Bob Huggins says he was feeling pretty good the other day.
Why not? His basketball team had won two straight games for the first time since December, Deniz Kilicli had begun playing the game the way he knew he could, baskets were starting to fall with regularity.
And physically he was even beginning to feel good.
“My hips were feeling better, my knees, too,” he noted on Friday.
Then he received a text from Bryan Messerly, who handles the sports information for the men’s basketball team.
Messerly informed him that when he faces TCU at 4 p.m. this afternoon it will mark the 1,000th game of his college coaching career.
“My hips and my knees, they started hurting me again,” he joked.
A thousand games, he said, have no real meaning other than being one of those milestones that come along if you coach long enough, and considering that Huggins’ career started back in 1980 at Ashland College and now has stretched out for 33 improbable years, well, make of it what you want.
Certainly that last Saturday in September, 2002, as he lay on a sidewalk outside a rental car office at the Pittsburgh airport, the victim of a massive heart attack while on a recruiting trip for the University of Cincinnati, there were doubts he would ever see 1,000 games.
In fact, there were doubts he would see the opening game of the next season, but somehow he was back at practice two weeks later and has often expressed his feelings about life and death ever since then, saying “Honestly, I’ve always felt when God says it’s time, it’s time. When He says your time here is done, it’s done. You’re not going to change that.”
And with that in mind he has charged ahead, coached as hard as he always did, won some really big games, lost some tough games, and now he stands ready to coaching the 1,000th game of a career that has been filled with controversy but which has brought him to a pair of Final Fours.
Thirty-three years ago is a long time, but that was when he coached his first game, a moment that made his father, Charlie, one of the great high school basketball coaches in history, the proudest man on earth.
Did Huggins remember that first game?
Of course he did.
“It was against Oberlin College,” he said. “Ed Jenka was coaching. He went on to become head of basketball at Nike and today is still a good friend.”
Jenka, it turned out, was better at Nike than coaching, going 1-25 in his only season in Delaware, Ohio, with Oberlin.
But Huggins isn’t giving back the 91-59 win.
“I thought about retiring after that one … retire undefeated, you know,” he joked.
So much followed, even that first year.
Huggins finished at 14-16, beating Glenville but suffering his worst loss at Fairmont State, 72-40. He could have reached .500 but for a pair of one-point defeats to Davis & Elkins and Ashland and a two-point loss to Slippery Rock, but he also managed to find a way to win a couple of one-point games.
It seemed rather obvious, with 1,000 games in the bag, 721 of them victories (including a 2-0 forfeit win over Rio Grande in the final game of that first year), that one would stand above the others and that might be a game he’d rather have back.
“There’s about 300 and some I’d like to have back,” he said, referring to his losses, which in reality total only 278.
It’s tougher with the victories, for there are so many to choose from, but Huggins gave it some thought.
“That’s really hard when you do this as long as I have. Obviously, the Kentucky game was great because I knew how much it meant not being able to reach the Final Four for 40-some years,” he said.
That was a victory at WVU which took them to their Final Four meeting with Duke in 2010, their first Final Four since Jerry West got them there in 1959 and they lost by a point in the Finals to California.
In the end, though, Huggins found another game that may have meant even more to him.
It was from that same year, the year they beat Georgetown by two points to win the Big East Tournament.
“I think winning the Big East was a great deal,” Huggins said. “Just looking around and seeing that ring of gold, being able to stand there in the largest city in the world, the most famous basketball arena in the world, playing ‘Country Roads’, looking around and seeing all those people with tears of joy in their eyes … that was pretty neat.”
Now he’s ready for the second thousand. They say that’s always the hardest.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.
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