Williams: The complex tale of former Cincinnati Bearcats coach Bob Huggins

Editor’s note: Enquirer sports columnist Jason Williams is a fill-in host on WLW-AM (700).

Fire Bob Huggins. No, don’t. Suspend him. No, don’t. Reprimand him.

Friends and colleagues blew up my phone Monday evening asking what I thought West Virginia University should do about its boorish basketball coach, who said something really insensitive and stupid on Cincinnati’s top radio station earlier in the day.

As someone who’s known the former University of Cincinnati coach for a long time, I’m torn.

Cincinnati coach Bob Huggins shouts during a basketball game with Kentucky Wesleyan Mon. Nov. 12, 2001.

Cincinnati coach Bob Huggins shouts during a basketball game with Kentucky Wesleyan Mon. Nov. 12, 2001.

The culture says cancel Huggins. The head says harshly punish him with a long suspension. The heart says forgive him.

You’d hate to see a Hall of Fame career end with the utterance of a three-letter word. Oh, but it’s not just any three-letter word. It’s the worst one, a word no one should think or say, publicly or privately. And we’re talking about an intelligent, 69-year-old man who’s done thousands of interviews and press conferences in his 40-year coaching career.

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Huggins brought it on himself, and so be it if he gets fired. Or maybe he should be suspended. Or maybe he should be suspended and forego his salary for a year.

You see, nothing is easy when it comes to Bob Huggins. He’s a complex guy. He’s also his own worst enemy.

There’s a side of him that screams: “Fire him immediately!”

He’s a foul-mouthed, egomaniac. He’s a bully. He’s a master manipulator. He’s the kind of guy who’s always talked tough, sometimes said something stupid and then always rallied behind all his sycophantic supporters to somehow turn himself into a martyr.

Well, almost always. Huggins actually apologized for using the same homophobic slur that seems to have permanently cancelled Thom Brennaman’s career. Huggins said he’s “ashamed” and “embarrassed.” He better be damn serious.

Maybe Huggins has made a little progress since 2005, when he was forced out at UC in the wake of getting busted for drunk driving. Huggins, who spent 16 great seasons in Cincinnati, remains bitter to this day toward former UC President Nancy Zimpher and the administrators – some of whom are no longer with us – who pushed for Huggins to go.

Zimpher did the right thing. She had no choice. Huggins had repeatedly embarrassed the university – from his players regularly landing on the police blotter to his bullying of athletic department underlings to his dumb comments to the cringeworthy video footage of his DUI arrest.

Somehow, though, Huggins twisted the narrative of him being fired to make Zimpher the enemy. There are UC fans who still curse her name, have “WV” stickers on their cars and don’t go to UC games anymore. I guess I should call them former Bearcats fans.

I had a front-row seat to Huggins as the UC basketball beat reporter for the Cincinnati Post from 2001 to 2004.

University of Cincinnati Basketball coach Bob Huggins, center, talks with his players during a first half timeout in their game against Marquette Friday night February 22, 2002 at the Shoemaker Center in Cincinnati.

University of Cincinnati Basketball coach Bob Huggins, center, talks with his players during a first half timeout in their game against Marquette Friday night February 22, 2002 at the Shoemaker Center in Cincinnati.

I watched him verbally dismantle his players in practice. I heard him call players a vile word that rhymes with “hunt.” I knew of him to use the same f-word that he used on 700 WLW. Huggins referred to a fellow beat reporter’s laptop carrying case as a “(bleep) bag.” No idea why. He thought it was funny. No one else did.

It was wrong then.

It’s wrong now.

I listened to the WLW clip a half-dozen times. Huggins thought he was being funny. Sadly, it’s old-school, locker-room talk to him.

Did Huggins mean to hurt anyone? Frankly, I don’t think he has given much thought about gay people in his entire life. He’s probably not had any good thoughts about them. He’s probably not had any bad thoughts about them. He’s indifferent. He’s oblivious.

That’s what happens when you are so hellbent on winning basketball games for four decades. It has been Huggins’ sole focus since Jimmy Carter was president. He entered the coaching bubble as an assistant in 1977 right out of college and has never come out of it. Huggins has little perspective on life away from the court.

It explains why Huggins has said stupid things without any thought of the repercussions or who it effects. It also explains why he’s never understood why people get ticked at him for saying stupid things.

Huggins was peeved early one of the seasons I covered him because fans weren’t showing up to UC’s home games, despite the Bearcats’ hot start. I asked him what he thought about the attendance. He proceeded to rip UC fans in an exclusive interview, partly saying: “F–k ‘em.”

You can’t criticize your paying customers. Amid intense backlash from fans, Huggins got mad at me. And I yelled at him. Because unlike a lot people he’s come across in his coaching career, I was never afraid of him. I’ve never been afraid to criticize him, either.

All that to say, there’s a really good side of Huggins.

He’s given hundreds of young men who grew up in broken homes and poverty a chance. Many of those guys have gone onto NBA riches and successful careers in the private sector. He has unwavering loyalty to his players, past and present. Loyalty is a quality we like in our leaders, and we’re seeing less of it in me-first America. Go read my friend Bill Koch’s book, “Huggs.” It’s chock full of stories from Huggins’ former players talking about how much he loves them and cares about them.

Huggins has been a role model for the people of West Virginia, where he was born, and the Appalachian region of eastern Ohio, where he grew up. There aren’t a lot of people who make it big from those poor areas. Huggins built his career on old-fashioned hard work. He worked his way up from little Walsh College to Akron to UC. His career is a statement: You can make it with hard work and determination.

Huggins was determined to do something after his mom died of colon cancer in 2003. He’s raised tens of millions of dollars for cancer research in West Virginia, helping poor Appalachians to receive proper diagnosis and good treatment. You don’t do that unless you care.

None of this excuses what Huggins said on the radio. But maybe he deserves another chance like he’s given so many of players. Or maybe he doesn’t.

Contact columnist Jason Williams by email at  [email protected] and on Twitter @jwilliamscincy.

This article originally appeared on Cincinnati Enquirer: Bob Huggins: The complex tale of the former UC basketball coach

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