to give him the keys to her car, and
then trashed her kitchen and kicked two police officers summoned
to the scene. Wingfield ended up pleading guilty to two counts
of misdemeanor obstruction and one count of criminal trespassing.

--A new tradition: In the late 1950s and early '60s Cincinnati
produced Oscar Robertson and Jack Twyman and, after those two
Hall of Famers moved up to the NBA, won two national titles
using a grinding defensive style. But none of that history means
much to a generation that doesn't know the difference between
World B. Free and a utopian movement. Huggins has given the
program a new national reputation. His methods turn off some
blue-chippers but resonate profoundly with other recruits. "The
Cincinnati player," Fortson calls the latter type. "There are
very few like us, trust me." Pressed, Fortson mentions Otis Hill
of Syracuse, B.J. Flynn of Louisville, Marc Jackson of Temple
and "them two Puerto Rican guys at UMass" (Edgar Padilla and
Carmelo Travieso). But there aren't many at "those big-name
schools that are glorified," Fortson says with a
you-know-which-ones arch of the eyebrows. "They couldn't play
here. Men come through here." Huggins is responsible for that,
which brings us to the last similarity between Cincinnati and
UNLV.

--A coach both respected and loved by his players: Like
Tarkanian, whose hangdog countenance is now seen on the Fresno
State bench, Huggins cuts his own distinctive figure--one that
Terry Nelson, who was a forward on that 1992 Final Four team,
describes as "this guy whose tie is wrapped around his shoulder
and hair is everywhere and cheeks are swollen and has officials
ducking." Nothing puts the Bearcats on alert quicker at a
morning practice than the appearance of Huggins with mussed
hair, glasses (instead of his usual contacts) and a cup of
coffee. "That means he has been up all night watching tape and
knows everything you've done wrong," says Fortson. "If you don't
practice hard, you're going to run hard. So you might as well
practice hard."

But Huggins also stands stoutly by his players. "The majority of
black athletes who come here don't have a father," says Nelson,
whose dad died when he was nine. "I never had a father figure
until I came here."

Flint also grew up without a dad at home. "He's not even like a
coach anymore," he says of Huggins. "He's like a best
friend--and a father."

No Bearcat has found this Ohio River port-in-a-storm more
welcoming than Fortson. According to affidavits filed in federal
district court in Pittsburgh by Danny, his sister Tonya Bridgers
and a legal aid lawyer, Danny moved to Pittsburgh with his
mother, Deloris, in 1992 after spending most of his childhood in
Altoona, Pa., because Deloris could no longer stand the physical
abuse she suffered from her alcoholic husband, Daniel. Daniel
also abused Danny, according to the court papers, until Danny
grew big enough to defend himself. Furthermore, Danny had to
cope with his mother's periodic hospitalizations (both for
diabetes and for injuries from fights with Daniel), his own
dyslexia and an eligibility controversy that cost him his junior
season at Pittsburgh's Shaler High.

"I knew coming here that I was going to be part of a family,"
says Danny. "What do you get here? A pair of gym sneakers and
some hard times. You don't get no favors."

Huggins has heard the Vegas East tag applied to Cincinnati and
doesn't much care for it. "To the degree that you compare us to
the success that UNLV had on the floor, that's flattering," he
says. "But to imply in any way that what's happened off the
floor is similar, that's demeaning and degrading. I mean the
problems with the NCAA, of which we've had none."

As a further riposte, Huggins says, "Our guys have done a good
job educationally." Then, perhaps remembering that he counts
Tarkanian as a friend, he adds, "and I don't mean that Vegas
didn't."

In fact, Cincinnati has not done a good job educationally--not
according to the yardstick the NCAA uses: whether an entering
freshman graduates within six years. Only one player who has
exhausted four years of eligibility under Huggins has graduated.
And since Huggins took over at Cincinnati, only three of the 11
juco transfers he has brought in--players who upon arrival
needed only two years' worth of credits--have come away with a
degree. In toto, as Huggins begins his eighth season he has seen
just seven players get degrees.

"You're required to do so much as a player at UC that you just
want to get away when your eligibility runs out," says Nelson,
who will serve as team manager this season while continuing work
toward his liberal arts degree.

To be sure, several sheepskinless former Bearcats got
opportunities in pro sports: three are in the NBA (Van Exel and
Corie Blount with the Lakers and Wingfield with Portland), a
number of others have played overseas, and Keith LeGree is an
outfielder in the Minnesota Twins' organization. "People can say
it's a cop-out, but if these guys have a chance to play and make
$60,000 or $70,000, they're not going to make that much their
first couple of years out of school," says Huggins. "I don't see
anything wrong with them coming back later to graduate. I don't
know when it became a race."

Still, every other school in Division I faces the same challenge
of graduating its players, and few do as bad a job as
Cincinnati. Around campus there's no shortage of voices alarmed
by the implications of basketball success combined with poor
academic achievement. "I don't think the university really gives
a damn about those kids," says Oscar Robertson, who graduated
from Cincinnati. "I think they're just cannon fodder to win. Why
should [school officials] care? They've got tenure.

"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. It starts at the top, with [school president]
Dr. [Joseph] Steger, then on to the teachers, then Oscar
Robertson. I'm part of the problem, too, because I don't get
more involved and say this has got to stop."

Cincinnati sits in the hills of southern Ohio, a big city with a
small town's soul. The local industry is bright and clean:
Jergens, Procter & Gamble, Gibson greeting cards. "It's
wonderful, isn't it?" says Huggins, who lives with his wife,
June, and their daughters, Jenna, 14, and Jacqueline, 11, in a
northern suburb with the elysian name of Loveland. "Nobody's
dying of black lung."

That comment reveals the alloys of dark and light in the
43-year-old Huggins's personality, his program and his past. He
grew up in Midvale, a hardscrabble coal-mining town in
northeastern Ohio. His dad, Charlie, was a stern but famously
successful high school coach in Midvale, so Bobby was spared the
depredations of the miner's life. But he grew up with kids whose
fathers had dropped out of high school to make the daily descent
into the shafts, and there was no escaping the mining-town
culture: the street fights (Bobby didn't back away from them,
which reinforced his combativeness); the crowds at the bars on
payday (Bobby would help his pals carry their drunken dads home,
which reinforced his sense of compassion); the storms that
besieged Tuscarawas County (Bobby would hear the radio news
reader recite the school closings and just as surely intone,
"Midvale Mine Number 7 will work," which developed his esteem
for giving an honest effort every day).

When Huggins arrived at Cincinnati, the Bearcats had just
suffered through six seasons under his genial, feckless
predecessor, Tony Yates, who had pulled off the dubious hat
trick of recruiting academic nonqualifiers, getting the school
put on NCAA probation and losing regularly. At his first press
conference Huggins announced his intent to reach the Final Four
immediately, a prediction all the more brazen given that he was
inheriting just five players and assorted pretenders. After
kicking one of the five, point guard Elnardo Givens, off the
team for lollygagging through summer school, Huggins had to turn
the offense over to Andre Tate, a passer so inept that during
drills he sometimes missed the Toss-Back entirely. But Huggins
made good on his promise. He drove the Bearcats to the NIT in
that first season and to the Final Four two years later, and
since then his teams have never failed to make the NCAAs.

Off the floor Huggins can be so soft-spoken that sportswriters
leaving his office after interviews have sometimes found their
tape recordings inaudible. But he possesses an old-school
toughness that distinguishes him from other baby boomers in his
profession. Even though Huggins majored in physical therapy and
minored in health in college and briefly considered becoming a
trainer, injuries are essentially against his team rules.
Fortson practiced for more than a week during his freshman year
without realizing he had pneumonia; he finally saw a doctor,
who, horrified, sent him straight to a hospital. Flint spent
much of his sophomore season complaining of turf toe. It's a
malady that has a hangnail sound to it, so Huggins was
skeptical, and Flint didn't want to confirm his coach's
suspicion that he was a malingerer. So he gimped through much of
the season. Not until broadcaster Thom Brennaman mentioned
offhandedly that turf toe had forced Pittsburgh Steelers
linebacker Jack Lambert, one of the toughest guys ever to play
in the NFL, into retirement did Huggins have any appreciation
for what Flint was going through.

Given Huggins's confrontational style, the scene on the
Bearcats' bench can sometimes look like a daytime-TV shout show.
When Huggins asks the musical question, How could you do such a
dumb-ass thing? it's not just rhetorical, as it is for, say, Bob
Knight. Huggins expects an answer--and he listens. "That's
what's fun," says Fortson. "You can yell back at him. You don't
make it a habit, but if you've got something to say, you say it.
He might sit you down, but after the game he'll hug you and tell
you why he yelled at you."

Says Huggins, "You ask guys questions, you can't get mad if they
answer you. And sometimes they're right. When they are, we
change."

Examine the case of Long, however, and you might conclude that
Huggins's "tough love" gets meted out according to a sliding
scale. When Long failed to hustle in practice early in the
1994-95 season, he was suspended for two games. When he missed
class a year later, Huggins sat him down during preseason
practice and didn't start him in the Bearcats' opener against
Wyoming. But when Long attempted to choke a girlfriend in
October 1995--a charge to which he would eventually plead no
contest--he received no punishment at all from Huggins.

When Cincinnati started recruiting Long after his drug bust at
Dodge City, former Bearcats athletic director Rick Taylor told
Huggins that Long would not play for Cincinnati as long as
Taylor was on the job. Sure enough, soon after the university
admitted Long, Taylor left. Taylor won't say much about Huggins,
the man he hired eight years ago, but he does say, "I happen to
feel kids who start college should graduate. I happen to feel
athletes should graduate at a higher rate than the student body,
because they have everything--room, board, tuition, fees,
counseling expenses--paid for. I wasn't comfortable with some of
the people the coaches brought in."

Steger, the university's president, says Taylor "missed our
mission. Our future will be more and more in dealing with what's
happening with inner-city high schools, and we're going to
accommodate the student who's not well prepared, whether he's an
athlete or not."

Both Steger and Dr. O'dell Owens, a black physician and former
chair of the school's board of trustees, signed off on Long's
admission. But Owens makes this confession: "Was there a selfish
aspect to accepting Art Long? Yes. We needed a center. The
question was, Did we think we could change this kid? And
basically he did well, except for, well, one incident."

Owens, overlooking Long's altercation with his girlfriend, is
referring to the infamous Blazing Saddles episode that occurred
outside a bar on May 3, 1995, when Long and Fortson allegedly
shouted obscenities at a mounted policeman and ended up in an
altercation. Long punched the officer's horse four times,
according to police reports and court testimony. (Both Long and
Fortson were later acquitted.)

Another example of the lengths to which Cincinnati has gone to
accommodate its basketball program is the case of 6'2" senior
guard Darnell Burton, who was suspended before the beginning of
last season, reportedly for failing a school-administered drug
test. The suspension was in accordance with a policy, enacted
under Taylor, that called for a one-year ban after an athlete's
first positive test. But after Burton's suspension, the
university's substance-abuse committee--on which Huggins
sits--changed the policy with the support of Taylor's successor,
Gerald O'Dell. In accordance with O'Dell's belief that the
policy should be "educational, not punitive," the rules were
softened to a suspension of 10% of a season after the first
positive test and an entire season after a second. Conveniently
enough, the change was made after the Bearcats had played 10% of
last season.

Then there's the case of Wingfield, the 6'8" forward who left
Cincinnati after one season and was a 1995 second-round draft
pick of the Seattle SuperSonics. By the end of his senior season
at Westover High in Albany, Ga., Wingfield had led his school to
an unprecedented four straight state titles, but he didn't have
the required courses or test score to play Division I ball as a
freshman. Suddenly, in April 1993 he moved to Cincinnati--he
had already signed a letter of intent with the Bearcats--bunking
in with relatives of his legal guardian, the Reverend Ronald
Smith of Albany, and enrolling at Cincinnati's Taft High. "I
needed some core courses in order to be eligible," says
Wingfield. "The only school [in Cincinnati] willing to give me
those core classes was Taft, so I went to Taft." By July he had
his core courses completed and had also made the requisite
standardized test score after five failed attempts. Huggins
insists that Cincinnati had nothing to do with Wingfield's
transfer to Taft.

Raise these issues with Cincinnati faculty members and
administrators, and there's much throat-clearing and
foot-shuffling. It's as if you've wandered into the local art
museum, where the curator wants to show off the galleries hung
with Wyeths and Homers and Cassatts, but you've asked to see the
room with the Mapplethorpes. "At times I say that absolutely
everybody who represents the University of Cincinnati should be
like Caesar's wife, above reproach," says education professor
Nancy Hamant, who's the Bearcats' NCAA faculty representative.
"At other times I think that's living in a dreamworld. I'm
realistic enough to know what we're doing, even if I don't like
it. Would I like them all to graduate and be Phi Beta Kappas?
Yeah. Would I like to see that worked on? Absolutely. Am I that
unrealistic? Nope."

Perhaps architecture professor David Smith, president of the
faculty senate, gets it best. "This reminds me of the movie Rain
Man, which was filmed partly here in Cincinnati," he says.
"Dustin Hoffman plays an idiot savant, and Tom Cruise, his
brother, takes advantage of this one thing he does extremely
well. The problem is we, like Tom Cruise, tend to celebrate an
idiot savant-like activity such as winning at basketball. In
many spheres, if you were to celebrate something like that at
the expense of the whole, you'd be institutionalized. Why do we
celebrate it? Because there's an economic advantage."

Rain Man also includes scenes shot in Las Vegas, where seizing
an economic advantage is called "beating the house," which
Hoffman does by counting cards. On the idiot charge, the jury at
Cincinnati is still out; Huggins and his tough love may yet whip
everyone who has played for him into getting a degree. But the
Bearcats are doubtlessly basketball savants. And this season it
would be foolish to bet against them.

COLOR PHOTO: PETER GREGOIRE COVERCOLLEGE BASKETBALL 96-97 PREVIEW YOU CAN'T GET TO THE FINAL FOUR IN INDIANAPOLIS WITHOUT GOING THROUGH CINCINNATI THE BEARCATS' DANNY FORTSON [Danny Fortson with map of Indiana and Ohio on his chest] COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY TIM O'BRIEN [Drawing of Bob Huggins tearing through basketball floorboards with bear claws]
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY TIM O'BRIEN EVEN THOUGH HUGGINS MAJORED IN PHYSICAL THERAPY, INJURIES ARE ESSENTIALLY AGAINST TEAM RULES [Drawing of basketball player holding crutch and dribbling basketball] COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY TIM O'BRIEN HUGGINS COUNTS TARK AS A FRIEND, BUT HE DOESN'T LIKE HAVING HIS PROGRAM CALLED "VEGAS EAST" [Drawing of Jerry Tarkanian with devil horns leaning on Bob Huggins' shoulder] COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY TIM O'BRIEN "I DON'T THINK THE UNIVERSITY GIVES A DAMN ABOUT THOSE KIDS," SAYS THE BIG O. "THEY'RE JUST CANNON FODDER" [Drawing of split basketball and mortar board falling through basketball hoop] COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY TIM O'BRIEN ASK THE FACULTY ABOUT ACADEMICS AND THERE'S MUCH THROAT-CLEARING, BUTDR. STEGER DEFENDS THE PROGRAM [Drawing of Joseph Steger]

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)