The Times West Virginian

WVU Sports

December 15, 2012

Huggins, Beilein take similar paths to top

MORGANTOWN — It is a strange place to have a West Virginia reunion of its basketball past with its basketball present, being right off famed Flatbush Avenue here, where Ebbets Field used to house the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Right down the street from the site Ebbetts Field once occupied now sits the Barclays Center, the shiny new basketball arena that houses the Brooklyn Nets, who may perform like the early Dodgers of the Casey Stengel and Wilbert Robertson years but in which sits no one who remembers Hilda Chester, who was perhaps baseball’s most famous fan, or Gladys Gooding, who played not only the Ebbetts Field organ but the one at Madison Square Garden for the Knicks and the Rangers.

Yet his is where the stars cross, bringing together Michigan’s John Beilein and WVU’s Bob Huggins, each possessing a large piece of Mountaineer basketball history.

Huggins, of course, is a one-time team captain at WVU, a hard-nosed guard who left to make a name for himself at the University of Cincinnati before returning to his alma mater five years ago to take the vacant reins from Beilein and to lift them to a basketball level they had not seen since the Jerry West era, a place in the Final Four.

Beilein had rebuilt what had become in the final days of the Gale Catlett era a shambles of a once-proud program, a team that won but one Big East game the year before, that was left staring at an NCAA investigation and that actually had hired a coach in Dan Dakich, only to have him leave within eight days without ever signing a contract after discovering the NCAA dilemma.

Unlike Huggins, who as as high a profile and controversial a coach as you could find, a man whose reputation was unsavory in some quarters while at Cincinnati and who was driven out by a president with whom he did not get along, Beilein was as low-key a hire as you could find.

He had built success slowly wherever he had been, always working on a five-year program before leaving, his best job having been the one before he came to WVU, that being at mid-major Richmond.

And while Huggins played a physical, in-your-face, hard-nosed defensive brand of ball which was heavy on athletes, Beilein’s was more a scientific, mental approach to the game that depended not on the athleticism Huggins required but on the likes of a 6-11 3-point shooter named Kevin Pittsnoggle and a 1-3-1 zone defense.

Each won, which shows there is more than one way to skin a Bearcat or a Wildcat.

Interestingly, when Beilein opted to leave West Virginia for Michigan, a higher-profile job but one at a school where football was king and basketball, while a school that had four Final Four appearances (two vacated for violating NCAA rules) he left with no open hostility.

That he left behind enough talent on an NIT championship team that Huggins could coax it into the Final Four three years later, however, says there was something more than just needing a change of scenery that prompted Beilein’s exit.

He speaks of it politically today, rightfully so for there is no reason to open any wounds when you are unbeaten at 10-0, ranked No. 3 in the country and a legitimate national championship contender facing a school that is 4-4 and just lost to Duquesne.

“The opportunity to go to the University of Michigan was a great opportunity, but I also cherished what I had at West Virginia,” the 59-year-old Beilein said. “Sometimes you can’t have both of those opportunities so you have to make one of those decisions.

“I loved to rebuild programs and thought hopefully I could do one more and the University of Michigan ended up being that choice. When people say to me, ‘You have better recruiting classes,’ I never say those things because the people who rank those things don’t know what a lot of us coaches know.”

The truth is, though, that Beilein has raised the profile of his recruits since the days of coaching his son and J.D. Collins, Pittsnoggle, Alex Ruoff, Johannes Herber and a St. Bonaventure transfer named Mike Gansey at WVU.

“We are playing five freshmen more than any team in the country,” he said. “It’s very rare those type of young men sustain success, so we try every day to get them to continue to understand prosperity so they can continue to get better.”

These are no ordinary freshmen, beginning with Glenn Robinson III, a five-star recruit, and Nick Stauskas, another high-flying prep star who came his way to be the team’s leading scorer in his first year.

And inside there’s 6-10, 250-pound freshman Mitch McGary who is nothing like Jamie Smalligan.

Toss in last year’s freshman sensation Trey Burke, the Freshman of the Year in the Big Ten who nearly jumped to the NBA, and another blueblood in Tim Hardaway Jr., and you understand that the talent Beilein works with is far better than it was at West Virginia.

At WVU, of course, he was the oddball of the Big East, always an underdog to Georgetown and Syracuse and maybe Villanova. It never bothered Beilein, though.

“I’ve always been very comfortable in the underdog role,” he said. “I don’t think I’ve been comfortable with any of the preseason or pre-conference type of gossip about who’s the best. That’s got to be determined down the road.”

What hasn’t changed are the basic principles upon which Beilein’s Princeton-style offense and zone defense is based.

Even coaching this group, he turns back to the teams he had at WVU to offer lessons.

“With our point guard play, you don’t know how many times I tell Trey Burke what a tough son-of-a-gun J.D. Collins was or how Darris Nichols used to play for us,” Beilein said. “I don’t know if we’ll ever find another Kevin Pittsnogle because he was so unique in his talent, but we’ve got guys at the top of our zone right now who play very much like a Tyrone Sally or a Da’Sean Butler.”

This matchup is intriguing, though, even more than for its matchup of former WVU coaches in that it matches it up coaches who followed similar paths to the top, each espousing his own way of playing the game and used it to get the most out of his players.

“I think when you’re the coach at Walsh and Akron (as Huggins did at the start his career) or when you’re the coach at LeMoyne and Canisius (as Beilein did), you have to do that or you’re not going to win,’’ Beilein said Wednesday. “And as a result, we took that same philosophy when we did have opportunities at Cincinnati and West Virginia and at West Virginia and Michigan.

“That’s why I think we’re very similar. How we do that may be different. I don’t know. I’ve never seen Bobby’s team practice. But I do know that we get the most ... I hope we’d both agree that we get the most out of our teams.”

Huggins agrees.

“I think when you start at places like where John started — and, to a degree, where I started — you’ve got to be a good coach to continue to win at every level,’’ Huggins said. “He gets the most out of his guys. I don’t think there’s any doubt about that. They play to their fullest potential.’’

“I have changed, yes, but I have changed every year for 35 years,” Beilein said. “I began coaching 37 years ago, so I guess it’s longer than that, but I’ve changed every year. Maybe that’s why I’m still coaching.

“If you don’t embrace that part of it, you’re not coaching very long.”

Email Bob Hertzel at bhertzel@hotmail.com or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.

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