The University of Cincinnati will begin its first season in the Big East Conference without Coach Bob Huggins, who built the Bearcats into one of the more successful college basketball programs of the past two decades.

In a surprising mandate, Cincinnati President Nancy Zimpher, Athletics Director Bob Goin and the president of the school's board of trustees yesterday asked Huggins to resign by 2 p.m. today or risk being fired. If Huggins resigns, he will receive a buyout of nearly $3 million; he will be paid $1.9 million if he is fired.

Huggins, who had a 399-127 record in 16 seasons and led the Bearcats to the past 14 NCAA tournaments, was coaching at Michael Jordan's fantasy camp in Las Vegas and flew back to Cincinnati last night. Huggins and his attorney, Richard Katz, couldn't be reached for comment last night.

Huggins, 51, won more games than any other Cincinnati coach, but his tenure was sullied by his players' poor graduation rates, NCAA probation, numerous off-court problems and the coach's arrest for drunken driving in June 2004. Bearcats forward Roy Bright was kicked off the team this summer for carrying a gun on campus, and assistant coach Keith LeGree was arrested for drunken driving, but acquitted at trial.

"Character counts," Zimpher told reporters at a news conference in Cincinnati last night. "Our coaches must be exemplary role models, on the court and off."

Associate head coach Andy Kennedy is expected to be named interim coach for the coming season. Goin is retiring and whoever the new athletic director is will hire the new basketball coach.

Huggins's future at Cincinnati was in doubt after the school declined to extend the rollover provision in his contract in May. Huggins held a news conference and said he intended to coach the remaining two years of his contract. But Katz continued to ask the school for a three-year contract extension or to reinstate the rollover provision in the original deal, saying his client couldn't recruit effectively without long-term job security.

In an Aug. 8 letter to Katz, Monica Rimai, the university's vice president for legal affairs and general counsel, wrote that Huggins and the school "should end their relationship as soon as possible." The Cincinnati Enquirer obtained copies of several letters between Katz and Rimai and published the correspondence on its Web site yesterday.

Rimai accused Huggins of continuing to "recruit teams that do not live up to the philosophy and vision of the University relative to student recruits as scholar athletes and positive role models. [Huggins] continues to recruit individuals that exhibit a disregard for the law and respectful behavior. . . . Mr. Huggins' own behavior over the course of the last 16 years, both on and off the court, demonstrates an inability to model discipline and professional conduct."

Rimai wrote that only 27 of the 95 players recruited by Huggins received academic degrees from Cincinnati, and the basketball team this past spring had the lowest grade-point average among the university's intercollegiate sports teams. She said one player had a 0.0 GPA, another would have had a 0.0 GPA if not for two incompletes and two other players withdrew from school.

Graduating is the "exception not the rule for the basketball program during the past 16 years," Rimai wrote to Katz.

-- Mark Schlabach