By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
Like everyone else, Bob Huggins was taken aback when the news reached him that Brad Stevens had walked away from his job at Butler, where he had guided the mid-major power to the NCAA championship game in consecutive years, to become head coach of the floundering Boston Celtics in the NBA.
True, he had 22 million reasons over six years to make the jump, but in truth that wasn’t close to what a younger Bob Huggins had been offered to coach the Miami Heat in 1995 and $2 million a year to coach the Los Angeles Clippers in 2000.
“Yeah, I was very surprised,” Huggins admitted as he enjoyed a rare off day on the Fourth of July.
So why would Huggins turn down the money when Stevens jumped at it?
The answer will surprise you.
“At the end of the day the reason I couldn’t go was because I couldn’t do that to my players,” he said.
Oh, there were other considerations, as there would be with anyone.
“I wasn’t a hell of a lot older (than the 36-year-old Stevens) when I was offered the heat job,” he said. “My kids, you know, kind of liked being where they were, they kind of liked being in Cincinnati.”
But sitting there hovering over it all was the money.
“I don’t know where it is now, but back then it was guaranteed money. It was $30 million. You are set for life. Your family is taken care of,” he said. “You know you can always go back and coach at college. You won’t have a hard time getting a job.”
But he couldn’t pull the trigger.
“I was in camp on a Saturday or Sunday morning in my office, and four of my former guards come and say, ‘Coach, what are you going to do?’ I’m like ‘I don’t know.’ (Nick) Van Exel was one of them, and I said ‘Nick, can I do this?’”
Van Exel had gone from Cincinnati and played in the NBA and knew what it was like to coach there.
“He goes, ‘Yeah, you can do it,’” Huggins continued, repeating the conversation as if it had happened yesterday. “‘You’d have to calm down some. There are 100 games. You can’t be near as emotional, but sure, you can do it.’”
The coaching, Van Exel was saying, wasn’t a problem … but he wasn’t through.
“‘The question is, do you really want to because you are never going to have this again. You’re never going to have guys who play for you, who care for you coming in and sitting down and talking to you about a decision in your life. Up there, when practice is over, they’re gone,’” is the advice he gave Huggins, and it hit home.
“I don’t want to say those guys (in the NBA) don’t love to coach. But do they love to watch these kids grow up, turn into men and have life-long relationships with them?” Huggins said.
This is something so refreshing to hear in this day and age where money seems to be the only motivating factor. True, with the $2 million plus that Huggins earns per year as West Virginia University coach and with a reported net worth of $8 million you know he isn’t doing badly, but he admits there are times when he wonders if he made the right call when he turned the NBA down.
“I am happy with my life, but once in a while you have days where you say, ‘Maybe I should have taken the $30 million, coached for however long, walked out of there and still gotten whatever college job I wanted to get,” he said.
That, of course, is what two of college basketball’s biggest names did a few years back, John Calipari taking on the New Jersey Nets’ job and Rick Pitino the New York Knicks and Boston Celtics.
Neither succeeded and each lost his job, but that hardly represented the end of the line.
“I don’t think it bothered Rick and Cal that much,” Huggins said with a laugh.
And why would such smart college coaches as Calipari and Pitino, who are dominating the college game at present, fail?
“The fact of the matter is when college guys get hired, they get hired in bad jobs,” Huggins said.
Which brings us back to Stevens, who walks into a rebuilding situation with a franchise that doesn’t do much rebuilding.
The pressure will be massive, but Huggins points out that a college coach “may be a little bit more prepared to handle the younger guys.”
The question is whether the college coach is prepared to handle the lifestyle change.
NBA players are different. They make so much money that in this league they don’t talk salaries in decimal points, only commas, and far more important than how many points you score is how many zeroes are in your contract.
“I think the reason guys enjoy college coaching is because of the comradery you have with your players or the comradery you have with your assistants or with the people in the university set,” Huggins said. “From what everybody tells me — and obviously I didn’t do it — there’s none of that. It’s all basketball.”
Email Bob Hertzel @firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.