By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
The day Bob Huggins lost his mother, Norma Mae, came too quickly, too early.
It always does, really.
Cancer does that, you know, and Huggins, his brothers, sisters and father, Charlie, a well-known high school basketball coach, wanted to do something to honor her and her memory at the time.
“When my mom passed away she didn’t want a funeral or a viewing or all that stuff,” Huggins recalled the other day. “She just wanted family, but everyone wants to do something, so they send flowers.”
Nice gesture, but ...
“What do you do with the flowers, the cards and all that?” Huggins kept thinking.
“So I told my brothers and sisters what we need to do, in lieu of flowers and whatever, we need to start an endowment for cancer research in Mom’s name,” he said.
At the time Huggins was on top of the college coaching world at the University of Cincinnati, but this was not going to be a fund put together in Cincinnati.
“I thought it would be the right thing to do it here in Morgantown,” Huggins said. “My mom, my dad, they grew up here. West Virginia was always it for them. My brother, Larry, played at Ohio State, but he had season tickets here, football and basketball, even before I came back.”
The public image, of course, was that Huggins was a daddy’s boy, a tough guy, son of a coach, but that was anything but the reality of the situation.
“What’s crazy is everyone thinks I was joined at the hip with my dad, but that’s really crazy because in reality I never saw my dad much until I started playing for him,” Huggins said. “I went to a school in a different school district than the one he taught and coached at. He was up and gone when I got up in the morning, and I was normally in bed when he came home. I saw him on weekends and Sunday going to church.”
It wasn’t until Huggins was a freshman and his dad moved the family into the district in which he coached that Huggins got to spend real time with his dad.
By then, though, he’d learned one lesson.
“My mom was the greatest person in the world,” he said. “I was about 13 and had grown up in Midvale, which is a coal-mining town. My dad’s dream was to always have his own basketball camp, which we built,” Huggins said.
“And when we did, my mom got up at 4:30 in the morning to cook breakfast, and she didn’t go to bed until 11:30 at night after she had closed down the canteen at the camp. She cooked every meal from the time I was 13 until she passed away, about 30 years later. She cooked for all those campers.
“As soon as those camps were over she’d clean the dorms. She did everything, with the help of my sisters.”
So it was upon returning home, Huggins called his friend, Denver Allen, who was working at the Mary Babb Randolph Cancer Center and told him of the fund he wanted to start.
“He said it was a great idea but normally you don’t get a whole lot of money,” Huggins recalled.
Huggins was determined to see it was a success. He put money from speaking engagements into the fund, and his brother did what he could do to help fund it.
As fate would have it, much changed in Huggins’ life; a lot of turmoil led to him finding his way back to his alma mater to coach the WVU team.
“When I got here I thought it would be a great opportunity to do some things for the fund,” he said.
“Everybody wants to do a golf outing, but golf outings are a lot of work but not a lot of money. That’s when I decided we would do a roast. That’s when I called a bunch of my coaching buddies and had them come in,” he said.
Talk about the perfect subject for a roast.
For 20 years sports writers had been writing roast lines on Huggins, a controversial figure as a basketball coach who had been at death’s door with a heart attack, in trouble with police on a very public DUI, in trouble with the NCAA and ever an animated, outspoken public figure.
The roast was a success, making a bit more than $100,000 for the Norma Mae Huggins Cancer Research Endowment Fund.
“At that time, Bucks for Brains was going on, so any research dollars raised were matched by the state,” Huggins said.
That roast was followed by another, which added another $50,000 to $60,000 in funds that would be matched.
“All of a sudden you’re doing pretty good. We’re about to go past $1 million,” Huggins said.
The drive went off into another direction, a fish fry that was tied in with the Marshall football game and raised money for both the cancer fund and “Remember The Miners,” Huggins’ other active charity.
With the cancellation of the Marshall series, the fish fry died, but Huggins hopes to revive it in connection with a basketball game.
Norma Mae Huggins was a quiet, unassuming lady, and Huggins is not sure how she would have taken to her name attached to the fund.
“I know she would be elated about the cause. My mom was the most unassuming lady you could ever be around. She didn’t like the limelight, but I think she would enjoy it and be proud of it. I think what she would really like is that we were involved in it ... not just me, but my sisters and my brother.”
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.