The Times West Virginian

WVU Sports

January 26, 2011

HERTZEL COLUMN - Huggins cares for his players

MORGANTOWN — It wasn’t so much what Bob Huggins said, because he had said it before, but when he did so it was in the abstract.

It came at a time when he was talking in generalties, not facing a pair of immediate and troubling personnel problems. At that time they were just words, really. Now they were more a philosophy, one that wasn’t always as obvious to outsiders.

“Everyone wants to know if I have changed,” Huggins said after announcing that he had suspended his leading scorer, Casey Mitchell, for once again violating team rules on the heels of Danny Jennings sudden, mid-game departure from West Virginia’s bench. “I say only that I hope and pray when I’m dead and gone people say I cared too much, but there comes a time when you can’t let people keep doing the same thing that’s wrong. I don’t where the line is, but the truth is I probably help guys too much”

This is not so called “coachspeak”, as you could tell from the tone of his voice and the emotion that wrapped itself around each word.

If Bob Huggins image to the world is of a big, tough, man’s man, it one who also possesses a softer side.

He can look downright scary snarling at an official or undressing a player on the bench who has just made a mistake, and that certainly is a part of this complex, intelligent man.

Certainly he is not to be messed with or crossed, but there is another Bob Huggins.

There are those who will say that it is the result of the heart attack that nearly claimed his life life a number of years back in the Greater Pittsburgh Airport. Certainly, when one faces the prospect of death, any number of thoughts go through one’s mind.

But, in truth, while that was a watershed moment, a life-altering moment, the truth is that Bob Huggins always had this other side to himself. It may not have been as openly displayed, may not even have been a clearly defined in his mind as it is now, but it was there.

The other day, after Jennings literally stunned him by walking out on his team in the middle of a game, Huggins talked about the family that is a basketball team. Again, this was not idle chatter. He was speaking straight from the heart and it had nothing to do with his cheating death.

In Cincinnati, before the heart attack, it was about family, too. He literally did care about the kids he brought in, many of them from dismal backgrounds, many who really had no business being in college at all, but he felt he could usher then through, give them a chance in life that they would not have without him.

Would he have done it if they excelled at chemistry, not basketball? No. Of course not. His family is a basketball family. He was a son of a coach, not matter what others may have called him, and he was adopting these players just as his father had adopted his teammates when he played for him.

Were there disappointments? Certainly. Many didn’t graduate, but in the real world folks, there

are a lot of reasons to attend college and not everyone is looking to graduate … only to find a successful path to follow through life.

Huggins tried to lead them that way and was hurt when they did not take advantage of what he was offering them.

Certainly, it made upset him as much, maybe even more, that they were hurting his chances to win as a basketball coach. He is among the most competitive men you will ever meet.”

But it hurt him, too, that he failed as the father figure of his basketball family, losing young adults that he had hoped he could help.

Since the heart attack, however, this is more an open side of him. Certain images come back in the mind at times like this, an image of Huggins arriving unannounced by helicopter at the Big Branch mine disaster, bringing homemade pasta and Mountaineer t-shirts in a gesture that could not have been more fitting.

Then there was the image of him bending over Da’Sean Butler as he lay on the floor at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, Butler’s knee torn apart from within, his career in doubt, Huggins cradling him, trying to comfort him.

"We're family. We know how much he cares for us and how much we care for him,'' Butler said in the locker room after the game. "Him doing that is just like Joe (Mazzulla) doing that or Cam (Thoroughman) doing that — he'd do the same thing.''

"He's the most misunderstood guy in America,'' Mazzulla said then. "I hope everybody got a chance to see what kind of person he is, how he treats us as people, not just as players.''

But it is a two-way street and players, whose outlooks on life are shaped while being pampered and worshipped, do not understand what it is all about. That leads to Jennings “unfathomable” behavior, as Huggins termed it, and Mitchell’s inability to take advantage of all the chances Huggins has given him.

The truth is that the only reason the actions of Jennings and Mitchell hurt Huggins so much is that he really does care too much.

E-mail Bob Hertzel at bhertzel@hotmail.com.

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