By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
Bob Huggins has tasted his share of rivalries.
As a player at West Virginia University, he had the pleasure of playing Pitt, which is something his players no longer can say, but that’s their loss and your loss.
Then, for a year, he found himself part of the Kansas-Kansas State rivalry, which is no small matter.
But when it comes to rivalries, even on the eve of the 42nd renewal of the battle with in-state opponent Marshall at the Charleston Civic Center Coliseum at 7:30 tonight, Huggins says there’s nothing that can top the inner-city rivalry he and his Cincinnati Bearcats had with Xavier.
“Cincinnati vs. Xavier is off the charts,” Huggins proclaimed. “I mean, it’s off the charts. Kansas State vs. Kansas is a rivalry, but it doesn’t come close.”
And WVU-Pitt, the Backyard Brawl?
Huggins honestly believes that when he was playing Virginia Tech was a bigger rival than Pitt, and that was why he found a way to get the Hokies back onto his schedule.
With all this in mind, the question naturally arises as to what is a rivalry?
“I think a lot of it is proximity,” Huggins said, going back to the Cincinnati-Xavier skirmishes. “The whole thing starts two weeks before the game with Xavier people calling WLW. It is non-stop. It’s like you probably shouldn’t play for two weeks, because those other people you are playing really don’t matter.”
It just overrides everything in the city of Cincinnati. You have to remember, too, in Huggins’ heyday in Cincinnati, times when his teams were competing for national titles, Xavier was a prominent program, and there was no middle ground.
“You got husbands who went to Xavier and wives who went to UC and vice-versa. It’s crazy,” Huggins said. “Skyline Chili is promoting the heck out of it. Everyone is eating Skyline and talking about it.”
Skyline Chili is to Cincinnati what cheesesteaks are to Philadelphia or Primanti Brothers sandwiches are to Pittsburgh.
Being a city game makes it different than even WVU-Pitt, which has 80 miles of freeway separating the two schools, and it’s different, too, than WVU and Marshall.
“I don’t think people understand how far away we are from Marshall,” Huggins said.
He was speaking in freeway miles, but admitted it is much more than that for the cultures, the history, the way of life itself is different.
There really is no interplay between players of the two schools, not like it was in Cincinnati.
“There you have the players playing against each other all summer. For the most part, they are pretty close, but when that game happens … I got in trouble for saying it, but it is a holy war. It’s Catholics against heathens. That’s the way they look at it,” Huggins said, as only he can.
They’ve always had this thing that they were the poor little school down the road and we had all the money and resources. I mean, there’s nothing like it.”
This is not to say that things don’t get heated when West Virginia and Marshall play.
Ask how quickly Eron Harris picked up on it last year when, as a freshman from Indianapolis without any knowledge of the history, got himself ejected from the game for going out onto the court during a difference of opinion.
This, of course, kind of behavior was nothing new in this series, except its most famous moment was made when someone stormed off the court, not on it.
That occurred in another heated renewal in the mid-1980s when WVU’s walk-on guard Tim Austin walked off, tearing his jersey from his back and flinging it into the crowd as he exited.
But again, that was nothing compared to what happened in 2011, after Huggins had exited Cincinnati.
Bad blood had been brewing for years:
• In 2010, Xavier’s Tu Holloway received a technical foul for throwing an elbow late in UC’s 66-46 win.
• In 2009, multiple bench-clearing verbal exchanges resulting in technicals called on XU’s Jordan Crawford and UC’s Rashad Bishop in XU’s double-overtime win.
• In 2008, a total of six technicals were called in a 76-66 XU win. XU’s Derrick Brown was ejected, and two freshman post players were involved in an altercation that included a heavy dose of foreshadowing: XU’s Kenny Frease head-butted UC’s Yancy Gates (both players received T’s). The altercation between Frease and Gates in 2008 set the tone for bad blood between the two, and may have motivated Gates to seek revenge in 2011.
And that’s when the game ended in a huge brawl that led to the game ending with 9.3 seconds on the clock and a brief suspension of play in the series.
Historically the WVU-Marshall series has belonged to WVU, although not with the dominance of the football series that has Marshall still looking to score its first victory over the Mountaineers.
West Virginia is 17-5 in 22 Capitol Classics in Charleston, but recent meetings have been nail-biters, 11 of the last 15 being decided by single digits, two of them in overtime.
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.