Standing at a crossroads

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo! Sports

Bob Huggins grew up in the small coal-mining town of Midvale, Ohio.

"Five hundred people, one stop light and 10 bars," the University of Cincinnati coach always says.

The implication is pretty obvious. The people Huggins grew up with – most employed at Midvale No. 9, a local mining company – worked hard shifts and then did some hard drinking. Huggins' dad, Charlie, was the high school basketball coach, and the blue-collar way of life had a lasting impact.

"A lot of my (childhood) friends still work in the mines," Huggins said. "I work, but coaching is a different kind of deal. You could get up every day and go do manual labor."

Tuesday, after a day of work, Huggins, 50, did what he usually does. He went out for drinks. But he had way too many and made the mistake of driving home. He got caught, got arrested and Saturday got suspended indefinitely from his million-dollar job.

Even the smallest of towns has a crossroads, and Huggins finds himself at it.

He is rich, he is famous, and he is successful. He simply can't keep acting like he's just getting a couple of beers with the boys, and then having a couple more, and a couple more – then reaching for the keys.

That he is getting a second chance is a testament to the forgiving nature of UC, the goodwill he has built up and the reality that he has been the school's athletic meal ticket for 15 years. What he does with it will determine the rest of his life.

"I want everybody to know that I will do everything that I am asked to do, and probably more, to expedite the time that I can be back involved with my guys," Huggins promised Saturday.

I know Huggins pretty well. I have for years. And like anyone who knows him on a personal level, the news that he had been pulled over wasn't some thunderbolt shock. This was coming. There is no excuse for what he did. There is no rational explanation – especially considering he has money for cabs, not to mention a fleet of managers who would chauffeur him around.

It isn't excusable in Midvale. It isn't excusable in Cincinnati.

But post-work drinking is what Huggins does. He just loves being out on the town, out with people. I have long contended that if you got to know the man, you probably would like him. He isn't what you see on TV. He is funny, friendly and down to earth. He prefers dive bars to the country club. He still is that guy from Eastern Ohio.

And he isn't a phony. He isn't going to act morally superior and then get caught paying recruits $6,000.

This has cemented his public image, of course. He says what he thinks. And he doesn't think like the NCAA would like. The academic performance of his players – while far, far better than the often misreported zero percent graduation rate – also is far, far from perfect. Huggins will argue, passionately, that considering the backgrounds of his players, what UC has done is both impressive and important.

He loves recruiting guys with an attitude – tough kids, second-chance players. He almost never gives up on them. His roster is a revolving door of the suspended and the reinstated, and that is why his former players have incredible loyalty.

And of course he never dresses the part of coach, preferring a black pullover to a suit and tie. A few years back he tried to repair his image by dressing in fancy clothes, but when everyone called him a jerk anyway, he gave up.

"At least this way I am a comfortable jerk," he reasoned.

This has made Cincinnati a polarizing program. It's both a scourge to the NCAA elite and an entry point for working-class fans. Your opinion of the Bearcats often says as much about you as them.

This is Huggins. A blue-collar guy. A beer drinker. A bit of a hell-raiser. A grown man still attached to his old coal-mining town, even though most would have (and maybe should have) let go.

Clearly it's time to stop being the life of every party. He already has had a major heart attack. He already almost has lost his job. He has an opportunity to take some time off without financial worry, a luxury the guys back home never have.

"This will permit him the opportunity to reflect, re-energize and update his life's priorities," Cincinnati athletic director Bob Goin said. "It will also let him address any personal matters which he has ignored."

He is at the crossroads of his life.

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