Now officially unemployed, Huggins tells his side
CINCINNATI -- Bob Huggins isn't bitter.
He is, however, disappointed at the way his tenure ended at the University of Cincinnati, particularly by the way he found out that he was essentially being terminated.
Huggins says the media told him, not the school for which he had worked the previous 16 years.
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Thursday was the first time he was truly free. His contract with the school ended Wednesday, even though he hasn't coached one day this season after being forced out in August. Control of the program was passed to his assistant, Andy Kennedy, on an interim basis. Huggins said he fulfilled his contractual obligations by talking to the current coaching staff nearly every day for the past three-plus months about every aspect of the program.
Now Huggins is unemployed, albeit not hurting, after receiving a $3 million buyout from the school. If it is up to him, though, his time spent working on his rural Ohio cabin and watching other people coach will be over by spring.
Huggins expects to coach again. Check that. He says he will coach again. And, he anticipates, assuming there is the right opening, that he will be coaching in 2006-07.
In an exclusive interview with ESPN/ESPN.com Thursday at the office of his attorney, Richard Katz, Huggins discussed a wide range of topics ranging from his termination and university president Nancy Zimpher to his DUI in the spring of 2004 to his legacy, the loyalty of his players and his coaching future.
First things first: Why does Huggins believe he was forced out?
"Perception," Huggins said. "Let's be honest, I got a DUI. I made a terrible mistake and I admitted to that. I'm going to tell you something -- that when you have a 21-year old daughter and an 18-year old daughter sitting in your lap, crying, nothing can hurt you worse.
"People said to me after this whole thing [losing his job] that it had to hurt, but it doesn't hurt like disappointing your children and walking in to talk to your kids. It's disappointing, it hurts, but the reality is if they were going to let me go, then they [should have] let me go then, not after we go 25-8 (in 2004-05) and have another good recruiting class."
Zimpher did penalize Huggins after his DUI. She and athletic director Bob Goin suspended him for the summer, taking him off the road recruiting. Perhaps Zimpher hadn't been on campus long enough at the time to force Huggins out, but Huggins said he believes she wanted him out from the moment she took the job.
Yet, Huggins brought with him to Thursday's interview session documentation that showed Zimpher and Goin were behind him -- even after the DUI.
In a memo dated Dec. 16, 2004, Zimpher writes:
I have been meaning to send you a note of congratulations for our UC Bearcats basketball team. We sure are off to a great start!
Also, your team players are a wonderful asset to the community giving of their time to help others. Keep up the good work!"
The letter is signed and although it is hard to clearly discern from the script, Huggins said it is Zimpher's signature.
Huggins also provided his last evaluation from Goin -- once again after his DUI, according to Huggins:
Overall performance: Where would we be without Bob Huggins? He alone has established a national recognition for this University. They should never forget this.
Comments/suggestions for improvement: You must have and use your style that has given you so much success. I will work with you to embrace the good, modify the fair, eliminate the bad.
Goals: For you to receive the credit you deserve here and nationwide.
"There were times I thought I would lose my job [after the DUI]," Huggins said. "[Zimpher] has the right [to terminate me]. They have the right to do that to you.
"Here in town, everyone thought it was a power struggle between Huggs and Zim," Huggins said. "No, it wasn't. I'd be a fool if I think that. She's the president. She can do what she wants to do."
Huggins said the situation came to a head in the spring when he asked for an extension on his final two years of his contract. He said he couldn't recruit under the current conditions. The university wouldn't budge and was willing to let him ride out the final two seasons.
Then in August, the university changed course and was ready to buy him out or fire him.
"We couldn't recruit anybody," Huggins said. "We were out there trying to recruit people. I would have people say, 'I want to play for you, but what if you're not there?' I put my heart and soul into this program and it would have been stubborn for me to say I'm going to stay here and beat this. That would have hurt the kids, hurt the community.
"I simply tried to go in there and say that in order for me to do my job, I need this," Huggins said of the extension.
"Do I go out there and win my 20 games and get back to the NCAA Tournament and act like a hero?" Huggins said. "Or do I do the right thing and look at the future of the program. I know I couldn't recruit anybody. We were starting four seniors."
What irked Huggins more than anything was the way he heard about his forced resignation. Huggins was in Las Vegas when he received word from Cincinnati media members that he was being forced out.
"After 16 years, walking back out onto the floor after a major heart attack because I care about my kids, and I love this university and this city and what it stands for, wouldn't you think that somebody from the university, maybe the athletic director would say, 'Huggs, this is going down,' " Huggins said. "I hear it from the media? That's not right. That's not the way it ought to be."
Huggins said Zimpher told him she was upset with him when he didn't say hello to her after an NCAA Tournament game two years ago.
That's it? No, there was much more.
"One was the graduation rate, another is that I don't have the ability to lead, and a third was the conduct of our players."
Huggins was angry about a letter he and his attorney received on Aug. 8, 2005 from Monica Rimai, vice president for legal affairs and general counsel at the university.
Rimai wrote that "the facts demonstrate that he continues to recruit teams that do not live up to the philosophy and vision of the university relative to student recruits as scholar-athletes and positive role models."
Rimai went on to write that Katz and Huggins provided information showing that 27 players who played for or were recruited by Huggins graduated from UC or another university. But Rimai contends that 95 students played for or were recruited by Huggins, "thus according to your data, less than 30 percent of your client's players have graduated or gone on to success in the NBA."
Rimai continued, writing, "27 graduates over 16 years averages out to less than two per year, a rather unimpressive number given that first and foremost, UC is in the business of educating and graduating its students" and that Huggins "continues to recruit individuals that exhibit a disregard for the law and respectful behavior." She cited a statistic that 21 players during 1990-2006 under Huggins had law enforcement issues, including arrests and convictions and said that three recruits in the past year had charges brought against them.
Then the final stinger: "Mr. Huggins' own behavior over the course of the last 16 years both on and off the court demonstrates an inability to consistently model disciplined and professional conduct."
Huggins showed ESPN this seven-page letter. He said he couldn't believe a UC representative, "who had been on the job for five months, could evaluate his 16-year tenure."
He shot down the graduation rate numbers, saying that 20 of the 95 players weren't in school for four years. He said 12 were in the NBA and many were playing overseas.
"To say that our guys don't graduate is totally unfair," Huggins said. "Throughout this whole thing, people have taken shots at our kids. I'll say this and I hope you play this: I've had the greatest guys in the world and the most wonderful human beings in the world. Yes, we have made mistakes. But we have gotten back on our feet."
Huggins said the university was saying "that we should be able to recruit better kids. Honestly, they said we should be able to recruit better African-Americans. Everybody needs to look at their own house. We've had wonderful kids."
Former players, such as Kenyon Martin, have taken exception to the university's criticism. At a roast for Huggins earlier this fall, Martin said he wanted his jersey taken down from the Shoemaker Center. It remains above the court.
Huggins is close with his former players.
"There isn't anyone who could sit across from me and say I didn't care about this program, this university, this city, nobody," Huggins said. "I always put this program first."
Huggins turned down an offer to leave for West Virginia. He said he could have gone to a number of other local schools and/or the NBA, but he stayed because, as he said, he's a Cincinnatian.
Now he's a Cincinnatian who was evicted right before UC entered the Big East.
"I would have set a record that would have never been broken, coaching at the same school in four different leagues -- the Metro, Great Midwest and Conference USA and then the Big East," Huggins said.
What should be his UC legacy?
"That I cared, that I cared about my kids, this university, and this city and I worked hard to make it better for this university," Huggins said.
"I'm proud of what we did, I'm extremely proud of Kenyon Martin and of all our kids, and for someone to say that after I'm gone that a degree from the University of Cincinnati will mean something [more], that's absurd," Huggins said.
Who said it didn't mean something before?
"Dr. Zimpher," Huggins said.
"I'm proud of our guys," he added. "[Proud of] what they are, what they stand for and what they do today."
Will he coach again? Huggins said he's not done and that he wants to get back into college basketball, although he doesn't have an immediate plan to do so. He said he isn't looking at the box scores to see who will lose his job, but but he has heard from intermediaries from a handful of schools.
"If nobody got fired and I had to take another year off, then that's wonderful," Huggins said. "I respect the profession and the guys in the profession."
Huggins added that he hasn't spoken to Cincinnati North Hill High junior wing O.J. Mayo, even though Mayo told ESPN.com earlier this fall that Huggins was calling him. Mayo said Huggins was recruiting him for wherever he would land in 2006-07.
"Honestly, I haven't talked to O.J. O.J. knows how I feel about him," Huggins said. "I talked to other people, but I haven't talked to O.J. I have relationships with people."
So, how exactly would Huggins sell himself to a new AD or school president?
"I shouldn't have to," he said.
But what if you do? What would you say?
"I care," Huggins said. "Athletic directors are smart people and I think they can figure out that I can coach and recruit. I won't go somewhere I don't believe in."
Huggins understands that the Bearcats were deemed the bad guys on the heels of UNLV's run. He said part of that was wearing black jerseys, the pressing, trapping style of play, and recruiting JC players.
In the end, he said he wasn't told how to change. He said he was told to recruit better players and he said he tried. Ultimately, it was the school's use of the graduation rate against him that really bothers him.
"It gets sickening when everyone says we don't graduate anybody," Huggins said. "How can you be a semi-informed person and say something so ridiculous?"
Huggins said one of the best classes at Cincinnati was between 3 and 6 p.m. at Shoemaker Center.
"Hopefully, I can go and teach the best class on a campus, turn out people who are responsible and are going to care," Huggins said. "And if they get knocked down, they'll get right back up."
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.