The Times West Virginian

March 23, 2010

HERTZEL COLUMN - Huggins defends Big East’s honor after NCAA exits

By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian

MORGANTOWN — Moments after defending the Big East’s honor in the National Collegiate Athletic Association Men’s Basketball Championships by beating Missouri of the Big 12, Bob Huggins took matters a step too far and, to be honest, offended me terribly.

“Whoever doesn’t think the Big East is a great league really shouldn’t write sports,” he said. “They ought to do something else. Do cooking or something.”

As a one-time short-order at the Wigwam Café on old Highway 40 in Columbia, Mo., while attending the University of Missouri, I expect an apology from Coach Huggins for thinking sportswriters can become cooks.

Just because you can author a cookbook doesn’t mean you can make a soufflé, let alone something really tough to make, like a double cheeseburger “through the garden, hold the mayo, double pickles, onion rings, not fries.”

Sportswriters have their talent, as limited as it may be compared to that of being a big-time basketball coach, but to think that just because you’re a cook you know nothing about the sport, well … 

You young kids out there probably aren’t aware that Huggins isn’t being original by thinking this cooking stuff is small potatoes, be they au gratin or curly fries.

 In 1974 the Houston Astros had a third baseman named Doug Rader, who was something of a flakey character who would, on occasion, sit atop a teammate’s birthday cake if he was delivered on in the clubhouse. Rader became somewhat incensed when Padres owner Ray Kroc got on the public address system on opening day and apologized to the fans for his team’s poor play in losing that opener.

Kroc, you may or may not recall, is the founder and former owner of McDonald’s, which led Rader to reply quite publically that Kroc shouldn’t treat his ballplayers “like a bunch of short-order cooks”.

Being the marketer that he is, Kroc was not about to miss this opportunity. The next time the Astros came to San Diego, Kroc held “Short-Order Cooks Night”, allowing any fan who came wearing a short-order cooks' hat free admission and he sat them behind the Astros dugout so they could yell at Rader.

Not to be undone, Rader opted to deliver the starting lineup to home plate on a platter while wearing a white apron and a short-order cooks' hat.

It must have impressed Kroc, for the next season he traded for Rader, who became a fan favorite for the Padres. He also never paid for another meal at McDonald's.

And so it is here with Huggins, whose intentions were well placed in defending his conference – a conference that needs no defense, by the way, in part because it plays defense like no other conference in basketball.

To think that the nation’s sportswriters, a group which spends more time eating itsr own words than any food they have ever prepared, should become cooks is as absurd as the statements downgrading the Big East.

Huggins’ response was strong in backing his 16-team conference, even if he did seem to be swimming upstream against a torrent of criticism.

“You have to be kidding me,” Huggins said to the gathered sportswriters. “The Big East is a great, great basketball league.”

Now he was cooking with gas … and just beginning to add the spices.

“By the way, you all are the ones who voted four of us in the Top Ten for the majority of the year, so apparently you thought we were pretty good then. Five in the Top 25 — it’s a great league.”

Huggins knew he had stirred things up pretty well by now, and he wasn’t going to back off, even though he knew the writers had a tangy argument of their own.

The Big East had sent 7 teams into the NCAA Tournament and by the end of the second round only Syracuse and West Virginia had survived. Georgetown was gone, Pitt was gone, Louisville, Marquette and Villanova were gone.

The league had come into the tournament puffed up like a proud soufflé but now seemed flat as a pancake.

“We’ve lost some close games and things,” Huggins would admit. “But, you know, now is the Big 12 not any good since Kansas lost? No. The Big 12 is a great league. It’s a great league full of great players and great coaches. And the Big East is a great league.”

The problem with coming to the Big East’s defense this year is that it really doesn’t have any defense. It may be as good as any league in the country, better than most, but this season it is not a great league. Syracuse might be a great team and West Virginia is aspiring to reach that height, but has not been as strong offensively as you would want a great team to be.

West Virginia, like the conference, has been more spaghetti out of the can than possessing enough for someone to say "That's a spicy meatball."

It isn't so much the Big East has come back to the pack, but the pack has caught the Big East.

Even Huggins admits that.

“There’s tremendous parity in college basketball,” Huggins said.

Huggins pointed toward Northern Iowa, not as a slight, but as a way of emphasizing a point about how good things happen when you can keep players in your program for four years.

“I think what happens a lot in the so-called BCS leagues is guys don’t stay for four years, so your coaching guys for two years and then all of a sudden you have to go in and retool again,” he said.

It’s almost like coaches have to go out and shop for the ingredients to make their teams what they want, much the way cooks have to do.

Hmmm, the coaches should be the ones going out and becoming cooks … just a thought

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