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Weighing Wins and Risks in a Coaching Hire

March 24, 2006

In 16 seasons as coach of the University of Cincinnati men’s basketball team, Bob Huggins won nearly 400 games and turned the Bearcats into a perennial top 25 team. But his celebrated winning percentage was often overshadowed by off-court trouble.

Huggins’s teams were notorious for poor graduation rates. The National Collegiate Athletic Association placed Cincinnati on two years’ probation in 1998 and took away scholarships for what was deemed a lack of institutional control over the program.

In 2004, Huggins was convicted of drunken driving. For the university’s newly hired president, Nancy L. Zimpher, that was the last straw. She refused to extend Huggins’s contract, and last August gave the coach two options: Step down or face dismissal. Huggins chose the former and was sent into coaching exile -- but not for long.

He resurfaced on Thursday in Manhattan, Kan., awarded a five-year contract (with terms undisclosed) as the coach of Kansas State University’s men’s basketball team, which hasn’t qualified for the NCAA’s Division I tournament in a decade and has lingered in the bottom half of the Big 12 Conference.

That a proven basketball coach with a spotty off-court record was rehired so quickly does not surprise many who are familiar with big-time college athletics.

David Ridpath, executive director of the Drake Group, an organization of faculty members that emphasizes academic integrity, said athletics directors and university administrators at Division I programs are under immense pressure to win.

“It was only a matter of time before [Huggins] got rehired,” said Ridpath, an assistant professor of sports administration at Mississippi State University. “The message is clear: Coaches are hired and fired to win and generate revenue. Academic improprieties don’t really matter. Coaches just don’t get second chances; they get chance after chance. It’s a culture of entitlement.”

Huggins is far from the first coach with considerable baggage to be rehired by a major Division I program. Bob Knight sat out only one season after being fired from Indiana University for a series of off-court incidents before resurfacing at Texas Tech University. Jerry Tarkanian, who was embedded in scandal at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, was given a second chance by California State University at Fresno, which landed on probation after he left. (And UNLV had hired Tarkanian amid reports – later confirmed – of wrongdoing in his former program, at Cal State Long Beach.)

Kansas State’s athletics director, Tim Weiser, acknowledged that the hiring of Huggins was risky. “Are there risks involved with this hire? Absolutely. But ... I believe this administration and university have an excellent reputation and we are in a great position to be of assistance to help Coach Huggins resume his career and accomplish the goals we have for our men’s basketball program.”

In an interview with a Kansas City radio station Thursday evening, Weiser said that “we do want to win,” but “not at all costs.” “We can win at Kansas State and we can do it in a way that people feel good about it.  

“I wouldn’t make this decision if I thought the risk was too great and the reward was too little,” Weiser added. “We aren’t going to let public opinion or the media voice decide what’s in the best interest of Kansas State.”

Huggins was unapologetic at a news conference announcing his hiring Thursday, shrugging off any notion that he needed to change his ways. “You can call anybody at the NCAA. They feel as good about me as they do about anyone in college basketball,” he said. “We’ve always done things the right way.”

That wasn’t Zimpher’s perception. When she became Cincinnati’s president in 2003, Zimpher demanded that the athletics program maintain the same academic standards as the rest of the university, according to Daniel Langmeyer, chair of the academic affairs committee of Cincinnati’s faculty senate.

“She wasn’t happy with the way he was recruiting people,” said Langmeyer, a psychology professor, adding that Huggins never did anything to convince Zimpher that he could follow her guidelines.

Percy Bates, an education professor at the University of Michigan and chair of the Faculty Athletics Representatives Association, agreed that “the general notion was [Huggins’s] track record of graduating players was not a good one.”

Members of the Kansas State Faculty Senate could not be reached for comment on Thursday. The university is on spring break.

Langmeyer said while Huggins was the coach at Cincinnati, some faculty expressed concern about some of the behavior of basketball players, but “there was no great movement” on behalf of the Faculty Senate to push out the coach.

Nor was there much discussion at all about the coach among Faculty Senate members – and that is entirely appropriate, said John Cuppoletti, chair of the Cincinnati Faculty Senate and of the Ohio Faculty Council, which represents all four-year universities in the state. “It’s outside of what we do,” he said. “We don’t care about sports personalities; we should be talking about the students and not the coaches.”  

Cuppoletti said faculty at the university “tolerate organized sports,” in part because they give the university valuable publicity for a minimal cost.

Bates said Huggins will probably do a better job of graduating players and working with the administration in his new position. “He knows that people will be looking,” Bates said. “When you get a second chance, you have to take advantage of it.” 

 

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