With poker being a national craze over the past couple of years, it's no wonder the recent dealings of University of Cincinnati President Nancy Zimpher and Head Men's Basketball Coach Bob Huggins could have passed for the final table in the World Series of Poker.
At stake was the career of one of the top basketball coaches in the country over the past 16 years, and the stand for academic reform from a president looking to leave her legacy on a school she has a grand vision for.
The first hand was dealt in June of 2004 as the University held a trump card after the DUI suspension handed down to Coach Huggins. In a letter dated June 11, 2004, James E. Wesner wrote to Richard Katz the following.
"Mr. Goin has asked me to transmit to you the following alternatives that the University is willing to offer Coach Huggins."
If you read anything into this quote you will see both parties were required to negotiate the suspension of Coach Huggins after his DUI. The two options were as follows.
1. Coach can make a public apology at the press conference to be held in terms satisfactory to the Athletic Director, and accept an indefinite suspension with pay from his duties as Head Coach. The suspension will be without prejudice to any action the University might ultimately decide to take under the existing contract. During the suspension, Coach will have no duties to perform, will vacate his office, and will not represent the University in any capacity.
2. Coach can execute the proposed new contract in the latest form transmitted to you, and request retirement under the terms stated in the proposed new contract. This must be done before the press conference. If this alternative is selected, the University will terminate the automatic contract extension referred to in Section 2.0 of the proposed new contract.
Now if I was a betting man I would have to feel my job was in trouble from this day forward.
First hand won by the University of Cincinnati.
While most fans accepted the suspension as a means to repair the image of the University and to show the country Coach Huggins was paying for his mistake, the wheels were in motion for a battle to brew after the 2004/2005 season came to a close.
It was at this time the Bearcats fell to Kentucky in the second round of the NCAA Tournament and talk of Huggins being removed surfaced. By May it was more then just talks. On May 16, 2005 the University released a statement announcing the end to contract discussions with Coach Huggins. As talk started again about Coach Huggins being released, a press conference was called where Coach Huggins expressed his desires to finish the two final years of his contract. The press conference, not really called by the University saw Huggins and his attorney Richard Katz trump President Zimpher and place the pressure directly on the University and its president.
Hand two won by Coach Huggins.
But just like the summer heat that's sure to hit the Cincinnati area every July and August, Bearcat faithful and Coach Huggins supporters looked to take the third hand and take a huge lead in the chip count. As the University looked to celebrate its arrival into the Big East, Huggins supporters looked to make their vocal demands heard on Fountain Square during the Bearcats Big East Celebration. While fans booed President Zimpher as she spoke on the square, no press was given the chance to speak or question the president about the fast rising Huggins supporters.
Hand three won by Coach Huggins
By this time several Bearcat supporters started to express their concern about losing the Coach they love. With threats of non-sponsorship or total withdraw of ticket purchases, Huggins supporters felt they had gained a lead and a new contract would be signed in the coming weeks.
But just when things looked calm to fans the waters were seen as rough behind the scenes. In a letter dated July 12, 2005. Monica Rimai wrote Richard Katz about the candor shown in setting forth Mr. Huggins' position at the University. Later in the letter Rimai stresses the University will use its best efforts to keep private any discussions regarding the contract status of Mr. Huggins and his future with the University. But while privacy was discussed, the main point of the letter stressed the following.
"As we also discussed, it appears there may have been some confusion in the past regarding the respective positions of the University and Mr. Huggins."
In the same paragraph Rimai stressed the importance of keeping clarity and uniformity as they moved forward and how keeping all discussions between Katz and Rimai to help facilitate the process to a meaningful and timely resolution.
At this time its clear Coach Huggins days are numbered as hand four goes to the University.
Three days later another letter is sent to Katz in regards to several issues. OPERS service credit is the main issue of discussion along with the tax liability relating to Coach Huggins annuity and a dollar amount of $630,000 that would be owed to Coach Huggins as a result of the liability.
As you can see, the wheel is still turning toward Coach Huggins being removed as Bearcats Head Basketball Coach.
Now it was Coach Huggins time to respond. In a letter to Monica Rimai from Richard Katz dated July 22, 2005. Mr. Katz spoke about the new transfer Ryan Pettinella and how they believed his addition and other potential commitments would hinge on the longevity of Coach Huggins' contract. It also stressed how the Coach felt players like Pettinella would take the basketball program to heights not seen before, both on and off the court, in the classroom and out of the classroom. The letter was more of a rah-rah letter praising the efforts of Coach Huggins and why he should remain as Men's Head Basketball Coach.
Also in the letter was information regarding OPERS service and a final note of how Coach Huggins was looking for the outcome to be a win-win for the President, the University of Cincinnati's athletic department, the community and for himself. Attached to the letter was more information in regards to Coach Huggins annuity and how the University still owed $630,000 toward payment of federal taxes on the annuity. At the time of this letter the University had only paid $70,000 towards the balance.
This hand is a drawl for both sides as nothing really is getting done to settle the matter.
But following the July 22 letter was one dated July 28, 2005. This one came from Richard Katz and expressed Coach Huggins concern with recruiting and how several top prospects have interest in UC if Coach Huggins is going to be there. While not mentioning his name, Mr. Katz references O.J. Mayo in this letter with the following.
"The current recruiting period is critical to the continued ascendancy of the program towards a Big East championship and national championship. There are several outstanding student-athletes who are ready to commit to the University of Cincinnati and play for Cincinnati basketball and Bob Huggins. These students include local Cincinnati standouts (one whom may be the best basketball player in the country) and other nationally recognized recruits. This recruiting class has the potential to be one of the best ever at the University of Cincinnati. All we need to accomplish is to complete a contract extension."
The rest of the letter speaks about PR and such issues as how Coach Huggins does much philanthropic work in the community and graduation rates not being correct.
I would give this hand to Coach Huggins because of the possible recruiting loss of several top prospects.
But while Katz and Huggins were selling the loss recruits, University officials were looking deep into the lack of graduating players during Coach Huggins tenure. The next letter of record came on August 8, 2005 and again stressed maintaining confidentiality. In this letter Coach Huggins learns the University is looking to remove him and has no intentions of ever giving him a new contract. Monica Rimal goes into detail about the number of former Bearcats who have not earned a degree and how Men's Basketball holds the lowest GPA in the athletic department. It also outlines problems with this past years team. One player who scored a 0.0 GPA during the spring, another would have, but for two incompletes, and two other students withdrew altogether. It also spoke that two recent recruits, and at least one returning team member would be facing the same setbacks.
This is also the first time it's released that Coach Huggins has told the University he doesn't feel he can stay on as coach. The following paragraph states as much.
"Given past contributions that Mr. Huggins has made to UC, the University had been willing to allow Mr. Huggins to continue coaching until his contract expires on June 30, 2007. Indeed, based upon Mr. Huggins comments at his May 16, 2005 press conference, UC understood that our client was interested in coaching through the end of his contract and that he felt he would be effective in doing so, including with regard to recruiting. I understand from you, however, that now Mr. Huggins is unwilling to continue coaching without a contract extension. Upon further reflection, given the profile of the 2005-2006 men's basketball team which projects limited academic success and of-court discipline problems, UC agrees with your client that under the circumstances, the parties should end their relationship as soon as possible. Accordingly, UC intends to exercise the early termination provision of Mr. Huggins' employment contract."
At this time Coach Huggins chip count is low and the University is ready to send him home.
In a matter of days Richard Katz sends by hand delivered priority mail a letter to Monica Rimai outlining the disappointment Coach Huggins has with the University for not granting a contract extension along with the fact Coach Huggins was upset and offended at the personal affronts contained in the previous letter directed not only at him but also at his players. At this time Katz goes on the attack and defends his client and his program. Katz also states the following.
"Let's not kid ourselves the University of Cincinnati's entrance into the Big East Conference was primarily the result of the positive visibility and awareness of the nationally ranked basketball teams under Bob Huggins. This obviously was not the contrary to the enhancement of the University's visibility under the tenure of President Steger."
The letter also talks about player who didn't earn degrees but have been successful in life. Players like Kenyon Martin and Nick Van Excel are compared to Bill Gates who also never earned a college degree.
Katz also brings up comments made by Bob Goin that were Pro-Huggins and how at one time President Zimpher had authorized Bob Goin to enter into negotiations with Coach Huggins for a lifetime contract. Also in this letter, Mr. Katz expresses what he feels are lies and disregard of the truth spewing from the University and how he can no longer guarantee confidentiality.
It's this time Mr. Katz demands the University to pay Coach Huggins 3,630,000.00 as compensation or agree to negotiate the manner of payment. He also gives an alternative of a guaranteed extension to a total of 5 years or a restoration of the four year roll-over contract.
To end the letter Katz advises the following. "Please be further advised that this demand will remain open until 9 a.m. on Tuesday August 16, 2005. I cannot guarantee confidentiality after that time if this matter is not resolved."
As we can see the University has made it's stance along with Mr. Katz for Coach Huggins. The line in the sand is drawn and it's up to the University to make the next step in the process. Clearly all involved know where things stand at this time. Coach Huggins will be released or given a contract extension. No middle ground left to play with.
Chip count at the lowest for Coach Huggins.
Now both sides are upset with the other and no one will be a winner in the eyes of fans. On August 15, 2005. A letter is sent to Mr. Katz stating the following. "Suffice to say that our clients have remarkable different perspectives on the present situation, lending further credence to the notion that it is time for the University and Mr. Huggins to part company."
Also included in the letter is the fact the University still have interest in pursuing either a short term contract. But for the most part the letter is full of legal wording and reference to the O'Brien v. Ohio State University case.
As the letter goes on, reference to Mr. Katz claiming three years are left on Coach Huggins contract due to UC failing to give subsequent notice to Coach Huggins being released. Before the letter ends Mr. Katz is informed of the following.
"In sum, UC intends to terminate your client's contract with the University without cause, pursuant to section 5.1.2 of the agreement, and to sever its employment relationship with him on a certain date. Also in this paragraph is the main information of payment. Coach Huggins would receive $58,333.33 for each month remaining on his contract along with a payment of $630,000 for the remaining balance of the tax liability the University agreed to pay.
Again, Monica Rimai explains the University goal of not negotiating in the media in solving this issue.
UC is looking for the Ace on the river to put itself over the top.
That same day Mr. Katz sends a response stating the letter did nothing to solve the matter at hand. He also asks about details from a previous letter that stated 21 of Coach Huggins players between 1990 and 2006 had contact with the judicial system. He asks for detail information on who these players are.
From that letter came a meeting on August 19, 2005 to discuss the termination of Mr. Huggins employment with the University of Cincinnati.
The last letter speaks of the August 19, 2005 meeting. Again talk of keeping information confidential is stressed. Also in this letter is the time and date of a needed response. Wednesday August 24, 2005 at 2:00 p.m. regarding the offer. If no response is given by this time the University will exercise its right to terminate Mr. Huggins' employment without cause.
The letter goes on and outlines in detail all correspondence that has been exchanged between parties in the matter. The rest of the letter outlines the details of money to be paid and a job within the University if Coach Huggins so desires. The job would be to assist in generation financial support for student athletes in need. The job would pay Coach Huggins $23,118.29 per month along with benefits, including health insurance and University contributions to OPERS.
As Coach Huggins returned from Las Vegas, he expressed he didn't know of the following. But in letter Rimai sent to Katz, Rimai states the following.
"I think we would both agree that these negotiations have gone on far too long. Mr. Huggins has clearly expressed, through you, his desire to move in another direction. The University, too, wishes to move on to the future in its Men's Basketball program. Again, the time and date of Wednesday, August 24, 2005 by 2:00 p.m. are given. If no response is made by Katz or Coach Huggins the University will exercise its right pursuant to Mr. Huggins existing contract.
The letter was then signed by Bob Goin, Nancy Zimpher and Phil Cox as evidence of the University's commitment to the options outlined in the letter.
The Ace card floats on the river and the University will have a new men's basketball coach in the next few days. President Zimpher looked Huggins in the eye and called his bluff to win its high stakes basketball program.
The high stakes game of poker played out between Coach Huggins and the University of Cincinnati leaves many losers in the dust. First and foremost are the fans of Coach Huggins and UC Basketball. They lose the coach they love and a coach they have come to expect a NCAA run from.
Second is the University. The PR hit has been deep with people claiming to have withdrawn their money from UCATS and other University programs. While message boards are full of fans claiming they have withdrawn their support, many within the University claim other areas of giving are at all-time highs.
Third is Bob Goin. Mr. Goin has worked hard for UC to take its place among the countries best. What should be a great time for the soon to retire director is one of pain.
As for who the next coach will be, this much is known. He will be in place for one season until the new athletic director makes his or her choice. As for who will be at the helm this year, Coach Andy Kennedy is the name everyone is saying. But Mr. Goin stressed he was going to sit back and think about it for a few days. If not Kennedy, could UC fans see the Big O sitting next to Kennedy and Martin this year? You never know.