By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
As he stands there in front of his bench at the Coliseum, a black pullover covering the results of a way of life that the doctors who attended him when his heart stopped beating would never approve, West Virginia University basketball coach Bob Huggins is a show unto himself.
One minute the arms are folded, a wry smile on his face, the next he stands with arms reaching skyward, a snarl on his face as he offers an opinion on a referee’s call. He may be running helter-skelter from one end of the bench to the other to get a player up and in the game before the player on the floor who just failed to perform properly even realizes he’s out of the game.
He may be standing there, finger pointed, growling eyeball to eyeball with a player, only to be there with his arm dangling loosely around his shoulder as he talks with the very same player, drawing a smile out of him.
That is Huggins.
He is a man; he is a basketball coach, one who will possess 700 victories when he wins his next game, probably tonight against Missouri State in Las Vegas as part of the Continental Tire Las Vegas Classic.
Only 18 major college coaches have compiled more victories and only three are active — Mike Krzyzewski at Duke, Jim Boeheim at Syracuse and Jim Calhoun at Connecticut.
It is a lot of wins … and Bob Huggins could care less.
“I honestly don’t think about those things,” he said, a trait he believes he got from his father, Charlie, a legendary high school coach in Ohio.
“I guess growing up the way I grew up had something do with it. I mean, my father is in every Hall of Fame in Ohio and no one could ever get him to send in his resume. The guys I grew up with are the guys who researched it, put it together and sent his resume in for him,” Huggins said.
“I guess some of that rubbed off on me. I’ve never done this for any other reason than I enjoyed working with young people, and I enjoyed watching guys grow.”
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That is simplifying too much, really, for there is more Bob Huggins gets out coaching than just helping kids develop.
He is not a simple man, very intelligent. Had he opted to be a lawyer, no one doubts that he would have been capable of giving Johnny Cochran and Edward Bennett Williams all they could handle.
He blends the intelligence with a burning competitive nature that may never really be satisfied, certainly not until he climbs the one mountain that has always been too high for him, the NCAA championship.
The competitiveness was there right from the beginning, from the moment he was born in Morgantown and then as he became a three-time All-Ohio player and the 1972 Mr. Basketball in the state while playing for his father.
He went off to Ohio University for a year, then came to West Virginia, a talented guard who was as tough as anyone, including Jerry West, who ever put a WVU uniform on.
He seemed headed for a career in law, but the Philadelphia 76ers took him to camp after his senior year, keeping him just long enough to miss enrolling in law school.
And so he became a coach.
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Immediately, Huggins found he had an affection for the kids. This was his calling, for he could get them to come to play for him, and they enjoyed playing for him.
Ask Kevin Jones. He was one of Huggins’ first recruits when he came to West Virginia. The talk, of course, when he was at Cincinnati was that he recruited thugs, that his players didn’t graduate, were always in trouble.
Exaggerated, he said, but no one listened.
Now, after he brought along Da’Sean Butler and Joe Alexander and Joe Mazzulla and, yes, Kevin Jones, maybe they will understand just what kind of coach he was for the kids.
“He’s meant a lot to me, helping me grow as a player and a person. He helped me become a man, basically,” the player they call K.J. said. “He’s taught me to take responsibility for myself and grow as a person and a player.”
You look for one warm, personal moment, and Jones can’t come up with one. It’s tapestry of moments.
“Coach is the type of guy who will scream at you in practice and you’ll think he doesn’t like you. But he’s a whole different person after practice. It’s like ‘Wow, you were just screaming at me.’ You have to learn not to take it personal and filter in the message he’s trying to get across to you,” Jones said.
Deniz Kilicli, too.
Huggins brought him in from Turkey, to a different culture, a different kind of basketball.
He’s frustrated Huggins at times, yet the relationship is warm and caring.
“It’s not one thing,” Kilicli said. “It’s lots of stuff. We had so many talks, one-on-one talks. He really changed me personally. How I act, almost my personality. I didn’t realize before that things were that hard or that easy. He knows so many things.
“When I first came in, he was the guy I wanted to play for because he looked like he would take care of me … and he took care of me, and still does.”
It has always been that way.
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At Cincinnati he found success quickly, reaching the Final Four in his third year. There he was with his Cincinnati team against basketball’s blue bloods — Duke, Indiana and Michigan.
A couple of years ago he thought back to that.
“It was the year Jerry Tarkanian was retiring, and people were calling us the UNLV of the East,” he said, not necessarily a compliment considering the reputation Tarkanian had for pushing the rules.
“Everyone was knocking us, but no one stopped to listen,” Huggins said. “We had the most articulate, entertaining and enjoyable group of players there.”
True, he didn’t graduate a lot of players, but much of that was bookkeeping stuff, players who had started at a Division I school, quit and gone to junior college, then come to Cincinnati. They didn’t count as graduates if they did.
And when you are turning out Nick Van Exel, Kenyon Martin, Ruben Patterson and Danny Fortson to the NBA, is that a black mark against your ability to bring kids along and have them realize their ultimate dream?
Huggins, perhaps, put it best when he said while at Cincinnati:
“People want Ivy League students five days a week who play like UNLV on game day. They want you to recruit like Bobby Knight at Indiana. Well, Knight can recruit like that at Indiana, but you can’t get those kids at Cincinnati.”
In fact, Huggins noted as thought back to that first Final Four, the one one with Michigan and its Fab Five:
“They had to take their banner down,” he said, referring to a scandal at the school.
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Huggins always has been trying to save the kids. Sometimes it works, sometimes not.
Certainly at West Virginia he came in and made Da’Sean Butler into an NBA player, unable only to control fate with him. And then there was Joe Alexander, whom John Beilein could not get through to.
“He said I was an NBA player,” Alexander said as he recalls his introduction to Huggins. “He said that to me when I started my first individual workout. He saw I was really passionate about the game. I wasn’t just going through the motions.
“As a coach he was the best thing that could have happened to me. As far as developing my game, he showed me things that I had never been exposed to.”
The thing is, Huggins still enjoys what he’s doing.
“I’m a lot smarter than I was 10 years ago. I used to be in the office at 7 in the morning, and I wouldn’t leave until 12:30 at night. I didn’t know what I was doing. I used to go recruit and work like crazy and have one those old guys beat me out,” he said.
“I’d be thinking, ‘What did I do wrong? What did I miss?’ It wasn’t that. It was that they’d been doing it so long, had been on TV, they knew what they were doing. You get smarter as you get older and don’t have to put quite so much time in.”
Retirement does not cross his mind, not even with a near-fatal heart attack in the Greater Pittsburgh Airport while recruiting on his resume.
“I’m going to come to a point in time when I don’t think I can give them everything I have. When that comes, I’m going to quit,” he said. “I’m not going to cheat them. I’m not going to be one of those guys who quits working, who quits caring, who doesn’t come prepared to practice.”
He wants to leave the game the right way.
“I don’t want to go out a bum,” he said.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.