After a loss to Texas Tech in the very first game of the Big 12 Tournament, the Kansas State Athletic Director watched his Wildcats finish the 2005-06 season with a 15-13 record, and in seventh place in the conference. They missed out on the NCAA Tournament for the tenth straight year. They even missed out on the NIT for the seventh straight year. Overall, they have a 45-99 record in the Big 12 Conference since 1997 and have never won a Big 12 tournament title.
Jim Wooldridge was fired immediately. One year ago, when Weiser decided to retain Wooldridge as coach for another season, he made it perfectly clear what he expected.
“We'll never measure our program by NIT games," Weiser said. "Our expectations exceed that."
So he went out and landed a coach with 567 career wins (placing him eighth all time), 15 NCAA Tournament appearances, and a Final Four to his credit.
The catch? The coach was Bob Huggins.
Suffice it to say, the decision has been controversial, and renewed a debate that has been hovering over college basketball since the glory days of UNLV: Just how much trouble are you willing to accept off the court, for success on it?
Coach Huggins was forced to resign from the University of Cincinnati after 16 seasons in August 2005. Not for lack of wins, but in University President Nancy Zimpher’s words, a lack of character.
In all, according to the University of Cincinnati, there had been no less than 21 players under Coach Huggins who have had, to use their term, “significant encounters with law enforcement.” These “encounters” included arrests for domestic violence, rape and DUI. One guy even punched a police horse. Another, Donald Little, taped his roommate to a lawn chair, threw weights at his head, clubbed him with a whiskey bottle and burned him with a heated coat hanger. He then stabbed him for good measure.
Even after his contract was not extended in May 2005, and Huggins was considered to be on probation by the university, he still saw an incoming player charged with statutory rape, less than a month after forward Roy Bright was arrested for bringing a concealed weapon on campus.
As for academics, 27 of 95 Huggins' players graduated from Cincinnati or another university in his 16 years. That’s a 28% graduation rate overall, including those students who transferred. Huggins also had four seasons where the NCAA reported the Cincinnati men’s basketball graduation rate to be zero. Even at the time Huggins was forced to resign, again according to university officials, one of his players had been maintaining a 0.0 GPA, and another would have had a 0.0 if not for two incompletes.
Finally, Cincinnati was placed on probation by the NCAA in 1998, citing a lack of institutional control.
All this led to a remarkable clause in Coach Huggins’ new contract with Kansas State. Under the agreement, Huggins would be guaranteed at least $800,000 per year for the first three years so long as he refrains from doing anything “which results in material injury to the reputation of the university.”
Weiser really seems to believe that this time things will be different. “A lot of our supporters think it has to be one or the other, win or do things right,” he told the Kansas City Star. “But I don’t see why it has to be that way. We can do both. We will do both.”
Indeed, last month the Associated Press ran a story that seemed to strongly suggest Coach Huggins was in fact a changed coach. Cartier Martin, the Wildcats' leading returning scorer, was suspended from the team indefinitely for unspecified conduct violations. Mario Taybron, a reserve guard, was dismissed from the team for violating the policy on substance abuse. A zero tolerance policy appeared to be in effect.
The AP went so far as to report that Huggins has already supposedly sprung a surprise drug test on the team and made spot class attendance checks.
The question is not whether or not Huggins can change his public persona and his recruiting philosophy. He can. He just doesn’t want to.
In a long, fawning article recently published by the Lawrence Journal-World, Huggins made it clear he doesn’t see himself as a teacher, or a tutor, or a guidance counselor. He’s not someone who recruits kids to make them understand the value of a college education or to find their purpose in life.
He is a basketball coach. That’s it. He recruits kids because they can play basketball, and he can make them into better basketball players and win basketball championships. He doesn’t really care if they are “troubled” or been in trouble, so long as they can play. If Kansas State fans want anything more they can go rent Coach Carter.
He just wants to win, and will do what it takes to win, as Wildcat fans are already finding out.
KSU recently landed Michael Beasley, the number 4 overall recruit for the class of 2007 as rated by Rivals.com. Beasley had originally committed to play for Charlotte. However, Huggins made 49ers assistant coach Dalonte Hill, who had recruited Beasley, his first hire at KSU as an assistant. Suddenly, Beasley was no longer committed to Charlotte, and had a lot of interest in coming to Manhattan, Kansas.
The Wildcats are also close to signing Herb Pope, a 6-foot-9 forward rated #10 in the class of 2007 by Rivals.com. Last year, the Pittsburgh native gave Coach Dixon and the Panthers a verbal commitment. But, according to the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, Pope has since rescinded his commitment because J.O. Stright, the coach of Pittsburgh's AAU team, happens to be very close friends with Coach Huggins.
Huggins is also in the running to land the #1 and #2 overall players for 2007 in OJ Mayo and Bill Walker, two Cincinnati products no doubt being recruited by new KSU assistant coach Frank Martin, an assistant at Cincinnati the past two seasons. That would give Kansas State three of the top four players in next year’s class, and nearly half of the top ten – something simply unheard of, even for powerhouse schools like Duke or Kentucky.
In truth, Rivals.com analyst Jerry Meyer told the Kansas City Star that the team had a much stronger chance at landing Walker than Mayo. But even so, combined with the impressive class Coach Huggins has brought in for the coming season, Kansas State could be downright dominant come 2007-08.
Kansas State, yes Kansas State, will win a lot of games, compete for the Big 12 title, and may even vie for a national championship within two years – something fans haven’t heard since the Mitch Richmond era almost 20 years ago. The Wildcats will also have their share of embarrassments off the court. Some things simply do not change.
The extent to which Wildcat fans and alumni embrace Coach Huggins will largely depend on which they deem to be more important.