UC great Bobby Brannen reflects on Huggins and those Bearcats teams that still resonate (2022)

Around here, the Cincinnati Bearcats men’s basketball teams of the late ’90s and early 2000s are treated with a reverence rivaled only by the Big Red Machine and people who claim to have attended the Freezer Bowl.

Bob Huggins. Danny Fortson. Kenyon Martin. The Jumpman uniforms. The team was a Top-10 mainstay for a stretch, but it’s the personalities that still resonate with the folks who still cringe when they hear the word “tibia.” Bobby Brannen is one of those personalities.

The Moeller High School grad played for UC under Huggins from 1994-98, alongside the likes of Fortson, Martin, Damon Flint, Melvin Levett and Ruben Patterson. Despite the “Baywatch Bobby” nickname, Brannen and his barbed wire tattoo became an archetype of the hard-nosed, badass vibe that radiated from the old Shoemaker Center. The 6-foot-7 forward averaged 14.3 points and 8.1 rebounds as a senior in 1997-98, leading a squad that was without suspended star Ruben Patterson for much of the year from unranked in preseason to No. 9 by the end of it.

Brannen played professionally overseas following his four years with the Bearcats, then moved back to Cincinnati earlier this decade. The pride of Reading is now living in Loveland, working as a personal strength trainer and running basketball workouts. We caught up with Brannen to talk Huggins, his former teammates and why those Bearcats teams still resonate so strongly.

I know you grew up in Reading – are you still a legend in that area?

Bobby Brannen: They know me well. I think they got a fill of me. I had a bar there for about five years when I first got back. It was brutal, not fun – just a bad business. Never ever again. (laughs)

You played at Moeller and had a lot of success there. What do you remember about the recruiting process and ultimately choosing Cincinnati?

BB: Huggs was on it right away. I think they saw me as a freshman working out up there, and he made it his deal to talk to me as much as he could and be at everything. I definitely felt wanted. The whole recruiting process was a lot because I played football too. So I was getting letters for that, getting calls – you’re a young kid, you don’t really know. I think just being here, and Hugs is pretty persuasive too. He even got me to sign early because I didn’t like talking to everybody and didn’t like the whole process honestly. I just signed and got it out of the way.

Describing Huggins as persuasive – what was he like specifically as a recruiter?

BB: He’s a cool dude. He just, he knows what to say. You get him in a room with you and your parents, and he’s cool and laid back. And always being there. My father is a lot like him – tough, hard-nosed on things. It just felt right.

I read that you didn’t play football your senior year at Moeller due to maybe a suggestion not to by Huggins. Is that true?

BB: Oh yeah, he definitely made that a suggestion. I signed early (with UC), but I had led Moeller in receptions the year before as a tight end, and they were hoping to throw it too me even more. Our team actually went all the way to the state finals and lost by a touchdown without me to (Cleveland Saint) Ignatius, so all my buddies from high school still give me stuff about that.

I can imagine. Moeller is a big sports school in general, but football especially.

BB: Oh, it sucked. It’s not Huggs’ fault, he was probably right. I had plenty of injuries anyway. So I’m not regretting it one bit, but after that first game I watched them play, I was thinking, “Man, I made a mistake.”We already had some AAU trips I was on and scheduled to go to with J.O. Stright, Danny Fortson’s guardian. But we get about five or six weeks in and my homeroom teacher was the offensive line coach, Coach Higgins, and the team had somebody hurt, and he asked if I still wanted to play football and I was like, “Hell yeah.”So they had a big team vote and everything, but I think some parents came in and wouldn’t let it happen because a few kids might lose playing time, basically. Nobody was having that, so that was the end of it. But it was my mess up.

You came to UC right in the midst of this heyday under Huggins.

BB: That’s what also made it easy. They had just been to the Final Four. I loved UC. We were ranked No. 1 in the nation a few times while I was there.

What were the crowds and the campus like back then?

BB: It was amazing. Well, the campus was shitty. I’m not going to lie. Now it’s really nice. But when we were there, they were doing a lot of renovating and it looked like a war zone at times. But the arena, we’d get whatever it could hold – they were packed in as best they could for every single game, didn’t matter who. It was a neat environment.

You played with two of the best in program history with Danny Fortson and Kenyon Martin. Let’s start with Danny, what do you remember about playing alongside him?

BB: He was a man right away. It was tough for me coming out of high school. I was the man there, and then I get to campus and I’m not playing right away and things, but my roommate is – and deservedly. He was 25 pounds heavier and stronger, great hands. Danny was exceptional. I got to guard him for three years pretty much in practice.

And you were roommates, too?

BB: Yup. We got along great. He’s a very nice guy. That’s why I think I guarded him so much, because we had guys like Rodrick Monroe and Art Long who were a little bigger and stronger than me, but Danny would always try to fight them. That’s why they put me on him – he’d let me bang on him more and all that. He’d get pissed at me, but he wouldn’t get as mad as he would at Rod or Art.

Fortson came in ready to go, whereas Martin was similar to you in the way he came in and really was developed into the player he became. What do you remember about his growth and progression?

BB: I do remember him coming in as a skinny freshman. Very nice kid though. But after one year of progression, he was starting for us at center, so he came a long way in one year, and I started to see glimpses of that during my senior year – a couple big games, the way he could go get the ball, that second-jump and all that. You could tell he would really blossom, and then my buddy Ryan Fletcher was telling me he really worked hard that next summer, and he became something really special.

You obviously had a really good senior year. What was it about Huggins or the staff at that time in terms of developing post players?

BB: Huggs is good with the post, he really is. What Huggs would do a lot of times is offensively, his best option takes the shots. Whatever he perceived that to be during practices, the ball usually works its way through there at some point. There didn’t used to be a whole lot of freedom. I get it, you get a lot of quality shots that way. And by my senior year, I was kind of that option, especially with Ruben Patterson being suspended. So they played through me a lot, and after those years of playing with Danny, I figured out how to score too, I guess. And I was always able to rebound because it was an effort thing. If you’re going after every damn one of them, you’re going to get to quite a few.

You mention the Patterson suspension, and that whole season of your senior year was pretty crazy. You guys start unranked, end up in the Top 10, had two separate streaks of 10-straight wins. What jumps out at you most from that season?

BB: I remember a little bit of turmoil, but just having a good year, partially because we came in with less expectations. I remember liking it. The couple years before we’re ranked No. 1 and everybody is coming in like it’s their national championship game. More pressure, basically. So I kind of enjoyed our start my senior year, and we were a little better than everybody thought.

UC great Bobby Brannen reflects on Huggins and those Bearcats teams that still resonate (1)

Bobby Brannen pulls down a rebound for the Bearcats in 1996. (Otto Greule/Allsport)

You were part of this era when, as UC ascends under Huggins, there’s this narrative that gets attached to the school that ranged from tough to thuggish, depending on who you asked. Were you guys aware of that?

BB: Oh, God yeah. Anywhere we went, the student sections let you know what they thought. For the most part, we all thought that stuff was funny. We’d be on the bus repeating the insults to each other after the game. I think more than anything, we embraced it. If the officials let the game be played physical, we did pretty well, because all five guys were always aggressive. But every now and then I felt like Hugs would just irritate the shit out of one of these refs and they decided, That’s it, we’re shutting this down, and then we would struggle.

Any other Huggins story that stick out for you?

BB: Wow. Well, we were in Hawaii my freshman year for the Rainbow Classic, and we had a curfew, it was the day before we were supposed to play Georgia Tech. The curfew was probably 10, and I think we had people come up to the rooms and stuff like that, and Huggins or someone must have been sitting in the hallway. So he’s pissed off that next morning at shoot-around, and we had no idea. It was about noon and we get there and we thought we’d all get some shots up and mess around and he yells at the manager to put 30 seconds up on the board – that means you’re running suicides and have to finish it in under 30 seconds. We do that three or four times and we’re all like, “What the hell?” And Huggs says, “What time is curfew?” Someone says 10 p.m. and Huggs says something like, “At 10 p.m. you had half of fucking Honolulu in your rooms.” We just ran the whole shoot-around, and then Georgia Tech comes in and wondering what the heck is going on. We ended up winning, which was a bad thing, because then he thought he could do that stuff again. (laughs)

Coach Cronin was an assistant on that team. Any memories of him?

BB: Mick is a cool dude. I knew him when I was in high school because he was coaching at Woodward when they had Damon Flint and Eric Johnson, and we’d fly out to these different camps and he was usually on the flights with them as a chaperone. So I knew and liked Mick before I got to UC. When he came in as a film guy he knew who he was and kind of kept to himself. But everybody liked him. He was a cool guy. He knows what he’s doing and knows who to talk to and how to talk to them.

I realize this probably isn’t your favorite topic to talk about, but you went and played overseas after your career at UC, and I know while you were in Australia you got into a little trouble involving a photo scandal.

BB: Yeah, shouldn’t have done it. I got a fine. It was a very stupid thing on my behalf, but nothing like it got made into.

I only ask because you always had the ‘Baywatch Bobby’ nickname at UC – which I don’t know if you liked that or not – but that incident seemed to add to that.

BB: I was no angel back then. Probably those that knew me at the time didn’t bat an eye, but you live and you learn.

You’ve been back in Cincinnati for a few years now. Are you still following UC basketball?

BB: Definitely. I don’t get down there as much as I should – Mick actually invited me down to practice a few weeks ago, but I ended up getting sick – but I’m always following and watching every game on TV.

How often are you still recognized around town by fans?

BB: Quite a bit. Not near as much as it was, obviously. My senior year I had been there for four years and was one of the few white guys on the team, so that season it was tough to go anywhere and not get noticed and talking to a ton of people. I take it as a blessing, but I would certainly never want to be famous.

I know Cincinnati has the reputation of a small town and a sports town, but are you surprised by how much those mid- to late-’90s Bearcats teams still resonate with people?

BB: Yeah, absolutely. Even just the Huggs following itself. Mick is a friend of mine and has done an amazing job given the circumstances he came into. And fans have no clue sometimes when it comes to that – they forget what he was left with, that he jumped into the Big East, all those things – and all they say is, “We miss Huggs.” Though I have heard less of that stuff lately.

Do you still have the barbed wire tattoo?

BB: Oh yeah. I’m not paying money to get them taken off. That’s usually the thing – I’ve aged, so people will say, ‘That’s not you, let me see the tattoo!’ Especially when I had the bar, I’d get plenty of that. Yep, it’s still there.

(Top Photo: Darren Whitley/Sporting News/Icon SMI)

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