By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
The look on Bob Huggins’ face was a fresh one, the worn and worried look he wore through most of last season now nothing more than fading memories, just as the season past that etched such a look onto his face is beginning to fade.
There is a new bounce in Huggins’ step, as much of a bounce as there can be considering all he has been through in one of the most interesting and successful coaching careers in all of college basketball history as he enters his 32nd season.
He spent much of his offseason getting ready for this challenge, walking to lose some weight and get into shape for the long grind, recruiting, lecturing at clinics and, when he could, getting in some R&R, although he did not get near as much as normal.
“I spent a couple of weeks with my family, which I haven’t been able to do much,” he said. “But I didn’t get away that much, honestly, less than usual. I usually can sneak out and get some fishing in and I got very little of that this summer.”
That, of course, will only allow the fish out by his Ohio retreat more time to grow until next year, which he expects to be a far more pleasant offseason.
This one, coming off a 13-19 record, his first losing season since he began coaching at Akron in 1985, wore on him. Sleep did not come easily or often, and somehow it turned into a longer season than normal, even without a postseason tournament to play in.
“I’d never had it happen to me. That was a first. I’ve never not been able to get guys to play as hard as I wanted them to play. Obviously we had some deficiencies.”
It was truly sad to see his team play, miscast in the Big 12, a league that had little similarities to the Big East, the conference for which his team was built.
“We went into an entirely different league in terms of style of play, in terms of officiating, in terms of travel and everything else, and we weren’t prepared for it,” he said. “So much more spread offenses, so much more penetrate and pitch, so much more predicated on pick and roll.
“I mean, you look at the Big East, that’s what Louisville did and maybe Villanova a little bit, but not to the extent. There weren’t many teams in the Big East where they would give the 4 guy the ball and let him make decisions with the ball.
“That happened frequently in the Big 12. And it wasn’t as physical.”
All of that Huggins may have eventually been able to work out, but he had a team that, for the most part, just wasn’t buying into anything he was selling.
“I’ve never really been one of those guys who thought it was bad chemistry to have guys who hated me or were scared to death of me, because they at least were on the same page. But we just didn’t do a very good job of a lot of things, obviously,” he explained.
“For years we had guys who could pass and catch the ball. Last year we just didn’t have guys who could pass the ball. Therefore we didn’t hardly pass it. I tried to make some changes but the reality is the way we play, you are allowed to use your strengths. You look at the guys who played in the program. Joe Mazzulla couldn’t make shots, but he scored because we could spread other people who could make shots and he could drive to the basket.
“For whatever reason we had guys who thought they could do things a different way, maybe better, and after a while we let them go to see if that was the case ... and obviously it wasn’t the case. So we need to go back to doing what we’ve been doing for a long, long time.”
Huggins seems eager to get on with it, to put the pieces back together.
“I think their demeanor is so much different, their enthusiasm. I think what we lacked was guys who took to heart that you don’t waste days, guys who understood the importance of coming in every day and getting better. I think we lacked that a little bit,” he said.
He senses this team will go at it hard, as he demands they do, and that should make coaching fun again.
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.