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Opinion: Bill Cunningham deserves same fate as Bob Huggins

Bill Cunningham started hosting WLW-AM's late-night talk show in August 1983.
Courtesy Premiere Network
Bill Cunningham started hosting WLW-AM's late-night talk show in August 1983.

The popular WLW-AM talk show host laughed at Huggins' homophobic slurs Monday and then called him "the best ever."

If Hall of Fame basketball coach Bob Huggins is suspended — or fired — for making a homophobic slur on WLW-AM's Bill Cunningham Show Monday, Cunningham deserves the same fate.

Cunningham laughed heartily when Huggins made the offensive remark about "all those (slur), the Catholic (slur)" while talking about a Crosstown Shootout game years ago when Xavier University students reportedly threw sex toys from the stands when the Muskies played Huggins' UC Bearcats.

Cunningham, a Catholic and XU grad, greeted the comment with "All right!" Then he said to studio guest Steve Moeller, former Northern Kentucky University radio broadcaster and former Huggins' UC assistant coach, "Steve, your comments about Bob Huggins? Is he the best? ... The best ever!"

The exchange, broadcast about 1:40 p.m. on WLW-AM's 50,000 watt signal, was posted on Twitter by former Cincinnati meteorologist Steve Norris. It went viral.

About four hours later an apology was issued by Huggins,the West Virginia University men's basketball coach inducted into the Naismith College Basketball Hall of Fame last September.

"Earlier today on a Cincinnati radio program, I was asked about the rivalry between my former employer, the University of Cincinnati, and its crosstown rival, Xavier University. During the conversation, I used a completely insensitive and abhorrent phrase that there is simply no excuse for — and I won't try to make one here.

"I deeply apologize to the individuals I have offended, as well as to the Xavier University community, the University of Cincinnati and West Virginia University. As I have shared with my players over my 40 years of coaching, there are consequences for our words and actions, and I will fully accept any coming my way. I am ashamed and embarrassed and heartbroken for those I have hurt. I must do better, and I will."

West Virginia University followed up with a statement saying, in part, that "the situation is under review and will be addressed by the university and its athletic department."

Cunningham returned to the airwaves at 12:09 p.m. Tuesday without mentioning Huggins, or the West Virginia basketball coach's apology. He opened the show chatting with former city councilman Chris Smitherman, and didn't mention the Huggins incident throughout his his three-hour show Tuesday.

So while Huggins apologized quickly, neither Cunningham nor his boss, D.J. Hodge, market manager for iHeartRadio's Cincinnati stations, have made any comments about Cunningham laughing at the "insensitive and abhorrent" phrase broadcast on Monday's Cunningham Show.

Ironically, Huggins uttered the same offensive word that cost Reds' announcer Thom Brennaman his baseball and NFL television careersin August 2020. And Huggins was very familiar with Brennaman's situation — he invited Thom to address his Mountaineers basketball team about personal accountability in November 2020.

"I want to thank my friend Thom Brennaman for traveling over to Morgantown and speaking to the team. His message isn't one of excuses but one of accountability," Huggins posted on Twitter, along with five photos, on Nov. 21, 2020. "It takes courage to confront mistakes head on and I believe our guys learned that from his time with us."

Obviously Huggins didn't learn from Brennaman's experience.

On Monday, Cunningham was yucking it up with Huggins on "The Stooge Report," a breezy discussion of topical issues in the second half of each hour with sports reporter Bill "Seg" Dennison during Cunningham's popular noon-3 p.m. show. Huggins recalled a Crosstown Shootout game when Xavier students apparently threw rubber penis sex toys from the stands. It promoted this exchange:

CUNNINGHAM: "It was 'Transgender Night,' wasn't it?"

HUGGINS: "It was the Crosstown Shootout night, yeah. No, what it was was all those (slur), the Catholic (slur), I think."


HUGGINS: "They were angry because they didn't have one." (apparently referring to penises)

CUNNINGHAM [LAUGHING]: "Steve, your comments about Bob Huggins? Is he the best?"

MOELLER: "He's the best ever!"

CUNNINGHAM: "The best ever!"

Earlier in their conversation, when Cunningham asked Huggins if any players from Xavier, a Jesuit university, had transferred to his West Virginia team, Huggins replied: "Catholics don't do that." Again the studio erupted in laughter.

So here's my question: Why has all the focus been on Huggins — and none on Cunningham? What will happen to the self-proclaimed "Great American" who reacted gleefully to the offensive remarks?

After all, Billy Bush was fired by NBC when he was heard enjoying Donald Trump's boast that he could grab women in the expletive and "do anything" on that Access Hollywood tape. Like Billy Bush, Cunningham didn't try to stop the conversation, or admonish the person making insensitive remarks. (Unlike Brennaman, Huggins knew he was live on the air. Cunningham's first words to him were: "Coach Bob Huggins, you're on the air. I'm sitting here with Steve Moeller and the 'Seg' Man.' "}

That makes Cunningham complicit in the reprehensible comments. Cunningham deserves the same fate as Huggins, whatever that is, when the basketball coach "fully accepts" the consequences of his comments — whether he's suspended, fined or fired.

Huggins, who turns 70 on Sept. 21, leads all active major college men's basketball coaches in career victories. He has won 542 games in 16 seasons at West Virginia (2007-2023), after winning 526 games in 16 seasons at UC (1989-2005). He has "led his teams to 26 NCAA Tournament berths, including nine appearances in the Sweet Sixteen and two appearances in the NCAA Final Four," according toSports Illustrated. In 16 years at UC, Huggins led the Bearcats to eight Conference USA regular season championships, four Conference USA Tournament championships, and was Conference USA Coach of the Decade in 2005, SI says.

Cunningham, 75, who also hosts a national Sunday night iHeartMedia talk show, debuted as WLW-AM's late-night talk show host on Sept. 1, 1983. He's been no stranger to controversies as an outspoken conservative Republican. He made headlines with the White House press corps on March 27, 2008, when asked to warm up a Republican crowd at Memorial Hall waiting for presidential candidate John McCain to arrive.

Howard Wilkinson, WVXU-FM senior political analyst, says Cunningham shouted insultsaimed at Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and "the stooges in the media — the New York Times, CBS, NBC — the Nobody But Clinton network — the All-Bill Clinton channel, ABC." Four times, Cunningham referred to Obama as "Barack Hussein Obama," using his middle name as he often did on the air, in an obvious attempt to suggest that Obama was a Muslim.

McCain summoned the press after his speech to say he regretted the comments made about fellow U.S. Senators Obama and Clinton. "I absolutely repudiate such comments and, again, I will take responsibility. It will never happen again," McCain said.

Several years ago, Cunningham said he would retire when WLW-AM celebrated its 100th anniversary in March 2022. However, as the anniversary neared, Cunningham moved the goal posts, and said he could retire in August this year, his 40th anniversary at the station.

"At this point, I'm having too much fun," Cunningham told me in March 2022. "If all goes well, I have one or two years left. In August of next year, I will complete 40 years all on 700 WLW. Not bad. That's my goal now."

Will iHeartMedia move the goal posts up four months after Cunningham relished Huggins' offensive remarks, and make him "retire" early? Or will Cunningham's bosses give him another pass because the self-proclaimed "Great American" generates really great ratings and revenues… which, of course, makes Cunningham "the best ever" for the station.

Corrected: May 9, 2023 at 3:27 PM EDT
A previous version of this story incorrectly stated Steve Moeller's employment at NKU. He is a former Northern Kentucky University radio broadcaster.
John Kiesewetter, who has covered television and media for more than 35 years, has been working for Cincinnati Public Radio and WVXU-FM since 2015.