By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
Bob Huggins was sitting at the podium following his West Virginia University basketball team’s Wednesday night victory over TCU, explaining why his team has been having problems winning this season and stands no better than .500 after 18 games.
“We don’t have aggressive people by nature. We have just a whole bunch of laid-back, nice guys,” he said.
That set off bells within the minds of those of us who have been around for maybe longer than we deserve to be.
Was Bob Huggins really saying what Leo Durocher, the one-time baseball manager, had said and made famous, “Nice guys finish last”?
It is, of course, one of sport’s most repeated lines. Durocher, in his autobiography, aptly named “Nice Guys Finish Last,” described its origin this way:
“It came about during batting practice at the Polo Grounds, while I was managing the Dodgers. I was sitting in the dugout with Frank Graham of the old Journal-American, and several other newspapermen, having one of those freewheeling bull sessions. Frankie pointed to Eddie Stanky in the batting cage and said, very quietly, ‘Leo, what makes you like this fellow so much? Why are you so crazy about this fellow?’
“I started by quoting the famous Rickey statement: ‘He can’t hit; he can’t run; he can’t field; he can’t throw. He can’t do a damn thing, Frank — but beat you.’ He might not have as much ability as some of the other players, I said, but every day you got 100 percent from him and he was trying to give you 125 percent.
“‘Sure, they call him the Brat and the Mobile Muskrat and all of that,’ I was saying, and just at that point, the Giants, led by Mel Ott, began to come out of their dugout to take their warm-up. Without missing a beat, I said, ‘Take a look at that Number Four there. A nicer guy never drew breath than that man there.’ I called off his players’ names as they came marching up the steps behind him, ‘Walker Cooper, Mize, Marshall, Kerr, Gordon, Thomson. Take a look at them. All nice guys. They’ll finish last. Nice guys. Finish last.’
“I said, ‘They lose a ball game; they go home; they have a nice dinner; they put their heads down on the pillow and go to sleep. Poor Mel Ott, he can’t sleep at night. He wants to win; he’s got a job to do for the owner of the ball club. But that doesn’t concern the players; they’re all getting good money.’ I said, ‘You surround yourself with this type of player, they’re real nice guys, sure — ‘Howarya, Howarya,’ and you’re going to finish down in the cellar with them. Because they think they’re giving you 100 percent on the ball field and they’re not. Give me some scratching, diving, hungry ballplayers who come to kill you. Now, Stanky’s the nicest gentleman who ever drew breath, but when the bell rings you’re his mortal enemy. That’s the kind of a guy I want playing for me.’”
And that is exactly what Huggins was trying to say about his team at this very moment, 70-plus years later.
Listen to what Huggins said about his team, sounding so Durocher-ish that it was difficult to distinguish the two.
“They’d do anything in the world for you,” he said of his players. “The reality is, this is not the most important thing to them. I’m talking God, family and basketball, or like Lombardi said, ‘God, family and the Green Bay Packers.’
“But that’s the way it has to be. That’s not that you don’t have fun. I mean, college is the greatest time of your life. Enjoy it … but take care of your business first.”
There is a certain dedication that Huggins asks for. No, a certain dedication that he demands, a dedication that he had and one that he can’t find yet in this year’s team, and he believes that is why it is underperforming.
“You’d be dumbfounded how guys come in and say ‘Man, I’ve got no time.’ I ask them what the problem is and it’s, ‘Man, I’ve got classes; I study; I have to lift; I have to practice.’” Huggins said, quoting his players.
“Well let’s talk about this … you have class three hours a day, study hall at the max two hours a day. That’s five hours. You lift for an hour, that’s six. That leaves you 18 hours,” he says to them. “They go, ‘Man, that can’t be right.’”
But, he notes, it is right.
“I tell them I don’t know what’s wrong with putting another hour in to work on your game. You can still have some fun and get some sleep.”
Huggins is pushing for them to move basketball up on their personal priority list and to forget about being Mr. Nice Guy.
“I believe you get out of this game what you put into it,” he said, offering a lecture to anyone who wanted to listen. “Kevin Noreen is a great example.
Noreen is a kid who has sold himself completely into the program and into playing the game as well as he can play it.
He is a Bob Huggins type of player.
“Physically, he’s not nearly as gifted as anyone else on our team, but he puts so much in. The truth is, he’s getting a heckuva a lot out. He’s realizing his dream of playing big-time, major college basketball on television,” the coach noted.
“He’s going to end up with probably three majors and a master’s degree coming out of here. He’ll get a great, great job coming out of here, just like Cam Thoroughman did … but he’s invested in it. If you don’t invest anything, would you expect to get anything out?
“You can’t win a lottery unless you but a ticket. You can’t get in the stock market unless you invest. Obviously, the more you invest, the more you get out of it.”
This is where Huggins is trying to lead his team right now, not necessarily for this year, but certainly in hopes that they get it by the season’s end so they can take it into next season and become the hard-edged team that he requires to compete in the Big 12.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.