By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
There probably was a time in the middle of last season when Bob Huggins wondered if this day ever would arrive, almost as the thought crossed his mind as he lay in the Pittsburgh airport suffering a heart attack that would have killed a less cantankerous man.
But here he was on a Monday night in early December with 4,692 fans on hand, the smallest crowd since West Virginia played New Hampshire on Dec. 21, 2004, when 4,323 showed up, winning his 729th game to tie with a pair of Hall of Fame coaches Jerry Tarkanian and Norm Stewart for 16th place all-time.
Whenever anything like this takes place, it can be worthwhile to step back and try to figure out what brings greatness to this coach and not to some others, maybe even others who are better at the X’s and O’s of the game or at the recruiting.
And so, on this night when the Mountaineers simply annihilated Loyola of Maryland, 96-47, you wonder what it is that sets Huggins apart.
Who better to go to to try and understand this than Kevin Noreen, a redshirt junior who has spent the past four years of his life with the man? He was, quite understandably, willing to talk about this subject on one of the best nights of his career, scoring one less than his career-high 14 points, grabbing off eight rebounds and adding an assist without a turnover.
“Consistency,” Noreen began. “He’s hard on players but he’s also understanding. You give him effort, he’ll give you his respect in return. You show him you care the way he cares about the program and you’ll have his love for life.
“He’s loyal. That’s his best effort. You go to battle for him, he’ll go to battle for you at any point during your career or after.”
He has gone to battle for Noreen because Noreen has battled for him, mostly as a role player.
Or is he a role player?
“I don’t think we have roles,” Noreen stated. “He lets us play. He says do what you do. If that means dive on the floor, then dive on the floor. If you’re good at getting rebounds, you will get rebounds. There’s no roles. You do what you do best. He puts people in spots where they can excel.”
Eron Harris is in just his second year under Huggins but he shows a good understanding, too, of how Huggins gets the best out of his players.
“I think it is that he’s 100 percent real with all his players. He lets them know what they have to do to get better. He’s tough on them. He’s not a soft guy, you know. He makes everything as close to reality, to real life as he can.
“By doing that we get mentally stronger, physically stronger and can go out there and perform.”
Notice, neither Noreen nor Harris mentioned the X’s and O’s of the game.
When that is brought up to Noreen, he says Huggins can handle that part of the game, too.
“He knows the game. You learn that when you first come in,” Noreen said. “You’re in high school, you think you know it all, you realize you are in a different world — all the little things, the techniques you have to perfect to play at this level, he has them down. He knows exactly what you need to do and when you need to do it.
“He’s going to have success because he’s not going to change his ways and they are successful.”
That is how the players see it, but how does Huggins see it? What does he believe separates him from other coaches?
“I don’t ever remember not being in the gym,” he said. “I was old enough to know what was going on when my dad was playing at Alderson-Broaddus. I remember being at the game, wadding up empty Coke cups like everyone did back then and shooting.
“I was always around the X and O part of it. My dad was a huge influence on me.”
But it was much more than just being around.
“To a great degree, we are determined not to be like some things we didn’t like. The things you didn’t like you probably made a determined effort not to treat your kids that way,” Huggins said.
“Also, I always had good communication and those guys have been tremendously loyal, and I think that’s a two-way street. It’s like they say: Be loyal to your school and the school will be loyal back. It doesn’t always work that way. I found that out,” he said, referring to his embattled end at the University of Cincinnati.
“I know for a fact now, so if you expect players to be loyal to you, you have to be loyal to them. If you expect your players to work, you have to work yourself.
“Communication is really important. I don’t think I ever talked to anyone as much as I talked to Joe Alexander. I mean, thank God my wife was not here because I was with him until all kinds of hours, trying to get him to understand what to do and why.
“Why is important. If I said why to my dad, I would have to duck. And know what the answer was — ‘Because I said so.’ I wasn’t going to be like that. I wanted him to understand why.”
And now you have an idea why Bob Huggins is among the great coaches.
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.