MORGANTOWN — There is going to come a time when college basketball is going to have to wrestle with an interesting situation — whether or not to induct Bob Huggins into the Hall of Fame.
It is a dilemma, you see, for his record far exceeds his reputation, which has taken more than a few hits over the years. The reason this becomes an issue on the night his West Virginia basketball team finally entered the Big East Tournament, playing their first game long after both Jim Boeheim and Jim Calhoun and their Hall of Fame resumes had been sent packing, is what Huggins accomplished on this night.
When his Mountaineers had finished delivering a knockout blow to his former team, Cincinnati, in Madison Square Garden, just as Joe Frazier had beaten Muhammad Ali in their classic “Fight of the Century” 39 years and three days earlier, Huggins was in possession of his 664th career victory.
That tied Huggins for 30th place on the all-time list (21st place in Division I), but more intriguing than the fact that he moved into a tie for that spot is with whom he now shares 30th and 21st place.
He shares it with the man many believe to be the greatest college basketball coach of all-time — John Wooden.
Wooden, of course, built the UCLA dynasty that won 10 national titles in the 1960s and 1970s, once compiling a winning streak of 88 consecutive games.
In many ways, Wooden is the ying and Huggins the yang of college basketball, so different are the two men, yet so much the same in their intense desire to win.
It was the great Jim Murray, the Pulitzer Prize-winning sports columnist from the Los Angeles Times, who once described Wooden as being “so square he was divisible by four.”
In a portrait of the man, Murray wrote:
“John Wooden never wanted to be thought of as a fiery leader. Life to him was a one-room schoolhouse with pictures of George Washington, Christ and a pair of crossed flags. Outside the pumpkins ripened under a harvest moon. A pedagogue is all he ever wanted to be or remembered as. A simple country teacher.”
Can you imagine trying to make that description fit Huggins, who breathes fire on the sidelines, whose language is as acidic as Wooden’s was syrupy.
While each has same number of collegiate victories, their paths certainly were different to arrive at the top.
While Huggins was a good college player, Wooden was an All-American at Purdue.
And if Huggins put in a bit of an apprenticeship at Akron before moving on to Cincinnati, Kansas State and West Virginia, Wooden managed somehow to serve a high school apprenticeship that lasted 11 years. Far more startling than his 218 high school victories is the fact that
the Wizard of Westwood managed somehow to lose 42 high school games, making you wonder whatever happened to the coaches who beat him.
Huggins, of course, is known as a great recruiter, but the players he has brought in over the years pale in comparison to what Wooden convinced to go to UCLA. True, Huggins has mined the New York City area and came up with some gems, including all five of his starters on this year’s WVU team.
Wooden, though, got the gem of them all, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, nee Lew Alcindor, the greatest high school player ever to come from New York.
Huggins grabbed off hard-nosed, blue-collar kids, Wooden brought in basketball royalty like Alcindor and Bill Walton and Gail Goodrich and Sidney Wicks.
And while Huggins was jousting with windmills, Wooden was building his famous “Pyramid for Success”, a formula for living life the right way, stressing items such as friendliness and self-control and poise.
It was as if the fatherly Wooden, sitting there on the bench with his program rolled up in his hand, his legs crossed, was teaching his players not only how to win at basketball, but win at life.
In the end, though, does it matter that Wooden was impeccable in his suits while Huggins felt more comfortable in a pullover, each man dressing to match his own personality?
Each had a passion for his profession and his own singular approach in how to succeed, be it by Wooden’s method building a pyramid or Huggins’ more direct matter of beating down the front door.
E-mail Bob Hertzel at email@example.com.