Finally, someone at the University of Cincinnati has gotten it right. Having long since grown weary of head basketball coach Bob Huggins' tired act, university president Nancy Zimpher presented the Huggy Bear with an ultimatum: cigarette or blindfold? According to a letter sent to his attorney, Huggins has until 2:00 PM on Wednesday afternoon to decide between a resignation or a firing. Either way, Huggins is out after sixteen years on the bench at Cincinnati. My response? Good riddance. (Dick Vitale, by the way, disagrees with me.)
I wrote about Huggins a few times last year, first when he was suspended following a DUI, again when the university shortened the suspension, and once more when he officially returned. Each time I expressed exasperation with the university's consistent pattern of ignoring the many shameful aspects of Huggins' tenure. In addition to his DUI, the legal problems of his players and their zero percent graduation rate, while debatable in its accuracy, all must have been an embarrassment to the institution. But university officials stuck their heads in the sand and ignored it all -- or so it seemed.
Apparently President Zimpher has been frustrated with Bob Huggins since she arrived on campus two years ago, and this recent development is merely the culmination of a long struggle between the two. At first glance, it seemed like maybe this was only a reaction to all that had come before, but according to the text of the letter sent from the university, there's a bit more going on.
Basically, the university was unhappy with Huggins as an employee. The letter briefly summarizes the history of their disappointment. Here are the highlights:
In June of 2004 the university decided to cancel the automatic roll-over clause in Huggins' contract. Almost all big-time coaches have these clauses so that they always have at least four or five years remaining on their deals. The reasoning behind this is that it might be difficult for a coach to convince a recruit to commit for four years if he only has two or three years left on his contract. In reality, it's nothing more than built in job security.
In May of 2005 the university decided that Huggins' contract would not be extended beyond 2007. In a nutshell, they wouldn't mind if Huggins stayed for two more years, since they were contractually bound to pay him, but they weren't interested in anything beyond that. They told him that he could continue coaching, or they could negotiate some type of buy-out for the final two years.
Huggins did not respond. Instead of picking up the phone or having his attorney send a fax regarding his decision, Huggins had the bright idea of calling a press conference and announcing that he would honor the final two years of his contract. Based on the tone of the letter and a little bit of common sense, I'd say this is where the wheels fell off for Huggins.
At this point Huggins still probably felt that he was in control of the situation. He was the basketball coach, right? He was untouchable. There were even rumors that he was trying to gain leverage by contacting some boosters who would threaten to end their donations to the university if Huggins were dismissed. I don't think any of this won him any favor with Zimpher.
From this point on, discussions began in earnest to negotiate a settlement between Huggins and the university. Huggins expressed that coaching the final two years of his deal wouldn't be a good idea, "as it was not good for anyone," and the university seemed to agree. What they could not agree upon, however, was how to sever their relationship. When Huggins neither responsed to their suggestions nor offered any of his own, Zimpher and the university played their final hand. And so Tuesday's ultimatum, which seemed sudden, was actually a long time coming. Better late than never.
Huggins will either be fired (and paid approximately $1 million for his trouble) or he can resign and accept another position within the university for the remaining two years of his contract for which he would be paid close to $3 million. If he chooses this expected option, however, the university hopes to make him behave. Here's an interesting clause included in the closing of the letter:
Mr. Huggins also must agree to represent the University of Cincinnati positively in public and private forums and not engage in conduct that reflects adversely on the University. Finally, he must agree to perform his duties and personally comport himself at all times in a manner consistent with appropriate ethical standards set by the University.
Again, better late than never.
All of this reminded me of a conversation I had with a college friend of mine several years ago. In an idealistic mood, this friend argued that universities should not have sports teams because an athletic program compromises a university's primary objective, which must always be academics. This point of view was far beyond my comprehension at the time, and I'm not sure I'm ready to accept it even now, fifteen years later, but my buddy the Mouse was certainly looking in the right direction all those years ago. No institution of higher learning can in good conscience place an academic program above its academic reputation, and that's just what was happening at the University of Cincinnati until this week.