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From The Vault: DUI, new president brought Bob Huggins' downfall as University of Cincinnati coach

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Posted: 7:36 AM, Jun 16, 2016
Updated: 2016-06-25 23:43:28-04
From The Vault: DUI brought Huggins' downfall
From The Vault: DUI brought Huggins' downfall

CINCINNATI – Bob Huggins' fate was sealed as soon as Nancy Zimpher saw the black and white images of her drunken basketball coach stumbling through a field sobriety test.

Not long after that, the winningest basketball coach at the University of Cincinnati found out the hard way that UC's new president – and its first female chief - had bigger basketballs than he did.

Huggins' arrest for DUI on June 8, 2004 - and the release of the cruiser cam video three days later – marked  the beginning of the end of a remarkable chapter in UC and Cincinnati sports history. Huggins appeared sincerely contrite and even shed tears at a news conference after the video came out. It was a far cry from Huggins' typical demeanor on the court – screaming at his players, cussing at refs.

SEE clips from the Huggins' arrest and apology in the video above.

"I made a very poor decision that's reflected negatively on the basketball program and the university," Huggins said with his wife and two daughters at his side. "For that, I deeply regret it. I take responsibility for my actions. I'm going to do my part to make sure that something like this will never happen again."

According to the Village of Fairfax officers, Huggins had slurred speech and there was vomit on the driver's door when they stopped him on Wooster Pike at 11:35 p.m.

Officers said he "staggered" out of the car and couldn't keep his balance during the sobriety test. Asked to recite the alphabet from the letter "E" through "P," Huggins said, "E, F, G, H, I, K, L, N, Z," according to the police report. Asked to count backward from 67 to 54, he counted from 62 to 52, the report said.

Officers handcuffed him and put him in the back seat of their cruiser,  and Huggins said,  "Don't do this to me," according to their report. But he was cooperative, they said.

It turned out the same two officers had stopped Huggins on the same stretch of road in 2002 but let him go. Zimpher would not be as forgiving.

"We will act appropriately and immediately," Zimpher said that same day after officiating at graduation. "We have a great deal of integrity in this institution – academic integrity and athletic integrity – and I think you'll see that over time."

And we did. There was something different about the reaction from the UC administration. It was swift and it was forceful.   

It was a preview of things to come the following year, when Zimpher forced Huggins out of the coach's job.

Huggins had resurrected the basketball program from a decade of despair and turned it into an NCAA powerhouse again. It didn't seem to bother alumni, students and fans – or Zimpher's predecessor and the athletic directors who were supposed to be Huggins'  boss – that UC players had a habit of getting arrested and not graduating.

Huggins had brought UC a Golden Ticket to a Final Four, two Elite Eights, one Sweet 16 and 13 straight NCAA Tournaments – and it didn't matter how he paid for it.

He was the BMOC. Zimpher, on the other hand,  was nobody. She had only been president for nine months, but she was determined to raise the academic standards at UC – and that included the basketball program.

The next day, as Zimpher promised, Athletic Director Bob Goin suspended Huggins. Goin said it was for Huggins' own good.

WATCH Goin announce the suspension and how Huggins reacted in the video below:

 

"I believe with every fiber in my being that this action is what will keep Bobby as your coach for many years to come," Goin said.

"I believe the strain of 15 high-pressure seasons, a near fatal heart attack and the loss of his mother have placed an extraordinary amount of pressure on him."

Several former players showed up to support Huggins. Corie Blount hugged the coach on his way out.

"I just wanted to show my support for a man who I admire and love," Blount said.

A few days later, Huggins went to Fairfax Mayor's Court with his wife and his attorney, Richard Katz. As Huggins stood silently, Katz pleaded no contest. A magistrate suspended Huggins' license for six months, fined him $350 and gave him the option of three days in jail or in drivers' intervention.

A mother representing MADD watched from the first row to see if Huggins would get special treatment.  Huggins did not speak and slipped out the back door.

WATCH Huggins in court in the video below.

 

Huggins rested for the summer and came back to coach, and he led the Bearcats to their 14th straight NCAA appearance. But Zimpher was moving forward with her plan to raise academic standards at UC and get rid of Huggins.

For the first time, UC did not automatically extend Huggins' contract. According to Zimpher, university attorneys met with Katz on May 15, 2015 and started private negotiations to oust Huggins. UC offered to allow Huggins to coach two more years, she said later.

Huggins balked, and the showdown was on.

Soon the word about the Huggins' negotiations got out, and Huggins' backers were furious. Some wealthy contributors vowed to never give UC another dime if Zimpher canned Huggins.

Less than a week later, Zimpher  announced her UC 21 Plan, raising the requirements for admission – including SAT and ACT scores.

"Really, it would just raise the caliber of the students recruited – student-athletes as well. All boats will rise," she said.

UC basketball legend Oscar Robertson told WCPO reporter Paula Faris that board members, including chairman Phil Cox, supported Zimpher's handling of Huggins but they were hiding behind her.

"This thing has gotten out of hand. It's really a fiasco," Robertson said.

WATCH Robertson and Zimpher talk to Paula Faris in the video below:

 

Zimpher said she didn't care about taking heat over Huggins and she wouldn't back down.

"My job is to articulate, as clearly as I possibly can, the future of this university and to get as many people moving together in that direction as possible," she said. "I am confident that an informed public knows exactly what I'm talking about."

Robertson, whose word probably carried more weight than anyone's, found himself caught between supporting his friend Huggins and what he thought was best for UC.

"I think, in the end, you do what's best for the university," he said.

"With or without Bob?" Paris asked.

"With or without Bob," Robertson said.

The showdown came to a head on Aug. 23, when UC sent Huggins an ultimatum in a letter to Katz: Take $3 million to step down now or you will be fired.

UC gave Huggins until the next day to respond.

Huggins took the $3 million and left. He sat out a year, then resumed coaching at Kansas State for one season before going to his alma mater, West Virginia. He's still coaching there 12 years later.

Zimpher stayed at UC for four more years, leaving for SUNY in 2009.

UC's basketball program fell into temporary disarray, but Mick Cronin, a former Huggins assistant, put it back on course. UC has made the last six NCAA tournaments under Cronin.

During Huggins' 16 seasons at UC, numerous players were  arrested or cited for offenses ranging from domestic violence to punching a police horse. Several were later acquitted or had the charges dropped. NCAA rules violations in the 1990s led to probation and a loss of scholarships.

But Huggins had other accomplishments beyond victories and NCAA berths. After Huggins' ouster, WCPO's John Popovich paid tribute to what the coach left behind, saying: "You could remember Huggins for many reasons, but most of all, his influence on local basketball and the young men who played it at UC."

WATCH John Popovich's report in the video below:

 

SEE more video and stories about Tri-State history in our "From The Vault" series.