By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
That’s all it takes to understand the depth of the relationship between West Virginia University head basketball coach Bob Huggins and his longtime assistant Larry Harrison.
The first you see on the video board in the Coliseum before each Mountaineer home game, a video clip taken right after beating Kentucky to advance to the Final Four last season, the two men walking side by side, arms around each other, a satisfied smile on their faces as tears seem ready to flow from Huggins’ eyes.
The other is a recent photograph that went national from the Louisville game, where Huggins is snarling at an official as Harrison tries to restrain him to little avail as Huggins earned a technical foul.
If you believe in imagery, that sums it up. Bob Huggins has had good times and bad times, and as that has gone on he has had Larry Harrison at his side.
Through two Final Fours, through a much-too-public DUI arrest, through a heart attack, through a showdown with the University of Cincinnati president, through his return to his alma mater in West Virginia, Larry Harrison been there for Bob Huggins, either as an assistant or a friend.
o o o o o
In Larry Harrison’s mind, his relationship with Huggins began back when the University of Cincinnati first hired Huggins, but Huggins says it began long before that, back when Harrison was a college player of Muskingum College in Ohio, playing for Jim Burson.
“I knew Jim Burson from the time I was a kid,” Huggins said, meeting him through his father, Charlie, who was one of the great high school coaches in Ohio history. “I knew how he taught basketball and the hard work he required.”
When Huggins went to Cincinnati, following Akron and Walsh College, Harrison was at American University. He received a call from a young friend just getting started in the business, a friend named Tom Creen, coach now at Indiana.
“He was finishing college and applying to be a grad assistant. He had talked to Huggs about being a grad assistant there, but there was also a job at Michigan State and being from Michigan he was leaning more toward that,” Harrison recalled the other day during a talk in his office. “He called me and asked me if I heard that Bob got the Cincinnati job and asked if I would be interested.”
Harrison was fine at American but had to be interested, so at the Final Four in 1989 Creen introduced Huggins and Harrison.
“We talked,” Harrison said. “He talked about a lot of things, one of them was how he wanted to win a national championship at Cincinnati. That was my goal, too, either as an assistant or head coach.”
That is worth remembering, for Huggins remembered it and offered Harrison the job during that job interview, but told he would have to get back to him after he put everything in place.
A month later, Harrison hadn’t heard anything.
“I went through a period there where I was a little antsy,” he admitted. “Tom Creen and I were talking and I said, ‘You sure I got the job?’ He said, ‘If he told you that you’ve got the job, you’ve got the job.”
Huggins stayed true to his word.
“Ironically,” Harrison points out, “three years later we went to the Final Four. When he brought me back here, three years later we went to the Final Four again.”
o o o o o
Not having known Huggins previously, Harrison had to go through a period of learning what his new boss was all about and about the basketball he taught.
He would be surprised.
“I knew of him. People who watch Huggs on the sideline and watch the way he coaches, with the intensity he coaches, you think you are going to meet a different person,” Harrison said. “When we first met he was very reserved, quiet. I am very much the same way. When you get across those lines on the basketball court, it’s different.”
Over the years, the relationship grew.
“Our relationship had to develop. He brought the staff he had in Akron with him and I was the outsider,” Harrison said. “A lot of his philosophy, his coaching style both offensively and defensively, I had to learn. I studied quite a bit, watched his interaction with the other coaches. I had to gain his confidence.”
Huggins was a hard boss, no doubt, but he was the perfect boss for Harrison.
“The one thing that I really appreciated from him was that he allowed us to coach,” Harrison said. “I remember my first couple of years, I was in charge of perimeter guys and post guys. We were breaking guys down both offensively and defensive. He’d say, I want these guys to do this and do that. I’d say well Huggs, you have certain drills you want these guys to do? And he’d say no, I want you to coach them. You come up with the drills.
“That made me feel good. He had confidence enough in me to do that. I would come up with different drills to get done what he wanted to accomplish. He’d say, that’s good, just coach ’em and make ’em better.”
o o o o o
Harrison, with Huggins on his resume, left him in 2000 to take the head coaching job at Hartford, and so he physically was not with Huggins during the roughest of his times that began in 2002 with a heart attack where he nearly died in the Pittsburgh airport and then went through a DUI arrest in which a sobering video of his roadside stop was aired nationally, a Huggins’ collapse in Cincinnati when President Dr. Nancy Zimpher forced him to resign.
But as they say, he was only a phone call away.
“When you get in situations like that, just a phone call, just let him know that if he needs anything, you’re there for him,” Harrison said. “Huggs, like a lot of us, will appreciate the phone call. But sometimes, you have to figure it out yourself.”
And that is what Huggins really is, Harrison indicated, a person who must find his own way.
“He’s a thinker,” Harrison said. “He handles things internally, and he doesn’t show a lot of emotion as far as personal stuff is. He does internalize a lot. Maybe that’s why we get along so well; we both internalize a lot of things.”
Harrison heard about the heart attack and called a friend of theirs in Pittsburgh, who actually came to Huggins’ aid and wasn’t answering calls.
It was a wakeup call to Harrison and, certainly, to Huggins, too, just as was the fatal heart attack suffered by Skip Prosser, the Wake Forest and Xavier coach.
“I’m not saying our profession is different from others like doctors or lawyers, but there’s a lot stress that is put on from the outside and internally,” Harrison said. “Sometimes you sit back and say maybe I need to slow down, maybe Huggs needs to slow down, but because of the nature of the business — it’s so competitive — you can’t do it.”
One cannot underestimate the effect something like a heart attack can have on a person.
“The fact that he came out of it, it just shows that, obviously, the Good Lord was there with him. It shows the toughness of the man,” Harrison said. “I think from being back with him this second time, he feels like he got a second chance and he’s going to enjoy life and do the best he can. He wants to enjoy the moment.”
o o o o o
When Harrison left Huggins they never discussed the thought of him returning. As the Huggins drama played out in Cincinnati, Harrison was a witness only from afar, caught up his own head coaching job, one that he left after the 2005-06 season, joining the Washington Wizards as a scout.
“I realize scouting, when you are on the outside looking in you’re thinking ‘That would be great. All I have to do is going around and watch games. You don’t have to worry about kids going to class, you don’t have to worry about discipline. You don’t have worry SAT scores.’ You think would be a great job,” Harrison said.
He was just not cut out to be a scout.
“People would call me and say, you have to love scouting. And I’d say, I’ll tell you what, it’s the worst job ever,” he said. “All the things we complain about as coaches, after being removed from you, you realize, that’s what makes up your job.”
Along about this time, he heard word that Huggins might be getting ready to return to West Virginia after having sat out of basketball a year and then coached Kansas State for a season that led to the promise of a great future.
Harrison didn’t know what to think, because he’d seen Huggins turn West Virginia down once before.
“I don’t know what happened,” Harrison admitted. “One of the things at Cincinnati, it was such a great place. The city was good; the university was good. If you look back at the university the way it is today compared to how it was then you can see where it was headed. We had Shoemaker Center, which was very nice, but look at the campus now and all the facilities they built.”
Zimpher took care of Huggins’ thoughts of spending the rest of his career at Cincinnati.
So one night Harrison gets a call from Huggins.
“What do you think about West Virginia?” Huggins asked.
“What do you mean?” said Harrison.
“Do you think I can win a national championship there?” Huggins asked.
Harrison pauses here to interject a thought, a meaningful thought.
“That was the same thing he asked me before I went to Cincinnati,” he says before continuing.
“It’s a great university. It’s in the Big East. And you’re Bob Huggins. You’re going to get players.”
“We really got it going here at Kansas State,” Huggins answered. “Do you really think we can win there?”
“Yeah,” said Harrison.
Huggins thought for a moment, then answered:
“Let’s do this again. This time, let’s win it all.”
And, according to Harrison, with the recruiting class they have coming in next year and with what they are involved with for the following year, it may just happen, right here in West Virginia.
E-mail Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org.