A Message Lost in Translation:Cox, Aiming for a Better UC, Doesn’t Deserve Huggins-Backers’ Flack

By Paul Daugherty
Updated: June 3, 2005

CINCINNATI, OH.—Phil Cox is a racist. Everyone knows that. Look at what he said to a “Sports Illustrated” writer, on the magazine’s Web site:

“Other schools find African-Americans who are good students as well. I hope we can do it, too.”

Cox is the chairman of the University of Cincinnati’s Board of Trustees. He’s caught in the crossfire of the Debate That Won’t End, the tag-team rhetoric match between UC president Nancy Zimpher and the basketball coach she wants out, Bob Huggins. Or rather, the match between mostly quiet Zim backers and mostly mouth-foaming Huggins campers.

Cox was speaking about the basketball program. And, oh yeah, Cox is black.

Since he made that statement, Phil has been called everything but Tom. A former UC player, Anthony Buford, said Cox should resign. Another, Terry Nelson, called Cox’s words “juvenile.”

The talk-show prodders have suggested Cox is a racist. Callers have agreed.


Was he a racist that night at La Normandie when, as he was standing out front, a white woman asked him to valet her car? How about at a recent high-level business function, full of the cheesiest of the local big cheeses – not the least of whom was Phil Cox, chairman of the Cincinnati Business Committee – when someone assumed he was a waiter, and asked him for a Rob Roy?

Where did Phil Cox learn his racism, anyway? It must have been at the feet of his elite parents. They moved to Cincinnati from Dacula, Ga., where they’d led a privileged life as sharecroppers. Cox’s father worked 31 years here, as a machinist for Ford. His mother cleaned other people’s houses for $8 a day.

Cox’s racism must have been honed at St. Xavier High, where he became the first black graduate since the place opened in 1831. He was the only African-American kid there, of 1,200 students.

Maybe his brother, LaMar, taught him to hate. LaMar Cox was one of the first two blacks to graduate from UC with an engineering degree, in 1954, when blacks were told they couldn’t get engineering degrees at UC.

LaMar was a star hurdler on the Bearcats’ track team. He did well everywhere but Tulsa, Okla., where the good people politely told him that “his kind” was not welcome there.

Yeah, that Phil Cox, he has no idea what he’s talking about when it comes to blacks achieving and dealing with adversity.

“The point of my statement (to “Sports Illustrated”) was not demeaning, it was elevating,” Cox said Wednesday. “It was saying, in effect, ‘Why can’t we?’ ” achieve academically. “I could not be more sensitive to or more aware of what is required of African-Americans in that environment.”

Look: Clumsy doesn’t describe the way Zimpher and the board have handled the Huggins situation. I don’t know much about academia. I assume it has its share of infighting, brown-nosing and consensus-building. I’d also assume the president of a university and the members of its board have lots of experience in those areas.

Maybe those skills were brought to bear in all this. It doesn’t seem like it. It looks like amateur hour.

Have Zimpher and the board hung a very good basketball coach out to dry? Of course. But the air is nice out there. Huggins gets two years at $1 million per, give or take, to polish his resume and hunt for jobs. That’s not quite tragic.

As president of the school, Zimpher has a right – a duty – to run it the way she thinks will benefit everyone connected with it. Huggins has won enough games, there shouldn’t be a question about his status. And there wouldn’t be, if Zimpher were the president of the basketball program.

But back to Cox.

In making the statement to “Sports Illustrated,” he painted with too broad a brush. UC basketball has done a better job graduating black basketball players recently. It’s easy to see how some could be offended. Of course, Cox also said to “SI,” “We’re trying to upgrade every aspect of the university, including student-athletes.” That part got left out of the conversation.

Cox wants UC to aspire to be better. “Somebody has to have the chutzpah to remind people why we’re here. You have to make a decision about who you are and what you’ll be,” he told “SI.” Couldn’t agree more.

What Cox finds racist is the attitudes of people who assume African-Americans at UC can’t be both good athletes and exemplary students. Blacks don’t get engineering degrees here …

If we could get past the hot talk spew – we can, can’t we? – we might see a guy whose one verbal misstep does not obscure his larger message:

Aim higher. Aspire to be better. You might get there.