MORGANTOWN — There’s a promo running these days during West Virginia basketball games in which coach Bob Huggins says something to the effect that the state’s greatest asset isn’t coal, as most people say, but that it is, instead, its people.
It’s an effective presentation, and in this day and age may well be true.
Certainly, Huggins believes it is. Ever since he returned to his home state to coach at his alma mater, he has stressed to his players they are playing for their state and the people in it.
It was what he used for inspiration to his players back in 2010 in the drive to the Final Four, and it’s what he is using this year as well...for it comes from the heart with him.
“You have a chance to be special. Very few people have a chance to be special, particularly in West Virginia. Pittsburgh had great basketball, but it was not the Steelers. Cincinnati had great basketball when I was there, but it was not the Reds. We have a chance to represent this state and bring so much pride and joy,” he said at the time.
This wasn’t a con job on his part.
Then-athletic director Ed Pastilong sensed it when he hired him away from Kansas State.
“I knew if we could bring him back that he would have so much pride, not just for the university but for the 1.8 million West Virginians,” Pastilong said back then.
At the same time Bryan Messerly, the university’s sports information director in charge of Huggins’ team, understood the connection then, too.
“He means a lot to a lot of people,” he said “It means a lot the way he talks about the coal miners like he has done. The day we had his hiring press conference on the floor of the Coliseum there were thousands of people on a Good Friday during spring break to see him introduced.
“What he has said about growing up in the state of West Virginia and what it means to him is dead on,” Messerly said. “We don’t have professional teams and the state has embraced him and this team. It has been a tremendous feeling.”
That, of course, was during that marvelous Final Four run of 2010. But it hasn’t changed.
In fact, it’s grown.
This year, West Virginians have been deprived of seeing their team while fighting their way through the COVID-19 pandemic and all the complications it has brought to their lives.
Through it all, Huggins has continued to push the idea that his players were playing for more than just wins or losses, that the state’s pride was built in no small part on how they represented it — not just in the standings, but in the way they carried themselves as well as how they set an example, even in dealing with the disease.
Throughout his tenure here, which now has stretched for more than 300 wins, Huggins has tried to integrate his players into the West Virginia culture, to make them feel a part of what they were playing for. He knew he was from a state where working hard is a way of life, and he wanted to pass that along to a team that hard work is demanded of.
So, not long after he came to town, he took them to a coal mine and spent the day with the miners.
“I wanted them to understand when they run out there and we’ve got 14,000 people in there cheering for them. I wanted them to understand what those people do to be able to pay money to come watch them play,” he said then.
“I thought it was important for them to appreciate what the people up there cheering for them go through on a daily basis. Our guys put on the helmets, the boots, the whole thing. Most of them say it’s one of the greatest things they’ve ever done.”
The connection has been important to Huggins, and, when he complained this year about not having fans in the stands, he did so knowing it had to be that way but also knowing that it was something that would affect more than just the bottom line in ticket sales.
Now, the season is reaching an end, a season very few expected to see reach such a point. There are four games left before postseason play begins, all of them at home, and WVU has reached the point where a basketball atmosphere can be captured. OK, it’s not going to be 14,000 fans, just 2,800, but that’s enough to turn the Coliseum back into a real basketball arena, the way it was meant to be.
It’s a chance for the fans lucky enough to get tickets to express their feelings for what has become a national contender that carries the same kind of work ethic and approach the 2010 team had and West Virginians love and respect.
This is a team with a chance to let Huggins make one of his dreams come true, a dream he revealed to sportswriter Tom Keegan four years ago when Keegan was covering Kansas, which knows something about playing for national championships.
“You know what would be really neat,” Huggins said. “We really need to win a national championship, take the trophy and get on a bus, and just go to all those places in West Virginia nobody’s ever heard of — have it on the radio: ‘All you people who want to touch the trophy, in 20 minutes we’ll be on the square in Jane Lew.’ That’d be pretty neat.”
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