By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
The other day West Virginia basketball coach Bob Huggins took to Twitter to show his latest adventures, a day of fishing on Lake Erie in Buffalo.
There were pictures of Huggins displaying a rather hefty resident of the depths of Lake Erie, along with pictures of some of the program’s boosters who had accompanied him showing off their catch.
Huggins being Huggins, there was also a picture of their dining spot, which was hardly anything fancier than the pullovers Huggins wears on the sidelines, the neon sign proudly proclaiming it was the home of the original Buffalo chicken wings.
It was, he admitted upon returning home, a fun trip, but its duration was only a day, hardly what you would call a vacation.
In fact, when an inquiring mind wanted to know just how Huggins does get away from the pressures of big-time coaching, his answer was honest and straight forward.
“You called the wrong guy,” he said.
Oh, there are occasional trips such as the journey to Lake Erie, but almost always it is with boosters, and that means the talk is mostly about his team, about what happened last year, what he expects to happen this year, maybe even with a dose of the rather high expectations these high rollers have for the team.
Why, they might even offer a suggestion of who to play more or draw up a play that worked pretty well on their high school team back there in the ’60s and might just work today in the Big 12.
In truth, there are times when Huggins would like to get a “vacation,” just sneak away to his cabin, but that doesn’t come often.
“It’s hard,” he admitted. “I might get away in August.”
But the truth is, as he puts it, “the job never stops.”
There’s phone service at the cabin and he says the calls keep coming.
The thing is, one would think that considering Huggins’ medical history, it would be critical that he find some ways to get away, to relax, to just kick back and not have to worry about missed 3-point shots and missed curfews.
You ask him how long ago it was when he had that massive heart attack at Greater Pittsburgh International Airport while recruiting that almost killed him.
“It’s probably been ...,” he said, stopping to think, a seconds-long pause turning into something longer. “Funny, I really can’t remember when it was.”
For the record, it was Sept. 28, 2002, closing in on 11 years ago, which is a tribute to the miracles of modern medicine and the will of man to live.
Huggins became something of a fatalist, believing his destiny was not really in his hands.
This is how he put it a couple years back during the Mountaineers’ run to the Final Four.
“Honestly, I’ve always felt when God says it’s time, it’s time,” Huggins said. “When he says your time here is done, it’s done. You’re not going to change that.
“There was a 24-year-old kid who was a former cross-country runner at Cincinnati and he had a heart attack two days after I did and died — just coming back from a five-mile run he did every morning,” Huggins adds. “It is what it is. I’m fortunate God said it wasn’t my time.”
In many ways his doctor, Dr. Dean Kereiakes, led him in that direction, letting him know that he didn’t have to baby himself back to health.
Did he ever tell Huggins to take it easier?
“Not really,” Huggins answered. “The cardiologist I had in Cincinnati had a lot of top executives, including the CEO of Proctor & Gamble and a lot of their top executives. Well, my players all wanted to come in and see me and everyone was all concerned.
“He said, ‘How can that be a problem? The guys from Proctor & Gamble who have heart problems have meetings right here in the hospital.’”
If they can get back to work before they are released, Huggins reasoned, why should he back off his work load?
And so it has been ever since then.
Last year, Huggins admits, was agonizing with more losses than victories for the first time since his first year as college coach. It was something that ate at him all year and still does. It’s that way with nearly all successful coaches. They never really put the game out of their minds.
“Wins are supposed to happen. Losses are agony,” Huggins said.
But you don’t try to forget it, he advised.
“The best thing you can do is do something about it,” he said.
And that has been what this offseason has been all about, players transferring out, junior college players coming in, freshmen arriving — all of it aimed at something far better than a vacation.
A winning season.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.