By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
The words were harsh, as harsh as I’ve heard out of a coach talking about his team or a player on it, and I have been there to listen to the best of them.
I sat there in baseball clubhouses with Baltimore Orioles’ banty Hall of Fame manger Earl Weaver as the curse words outnumbered the hyphens in the compound subjects and adjectives that rolled so easily from his lips, and I’ve sat there with Pittsburgh Pirates manager Jim Leyland as he vented about everything from Barry Bonds to the state of umpiring in America, the length and strength of the lecture counted in the number of cigarettes Leyland would light during his tirade.
Bob Huggins was far less vulgar than either of the major league managers, but then again he wasn’t sitting in a cubby hole just off the clubhouse where the players could hear. In truth, only a couple of X-rated words slipped into his fireside chat with the sporting press after losing to Marquette by a single point on Friday night, and he even had enough self-control that at one point he spoke of running “the absolute you-know-what out of them” for their lack of toughness and commitment.
He spoke to the media without raising his voice, which one suspects was a far different approach than he used when saying similar things to his players, but as he spoke his voice dripped of emotion, his words being a window into his competitive nature and the love he has for the team and the game of basketball when played right.
“This is as frustrated as I’ve been since my first year at Walsh College when I went home and asked my wife, ‘Do you think I can sell insurance? Because I can’t do this,’” he said. “I can’t lose like this. It eats me up. I can’t do it. These guys, it doesn’t seem to bother them much.”
Losing a game ... no, losing another game wasn’t what had turned his stomach into a bubbling caldron. He’d lost games before, certainly tougher games than this one ... can you say Jarrod West?
The key to the phrase was the last sentence, the one that read, “These guys, it doesn’t seem to bother them much.”
The man had it, not with missed open jump shots or turnovers, although there isn’t a coach on Earth who doesn’t flinch when each one happens. He’d had it with attitude, with an acceptance of defeat, a rejection of what has always been the trademark symbol of Bob Huggins-coached teams, that being from the opening tip to the final buzzer his team immerses 100 percent of themselves into the goal of winning.
“I’ve been doing this 30 years, man, and people who have seen my teams play, we never got outmanned like we got outmanned (Friday). We never got outmanned. Never!”
He’d spent the entire season trying to shape this freshman-heavy team into the kind of team that would make a run into the tournament season. He brought them along slowly, showed patience early, but the kids just wouldn’t catch on.
It reached the point that he would hold nothing back, reaching deeply into his vocabulary to
come up with a word with as strong a connotation as I have ever heard a coach or manager use in describing one of his players — coward.
“I’ve never had a guy get out of the way and not take a charge. I’ve never had that,” Huggins began. “I don’t get it, man. I just don’t.
“I despise cowards,” he continued, repeating the term. “I despise cowards. Somebody who, somebody who has an opportunity to play at the highest level of major college basketball who’s afraid to step in front of a guy and take a charge?
“I mean, that’s, to me, that’s just, I can’t, I can’t fathom that. I can’t fathom accepting a scholarship and not, and not compete.”
His brain had to be racing as fast as his heart now, repeating words as they ran through his mind, not knowing what thought, what emotion would bubble up next.
This was hard to do, making this speech. It isn’t something you practice, not something you learn in classes such as “The Coaching of Basketball I or II.”
At some point during this soliloquy someone began a question about the players involved being freshmen.
Huggins would have no part of that excuse.
“They suck,” he said.
The questioner persisted, asking if the defense had been the hardest transition for the young players.
“The hardest transition is that you have to play every day. You can’t take plays off. You can’t stand and stare at the ball. I mean, the reality is there’s a whole bunch of them that we ought to take the price of the season tickets out of their scholarships because they’ve stood and watched the whole year,” Huggins answered.
“They never participated. They’ve never ...,” his voice trailed off, just as his team has done down the stretch of what has become a troubling basketball season.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.