By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
It was a rare peek behind the closed doors of the West Virginia University locker room after a loss and an even rarer peek inside the man who had coached the Mountaineers and how he approached his team.
He had spent a longer time than usual with his players following Saturday night’s devastating 88-71 loss at Texas, a game in which they hadn’t played well but as a veteran coach, Bob Huggins, knows that happens on occasion, especially on the road.
What hurt more, though, was they hadn’t played like a West Virginia basketball team is supposed to play and like a Bob Huggins basketball team is supposed to play, for if nothing else, Huggins is wired into the state in which he was born, the state where he played his college basketball and the state where he will choose to end what will be a Hall of Fame career.
“I told them in there that I thought we were getting back to being West Virginia’s team,” he said, beginning to crack open the door. “People were saying ‘I enjoyed watching you play. You play hard. You play together. You like each other.’ Then to drop the ball today … it wasn’t so much we didn’t play hard; it was just we didn’t make any shots.”
But in reality, the fact that they shot badly wasn’t at the crux of the matter at all.
That was as the result of the technical side of basketball, which he addressed with his team, but this was an emotional and moral breakdown, one that he had to address right now as his team goes into its final games of the season with a tournament bid on the line.
What had he said?
“When you’re not as good as the other people, your commitment level has to be greater. Let’s be honest,” he related, then offered them up a rather personal anecdote to get the point across.
“I said to my dad one time that I wanted to do something, and he said, ‘No.’ I said, ‘Why?’ He said, ‘’Cause I said so,’” Huggins said.
And so it stood that way because in the Huggins household, ‘no’ meant ‘no.’
“About three years later, when I’m out of school and the house and I’m bigger and stronger and I don’t have to worry about the repercussions, I’m thinking that answer ain’t good enough, so I asked him to tell me why he had said no.
“‘Because,’ he said, ‘you asked me to let you be like everybody else. I didn’t raise you to be like everybody else. I raised you to be special. If you’re like everybody else, you’re not special.’ He went on to say it’s not that hard; it’s really not that hard.”
He had made his point, and Huggins, on this occasion, felt he had to say no to his team, then let them know that what they were doing just wasn’t good enough, wasn’t special, and there were repercussions.
“There are so many people that are so happy that they wallow in mediocrity that if you’ll just make a commitment and put the time and effort in, you can rise above those people,’” Huggins told his 2013-14 Mountaineer team.
“It’s not like a guy selling drugs, you know. He’s going to have a heck of a life until he’s caught, then you … you don’t want to do that. The guys with the Ponzi schemes, they live the life for a while, then all of a sudden they are in there with folks who really don’t care, who don’t care about life or anything else,” he continued.
“Is that worth it? No, that isn’t worth it. It’s not that hard to rise above if you are really committed.”
Commitment, that’s what it is. Commitment to each other and trust in one another.
“I said to the team, ‘Here’s what you guys really don’t understand, and I don’t understand because I never did it, but I’ve talked to so many people who have … you go to battle … I mean real battle. We talk about battle in athletics, but that’s not really battle. Real battle is life or death.
“‘You want to be able to trust the guy beside you. You want to trust he knows the plan, that he knows what we’re doing here, what formations, how are we attacking, how do we respond when they are doing this.
“‘That guy beside you, he’d better know. It’s life or death.’”
This is strong talk for a basketball locker room, and Huggins understands that.
“I’m not equating this to life or death in any way shape or form, but that’s something we can learn from the bravest people in America. Be prepared,” he said.
“I don’t know how we spend the time we spend … ‘We’re gonna trap up top, we’re gonna zone the side’ … and then act like we never worked on it.
“That’s concentration. I know, you start missing shots and you start to lose a little bit but we gotta … I mean, we get tired and guys don’t play,” Huggins continued.
“I told them, I never want to go to war with you. I wouldn’t want to get in a street fight with you. You’re liable to lay on the floor and act like you’re dead because you’re tired or scared. I want somebody who is going to be there with you, someone who isn’t going to make excuses.
“I want someone who instead of saying I’m tired and bending over and grabbing his shorts will sit down in a stance. That’s what the good guys I’ve had have done. They sit down in a stand and willed themselves (to keep going).
“Honestly, I think there are people in that room who want to and will get there. Hopefully it’s by Saturday.”
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.