By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
It is one of Bob Huggins’ favorite stories and one that he wanted to be sure he imparted upon the graduates of the West Virginia University School of Physical Activity and Sports Sciences during his commencement address Sunday.
The WVU basketball coach noted that he moved from Morgantown, where he had been born, to a small Ohio town that had “one stop light and nine bars.” One day as a youth he was walking along and was offered a ride in a pickup truck.
“I noticed when I got in that the truck didn’t have a rearview mirror,” Huggins related.
“Hey,” he said to the driver, “why don’t you have a rearview mirror?”
“We ain’t going backwards,” he said.
True or not, Huggins claims the story stuck with him and gave him a philosophy on life, one he followed as a basketball coach and player.
“Everyone says stop and smell the roses,” Huggins said. “I can’t. I guess I was afraid that if I did, Jay Wright, Jim Calhoun and Jim Boeheim would run right by me.”
Huggins has made mistakes, sure, he admitted, and had some good times and bad times.
But they were yesterday.
“I don’t look back,” he would say in a private conversation before the speech. “You look back at the good, you have to look at the bad. You look at the things you did right, you have to look at what you did wrong. I’m happy.”
Huggins had begun his talk as only he can, straight forward but with a laugh. He said he was preparing the speech when he came across a quote from Newton Baker — “I have absolutely no idea who the hell he is.”
That didn’t deter him from using it.
“The man who graduates today and stops learning tomorrow is uneducated the day after.”
The idea again was to move forward, that what was learned in college was enough to get a degree but not enough to get you through the life that is ahead.
Huggins let them know, again mostly through humor, that they are going out into a world that isn’t going to be easy, and that they will have to start at the bottom and work their way up, noting that after a year as GA he was fired at West Virginia when Gale Catlett came in.
They all won’t be getting rich right away, either, he told the graduates.
“I went to Walsh and got along with the athletic director, who is the president there now, real good, and learned how to negotiate. I went in and they offered me a contract for $11,000 a year to coach basketball, have seven four-hour practices a week, run the intramural program and teach 11 hours of classes. I negotiated that up to $13,000, have six four-hour practices, run the intramural program and teach seven hours.”
He noted that as a coach you are a teacher and that there are any number of ways to teach. For example, he recalled coming into WVU after John Beilein left and inheriting a team that included Mazzulla.
“Coach,” Mazzulla said early on, “how can I get better?”
“Well,” answered Huggins, giving Mazzulla this first deep lesson in Bob Huggins basketball, “if you are going to be a point guard, make sure you throw the ball to the guys wearing the same shirt you are wearing.”
Teaching, at first, was mystifying to Huggins, he said.
Right up until he got a dog.
“I taught this dog to run and sit,” Huggins said. “I’d throw something, she’d run and get it, come back and I’d say ‘Sit.’ She’d sit.”
Now he had to get through to his players.
“We’re holding a not particularly good practice and I’m thinking about my dog. I don’t know why, but I was and it hit me. If I can teach a dog to run and sit, I can teach these guys. Joe Mazzulla will tell you. I have a treadmill in practice and if these guys don’t play hard, it’s on the treadmill and they run. In a game, if they don’t do what I tell them, they sit.
“It’s just like the dog ... run and sit.”
He learned to coach well enough that he’s on a non-stop journey to the Hall of Fame, and it is that much better that he is back home at WVU.
He had that wonderful run at Cincinnati, reached the Final Four, and the Elite Eight early, ran into tough times and was run out of town. He coached a year at Kansas State and loved it there but could not withstand the draw of returning home.
“The first day I’m back I saw professors that had taught me and I thought, ‘What a special place that professors would care enough to stay here all that time.’ It’s a special, special place. When I get players in here, the first thing I do is tell them they have an opportunity to represent this great university and this great state. We talk about it all the time.
“I go around this state and speak in places where you didn’t know there were places. Those people love this university and love this state.”
Huggins then closed this way:
“Remember this ... when I first came here, an assistant football coach came and put his arm around me and said people say the greatest resource in West Virginia is its coal. It’s not. It’s its people. I’ve never forgotten that.
“That’s you. Once you come here and get the degree, once you put the uniform on, you become one of us.”
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org.