By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
It was early before West Virginia University’s final pregame practice before today’s meeting with undefeated Virginia Tech at the Coliseum, a quiet time for Mountaineer coach Bob Huggins, who was lounging in the seats outside the facility’s weight room.
Not long earlier, Huggins had been informed that when he took the floor he would not be the winningest coach in the Coliseum, which says something, considering that Huggins possesses 713 victories, the latest one coming at Marshall’s expense on Wednesday night.
Across the way from him, not on the visitor’s bench, but instead serving as the color commentator will be a fellow with whom Huggins is most familiar, a gentleman named Robert Montgomery Knight.
Between the two there are 1,615 victories, 902 of them belonging to Knight, including four of them at Huggins’ expense.
“I played him twice at Cincinnati and twice at K-State … and I didn’t fare as well as I’d like to,” Huggins said when the subject was brought up. “The second time we played at Bloomington and (Nick) Van Exel is coming off knee surgery. Terry Nelson had a heart deal the day of the game. I didn’t have Corey Blount; that was when the NCAA suspended him.”
He wasn’t making excuses, but …
“I’ve got John Jacobs starting at center; Keith Gregor is making his first start. His first shot landed outside the paint, honest, outside the paint he was so nervous,” he noted.
As Knight will be the first to remind him, you go with what you’ve got, and on that day, Knight had a whole lot more than Huggins.
As the discussion continued, it became more and more evident that the great coaches of our time, and Knight certainly qualifies as he is in the Hall of Fame while Huggins’ time is coming, have certain character similarities that carry them to that greatness.
Certainly, they believe first in defense. They push their players, and they take matters very seriously.
When Huggins was asked about the similarities he and Knight share, he backed away a little bit.
“Honestly, I’m probably more like my dad than any coach ever,” he said. “I played for my dad; I know how my dad was. There are a few things that I tried not to do like my dad did, but I think that’s the case with anyone you ever played for.”
Huggins, however, agrees that there is a commonality between the greatest of coaches, be they named Boeheim, Carnesecca, Thompson, Wooden, Smith, Knight or any of them.
“They can, to a degree — and I don’t know if the right word is impose … that’s probably too strong — but can impose their will to win into their players.”
It is this desire that flows from coach to player to win that takes away the individuality in the members of a team, that makes them play hard throughout. It’s easy to do when it’s early in the game, easier to do when you are winning … but when the going gets tough, as they say, that’s when the coach’s full influence kicks in.
It was suggested this came about through a coach’s ability to communicate.
He saw it slightly differently.
“My dad used to say ‘fear,’” he said.
Fear is a motivator, be it fear of a coach yelling at you, benching you, putting you on the treadmill. It is what drives a player when he is mostly likely to slip.
Huggins recalled playing against Knight one time.
“We were playing. We weren’t nearly as good early in the season, but we were pressing. We gave them fits the first half. Then they came out the second half and we couldn’t get them out of the middle of the floor. I promise you that was the halftime talk he had with his guards. They felt if they didn’t do that when they went to the sideline they might lose an arm or something.
“We were pretty good, but not as good as we got, but we couldn’t get them out of the middle of the floor.”
Oddly, if you get Knight away from the sidelines, he’s an engaging, likeable man, much as Huggins is. Both are very different than the images they obtained through coaching.
“You can’t be like that all the time. You will stress out. You’ll have something really bad happen to you,” Huggins said, knowing that he is a survivor of heart attack.
Huggins remembers how he was when he first began coaching, his first head coaching job being at Walsh College and that first year wasn’t a good one at 14-16.
“They had this Space Invaders game in the lobby, and I’d play Space Invaders until 4:30 in the morning after we lost,” he said. “I did it to get away. My wife would say, ‘Where you been?’ and I’d say, ‘Playing Space Invaders.’”
He has studied people, though, and knows what it takes.
“Honestly, I have been very fortunate in my life. I’ve got to know a lot of people most people don’t get to spend time with, and most people who are very successful aren’t really any different from us … but they bring an unbelievable passion, an unbelievable energy and unbelievable will to their given profession.”
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.