Giving fourth, fifth chances may doom Cincinnati's Huggins

December 28, 1997|By KNIGHT-RIDDER NEWS SERVICE

AKRON, Ohio -- Bob Huggins comes back to the area doing yet another great coaching job.

Despite player suspensions, his Cincinnati Bearcats are 6-2 as they prepared for UMass later last night as part of a college doubleheader at the Gund.

That's the good part.

It also is true that no matter what happens to Huggins, the former Akron coach wins a lot of games.

But Huggins also has to ask himself some tough questions: Namely, why does this stuff keep happening to me?

This stuff is star forward Ruben Patterson in the midst of a 14-game suspension for breaking NCAA rules concerning phone credit cards and associating with an agent.

It is guard Charles Williams drawing a 22-game suspension (and since leaving school) for irregularities in his transfer from a junior college to Cincinnati.

It is D'Juan Baker and Kenyon Martin suspended for three games each for those pesky phone credit card violations.

It is critics wondering about his graduation rate and the character of his players, and there are reasons for that, too.

This is not to be naive.

NCAA rules are broken by players in nearly every major college basketball program. Huggins has found himself under the microscope since last year's Sports Illustrated story charged he was on the road to being the next Jerry Tarkanian.

Huggins has been deep into damage control ever since, especially as Cincinnati conducted its own internal investigation into the basketball program that led to player suspensions.

Mistakes were made in his program, be they by assistant coaches for the head man himself.

Huggins has to take the blame for that -- just as he receives credit for the seven consecutive 20-victory seasons along with those three trips to the NCAA's Elite Eight.

Huggins insists he doesn't cheat.

There are no reports of his players driving fancy cars or receiving suitcases stuffed with cash.

Many of his players were not highly regarded in high school, and a lot of them come to Cincinnati via a junior college.

So why does Huggins find himself tiptoeing over the NCAA tight rope?

Because of the players he recruits.

A lot of his kids come from broken homes. A number were not good students in high school. Some will tell you they are in school for only one reason -- to follow the bouncing ball to the NBA.

Yes, Huggins has always claimed most of his players "are good kids."

Jerry Tarkanian has said the same thing.

Huggins bristles when compared with Tarkanian, but there are similarities.

Both of these coaches rely heavily on junior colleges, and most kids play in junior college for one of two reasons:

They lacked the skills or size to be Division I players.

They didn't have the grades and/or standardized test scores.

There also are junior college players who had personal (even legal) troubles in high school.

Coaches such as Huggins and Tarkanian say they are willing to give these kids a second chance.

Actually, it is about a fourth or fifth chance for some of these kids, who have been given one clean slate after another in high school and junior college.

Given their backgrounds, a surprising number of these kids do straighten out under Huggins' demanding personality.

But some of these guys will never get it.

Some will just get their coach in trouble.

That is what has happened to Huggins.

He takes a lot of chances on kids, and some have let him down.

Of course, he takes those risks because these kids can really play, not because he is out to reform the world.

These kids can help him keep that string of 20-victory seasons alive. They can help fill the arena. They can lead the team into the NCAA tournament.

Coaches will tell you that they should not be held responsible for everything their players do off the court. Is it the band director's fault if the tuba player is arrested?

But it also must be mentioned that it's the coach's job to check the character of his recruits.

Most major college basketball programs have about 15 players and four coaches -- the head man and three assistants. With that kind of ratio, the coaches can keep close tabs on the players.

That should be part of their jobs, especially if they are recruiting athletes who are shaky students and/or athletes who just don't have many values or moral training.

Stupid people do dumb things.

That's a fact of life.

It also is a fact in college basketball, as Huggins is learning the hard way.

Pub Date: 12/28/97

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