By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
The picture was incongruous with the image that Bob Huggins had built, standing there in a cap and gown before the 2011 graduating class of West Virginia University’s School of Physical Activity and Sports Science on Sunday, delivering the commencement address.
If ever any coach had been painted throughout his career as a villainous lout when it came to education and graduation, it was Huggins. He had spent much of his time in Cincinnati taking knives out of his back delivered by a media assault directed by columnist Jay Mariotti and under assault from a president in Nancy Zimpher, who eventually would run him out of town.
There was evidence that they had a rather strong point, a number of years with a zero percent graduation rate that resulted in a cumulative 28 percent rate for his career at the school, that magnified through a prism made up of any number of serious offenses charged against his players.
Yet here he stood, laying words of praise and wisdom on the new graduates, having been introduced by one of his own players, Joe Mazzulla, who had earned a master’s degree that he openly admitted he never believed he would have gotten just two or three years ago.
You had to wonder, as you sat there, just what defines the real Bob Huggins, or is there really two of them, one who was at Cincinnati and consumed by winning at all costs, or a more reasonable one now at West Virginia, his alma mater, who has realized that academics and athletics can co-exist.
Huggins says neither is right, that the portrait painted in Cincinnati was more a distorted Picasso than any kind of still life, and that being here he is in a position where he can do it the way it should be done and have it presented correctly.
“Anybody who has taken the time to get to know me and my family knows education has been very important in my family,” he began in a room backstage, an hour before the commencement speech. “I have five brothers and sisters, and they all went to college. They are all professionals. My father has two degrees. He was a teacher.”
Huggins has multiple degrees, including a master’s in public administration. Out of college he was headed for law school, but a fling trying to make the Philadelphia 76ers lasted too long and led him into coaching, first as a graduate assistant at WVU under Joedy Gardner, then briefly at Ohio State.
He learned quickly that coaching was what he wanted to do.
“You know what, this is very rewarding,” he said. “You get, in most instances, to have a positive impact on young people’s lives. Most people say that because they are supposed to say that, but it’s true. We have more intimate relationships with guys than other people do because we spend so much time with them.”
And when you deal with people, you have some successes and some failures. It comes with the territory.
“Everybody in this world wants to deal with the failures and doesn’t want to look at the successes.
“The truth is, when the time comes to put something on my tombstone, I hope they put ‘He cared too much,’ not ‘He didn’t care enough.’”
The question becomes, how much is enough?
“There’s a fine line. I don’t know where it is. I’ve been doing this a long time and I don’t know where you stop helping and become an enabler. We do at times. We go so far that we enable them to not do the right things.”
Indeed, you try to lead a kid down the right path, give him a second chance, maybe a third. You are a coach, yes, but in many cases you become so much more ... and it is mixed in with this business you have chosen, that of being a coach where you had to do it in a framework of competition.
Winning, in the end, is the goal.
“It’s kind of like Woody Hayes said,” Huggins began, referring to the former Ohio State football coach. “All civilizations are built on winning. You look at any great civilization from the beginning of time, they built statues, they worshipped just who could run faster, jump higher or throw further. Why? I don’t know.
“But that’s civilization, any great civilization, not just America. Go back and look at the Greeks, the Romans, the Persians, any great civilization.
“If you don’t win the business world, you are out of business. You don’t call it wins and losses as much as you do in athletics, but it’s the same thing. You better win. That’s what our country was founded on. That’s what makes our country great.
“I think honestly, the failures we have in our country are because we have de-emphasized that too much. We have enabled people to do nothing rather than giving them an opportunity to do something.”
Huggins believes the way the athletic department and the academic side work together at WVU has allowed him to accomplish what he wishes both on the court and in the classroom with his players.
“We have a tremendous support system here. It’s a tremendous credit to the university,” he said. “People don’t understand what we deal with. At Cincinnati, people said I was too involved. I don’t know how you are too involved in academics.”
Huggins believes you have to take an interest, to be involved, but there are restrictions.
“The NCAA comes in and says coaches should have no involvement with professors. How can you have no contact with professors and know what we need to do to help guys?” he asked. “I was at Walsh for three years and it was easy.”
Walsh is a small, Division III school in Ohio where Huggins had his first head coaching job.
“You walk over to a guy and say ‘What does so-and-so need to do? How can I help him?’ I then would take him over to my house, put him down in my basement, tutor him. I’d sit him down, I make him read it. I’d read it. I’d ask questions. I make him an outline, easy.”
In the big time, though, that’s not allowed.
“You get to a place where on one hand everyone wants to point a finger at you and say you didn’t do anything, and on the other hand they say you have to stay away,” he said.
Now, it appears, he has found the proper way to make it work.
“We have people who are far more qualified to tutor them and far more qualified to counsel them than I am, and that’s what they do. When they don’t do that, they have to answer to me. That’s what I do.”
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org.