By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
This is the game I’ve been waiting for.
Being somewhat of an aficionado of nicknames — they say I gave the Cincinnati Reds of the 1970s the nickname of The Big Red Machine, although that can be disputed, but no one disputes that I hung Captain Hook on the Machine’s manager Sparky Anderson for his penchant for hooking pitchers — things don’t get much better than tonight’s West Virginia at Texas Tech basketball game.
On one side you have the Red Raiders coach, Tubby Smith, while on the other side you WVU’s own lovable Huggy Bear, Bob Huggins.
Now you may be wondering how Tubby Smith got his nickname, considering that the man never has been more than a couple of pounds overweight.
The story goes that back in Scotland, Md., where Smith was the sixth of 17 children born to sharecroppers Guffrie and Parthenia Smith. As a child he was fond of staying in the galvanized washtub where the children were bathed.
Why not? In a family with 17 kids, it probably was the only place he could be alone for a few minutes.
As a result, though, they began calling him Tubby and the name stuck, much to his chagrin.
Smith tried to shake the moniker several times to no avail and finally accepted it as life as it is.
Ask him and he’ll tell you the last time anyone called him by his real name, Orlando, it was a 10th-grade teacher who refused to use nicknames.
Huggy Bear is a bit more obvious, Huggy being a play on Huggins’ last name and Bear being … well, did you ever see the man?
Not that it fits, for “Huggy Bear” infers this big, cuddly teddy bear of man, which Huggins most certainly is not. He’s one tough, demanding dude.
Well, tonight in Lubbock, Texas, the two men get together for the third time as coaches, Smith owning victories in each of the prior engagements.
The two first met in 2005 when Smith was at Kentucky and Huggins at Cincinnati, the No.7 Wildcats topping the No. 23 Bearcats, 69-60; and they met again in 2010 when Smith’s Minnesota Gophers beat Huggins’ Mountaineers in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off Classic.
There was one other confrontation between the two, that coming in 2001 when the two traveled to the Belterra Golf Club in Belterra, Ind., to square off in a golf event to benefit children in the two coaches’ communities, in which two golfers from each school’s golf teams squared off in what was termed the “Huggy-Tubby Classic,” the winner claiming the “Hug Tub Jug.”
I could find no record of who took possession of the “Hug Tub Jug,” but perhaps whoever owns it could put it up for the winner of this game.
Huggins, in truth, is far more the cuddly Huggy Bear than people realize. Oh, it’s true, he hasn’t lived the life of saint and he is tough on his players, but as tough as he is on them is as soft as he is with them, too.
The way he took Joe Alexander under his wing and turned him into an NBA prospect after John Beilein had pretty much given up on his talent is a vivid memory we will keep of him, just as it was the view of him bending over Da’Sean Butler as he lay on the Final Four court, his knee torn apart, his career at stake.
Huggins seemed to be feeling the pain even more than Butler.
This so went against his image, an image that once had Sports Illustrated columnis Rick Reilly write:
“Don’t understand his nickname — Huggy Bear. The man is about as huggy as an ulcerous porcupine. It’s like calling Dick Cheney ‘Smiley.’”
Even Reilly, though, was taken in by Huggins and his handling of Joe Mazzulla after he injured his shoulder, how he used Mazzulla while he was unable to use the arm to replace Truck Bryant, who had broken his foot.
Mazzulla went out and overwhelmed Kentucky to advance to the Final Four, making his first 3 of the year scoring 17 points and defensively driving the Kentucky giants so crazy that at one point center DeMarcus Cousins looked down at Mazzulla and said, “Are you being serious right now?”
Huggins nursed that performance out of Mazzulla and when it was over, Mazzulla went off looking for his coach.
“I had to find him,” Mazzulla says, “I never want him to forget that I love him. What he did for me, how he stuck with me, nobody else would’ve done it.”
And that is why rough, tough, gruff Bob Huggins is “Huggy Bear” and always will be, especially to his players.
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel