Dec 12, 2011, 9:00 AM EDT
We’re only one month into the college basketball season, and I’m sure you’d agree with me that hopefully this is as jarring and salacious as it gets.
This year’s annual Crosstown Shootout between Xavier and Cincinnati resulted in the first ever Crosstown Brawl, and presented leaders from both schools with a moral dilemma on how to best handle one of the most deplorable endings to a sporting event since the Malice in the Palace.
Dubbed “Catholics vs. Convicts” as a clever little way to describe the stereotypes these schools carry with them, the crux of power of this 79-year old rivalry has shifted to Xavier, the small Jesuit school, which has won 10 of the last 15 meetings and ascended into one of college basketball’s elite programs. Clearly, there were no choir boys playing basketball at the Cintas Center this weekend.
The Bearcats, despite a rich history and tradition of excellence, have been, for the past decade, mediocre in every sense of the word. But despite their struggles, Cincinnati has at least tried to clean up its basketball program’s bad boy images.
Or so we thought.
Seeking sweeping changes to both athletics and academics, former school president Nancy Zimpher fired long-time head coach Bob Huggins in 2005 on the heels of a drunk driving arrest. Eventually replacing Huggins with Mick Cronin, the media championed the hire as a true effort to apply a sharp shift to the perception of the basketball program: replace low-graduation rates and rugged players from junior colleges, and implement a new order with at least a marginal commitment to academics. The thought was that in time, Cincinnati would shred the connotations it had developed through the ’80s and ’90s.
But with Zimpher’s departure in 2009, it appears that any foundation for building a high character athletic department was completely eviscerated with the soft suspensions levied in the wake of Saturday’s brawl. Preaching accountability and respect for the uniform you’re privileged to wear, Mick Cronin appeared to “win” the postgame press conference session, sounding fully invested in maintaining any equity in reputation his program had built in recent years.
It appeared that the school finally had its priorities in order. However, we learned Sunday that either it was all for show, or Cronin has zero influence in the decision making process of his basketball team.
Senior Yancy Gates, who sucker punched Xavier’s Kenny Frease for the climax to the brawl, will miss only six games, including one Big East conference game. His partner in crime, Cheikh Mbodj who kicked Frease when he was down, was also docked six games.
If you even let out the smallest of gasps watching the brawl unfold, you’re dumbfounded by these weak suspensions.
Remember in 2009 when former Oregon running back LeGarrette Blount sucker-punched a defenseless Boise State lineman? Just two days after the incident, Oregon administrators AND Ducks head coach Chip Kelly suspended their star running back for the rest of the season. The school was resolute in upholding a strict policy to the thuggery Blount displayed (Blount was reinstated by the team two months later, but his role was diminished).
The precedent was set then, and it should have been matched by Cincinnati administrators. Unfortunately, the unreasonable expectation this Bearcats team can earn a 2012 NCAA Tournament berth stood in the way of some much needed responsible decision making.
For Xavier, their suspensions were arguably soft was well, but the damage control they will seek to quell for the remainder of the season is seeded in the court of public opinion.
With a squeaky-clean image and high rootability score at stake, the school must learn how to handle with being relevant AND disliked by the general public for the first time in the history of the program.
For this season, at least, bandwagon fans lining up to cheer this team on in hopes of a deep tournament run will not come in heaps. National media members who may have sought to write a favorable puff piece on the character of coach Chris Mack or budding star freshman Dezmine Wells may table it for another story idea.
Now, with the current face of the program announcing to the public that their team motto refers to the handling of dead bodies, questions abound as to just what type of person resides on the Xavier roster.
Whether or not that is rational thinking is up to you.
Remember, this is a proud Jesuit school, and fans and students appear to be divided in regards to the lack of judgment Tu Holloway and Mark Lyons showed in their post game press conference.
Should they be embarrassed that these are the guys they’ve been rooting for? Is “ZipEmUp” going to be accepted by the Xavier student body? Or did distinguishing the roster as a group of “gangsters” just show this Musketeer team has a bit more grit then we’re used to from this program?
I suspect that, given the school’s close proximity to one another, we haven’t heard the last word from all parties involved. Be it a Tweet, local radio interview, or next summer when players share sweaty gyms to get some run, the war of words between the current Xavier and Cincinnati players are all but through.
In addition, both schools face a significant uphill battle ahead of them following this weekend’s mêlée. One may have lost the label of Good Guy, the other may have lost any opportunity to stop being the Bad Guy.
Either way, it’s a black eye for one of the game’s great rivalries.
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