MORGANTOWN, W. Va. – The villain has a bit of a limp. He lurks in his castle, which overlooks the forest, not far from the mountains. A fireplace, turned off now since it’s a perfect late-summer morning in the Great Appalachian Valley, divides his office in half. It’s less office than throne, really, modeled after the thrones of the other kings of his profession.
“This office is basically Rick Pitino’s office, supersized,” Bob Huggins says with a smirk.
The villain sits down. The office is just one eye-popping feature of West Virginia’s new $25 million basketball practice facility, here on Jerry West Boulevard. In the villain’s right hand is his Diet Coke. His left hand is held out toward me, palm up, fingers spread, a gesture that is equal parts explanation and resignation.
This is the question he still must answer: Why is Bob Huggins – entering into the 33rd season of his astonishing head coaching career, with two Final Fours, two Elite Eights and 739 wins, good for fourth among active Division I coaches – still considered a villain by most everybody who doesn’t know him?
“You watch Westerns?” Huggins begins, in a soft, gravelly voice that seems straight out of a Western. “You got the good guys and the bad guys, right? You got the guys in the white hats and the black hats.” He pauses. “I got chosen to wear a black hat.”
He shrugs his shoulders. He’s well beyond caring too much about what other people think of him. He’s had a career that ought to warrant being named to every Hall of Fame there is, but we all know how reputations – fair or unfair – can linger.
“I never have cared, which is probably a mistake, but I just never have,” he explains. “Honestly I think what happened was, when we went to the Final Four in ’92, we went in with the bluebloods. We were in with Duke, Indiana and Michigan – three bluebloods. And here we come rolling in there with the funniest, the most articulate, the most intelligent group – and nobody really cared, or really took the time to figure us out.”
In many ways, the story of that Cincinnati team became the story of Bob Huggins: The nasty, blue-collar underdog who crashes the bluebloods’ party and who was never fully accepted in their club.
I’ve never understood why so many people have such a visceral and negative reaction to the mention of Bob Huggins’ name. When I went on a road trip to a slew of Rust Belt college basketball schools this summer, I stopped to visit a friend in Cincinnati, Huggins’ longtime stomping grounds. I told my friend I’d just visited Huggins and I started to rave about him – but the friend halted me and talked about his graduation rates and his DUI, focused on this man’s curmudgeonly manner and his imperfections.
It only takes a perfunctory Google search to unearth the scathing Bob Huggins hit pieces from over the years, the most scathing of which was published in March 2010, while Huggins was taking his home state’s team to its first Final Four in 51 years.
“I don’t like Bob Huggins,” Rick Reilly wrote back then. “Don’t like his zero-point-zero graduation rates. Don’t like his three-hour practices. Don’t like the Vegas sweatsuit top. The artless, sledgehammer style of his teams that sucks all the air out of the gym. Not to mention the joy. Still, Huggins is brutally effective, kind of like a Russian gulag, only with slightly less charm.”
As much as Huggy Bear says these things bounce off him, as much as the 61-year-old has learned about the wide gulf between public perception and private reality in this cutthroat business, that one stuck, and that one hurt. Still sticks, in fact. Still hurts.
But there was one moment from that Final Four that I choose to remember as the defining Bob Huggins moment. It was a glimpse into the soul of a man who – in the descriptions of coaches as varied in style and personality as Frank Martin and Fred Hoiberg and Scott Drew – is as solid and pure of an old-school coach as there is in this sport.
You know the moment I’m talking about. Nine minutes left in the second half of the national semifinal game against Duke. Huggins’ star player, Da’Sean Butler – who’d averaged 17 points and six rebounds for West Virginia that season, and who’d hit a game-winning basket in each game of that year’s Big East tournament – drove toward the basket. He tried to jump, but his left knee buckled. The potential first-round pick in that year’s NBA draft came down screaming.
Huggins’ reaction to Da’Sean Butler’s knee injury in the 2010 Final Four showed he’s a coach who cares about his players.
Moments later, the villain was kneeling over his player. Butler’s ACL was torn. His college career was over, and so were West Virginia’s chances of making the title game. The villain lingered over his player for what seemed like an eternity. The villain hugged his player’s head, whispered in his player’s ear. Their faces were so close, the two were nearly kissing. It was one of the most intimate, beautiful moments on-court I’ve ever seen between a player and a coach.
And that was the moment I knew that Bob Huggins was no black hat after all.
“That was only because it was on the national stage,” Huggins said about people’s surprise at watching that moment. “The same thing happened with Kenyon (Martin, the Cincinnati star who broke his leg in 2000 when Huggins’ team was ranked No. 1 in the nation). It was eerie almost, how similar that was when Kenyon went down in that conference tournament. The same deal. The same guys, really – selfless, team-oriented, wanted to win. Kenyon never said a word about how this would affect his career. He just said, ‘Coach, I just wanted to win the national championship.’ Dae was the same way.”
These are not the words of a villain. These are the words of a tough-love, old-school coach, a no-BS guy who rode his players harder than anyone but loved them harder than anyone, too, a guy who didn’t really get to know his own father until he finally played on his father’s basketball team in high school. These are the words of a man who runs absolutely brutal three-hour practices and whose teams play tough and nasty and, yes, a little bit ugly. But damned if these aren’t the words of a man who cares so, so much.
“I remember after my first day of practice here, I called my dad and told him, ‘I don’t know if I can do this – it’s crazy,’ ” said senior West Virginia guard Juwan Staten, who averaged 18.1 points, 5.6 rebounds and 5.8 assists last season and will be on plenty of preseason All-American lists this year. “People get him mixed up. At first I just kind of left him alone. I didn’t know what to expect. All I knew was him yelling and telling you what to do.”
After his first season at West Virginia, Staten went into Huggins’ office. Huggins gave him an old-fashioned talking-to. He told Staten he needed to put in some serious time in the gym. He told him he needed more confidence and leadership. He gave him tape from the best Bob Huggins-style point guards: Nick Van Exel, Steve Logan. Thanks to that tough love from Huggins – the exact type of love Staten needed – the player dedicated himself in the offseason and transformed himself.
Juwan Staten (3) gives this season’s Mountaineers a potential All-American.
“There’s not a better guy in the world than that guy right there,” said Billy Hahn, one of Huggins’ assistants. “That guy’s got the biggest heart. People on the outside have these total, total misconceptions of Bob Huggins. That is the most loyal, biggest-hearted guy in the business.”
That loyal side of Bob Huggins was at least part of what brought him back here, to his home state, to the place that brought back memories of sitting on his grandfather’s lap as a boy, listening to Mountaineers football and basketball games on the radio. It’s a place that, like Huggins, is often the butt of outsiders’ jokes and the victim of outsiders’ misconceptions. It’s a state that’s losing population – it ranked 48th in the nation in population growth in a recent study – but a state with a chip-on-its-shoulder identity, too. Huggins’ teams reflect this place.
“This is it for me,” Huggins said. “I’ll retire when I don’t think I can do it anymore.”
Huggins is coming off his first two-season streak of missed NCAA tournaments in more than two decades, as well as a rash of lost transfers. But despite last season’s second-leading scorer, Eron Harris, leaving for Michigan State, Huggins says he likes this team a lot – likes its chemistry, likes its fire. Staten could be an All-American just because of his scoring, but coaches would prefer he focus on defense and passing. Sophomore guard Tarik Phillip is a tough, Huggins-like, defense-first guard. Devin Williams and Jonathan Holton are both big, versatile forwards. Four juco guys – those underdog types that fit in this state – round out a roster with plenty of experience.
Is this a team that could win the stacked Big 12, which I think is the best conference in the nation? Probably not. Will it make the NCAA tournament? I think it will.
But this time of year, when the leaves are turning in the mountains, West Virginia’s favorite villain can’t help but let his October optimism get the best of him.
“I’d like to bring a national championship to West Virginia,” Huggins says.
Coaches always say things like this, no matter how their team looks. But when Huggins says it, you can feel that a national title would mean more than just a jewel in what ought to be his Hall of Fame crown. It would mean a bit of redemption for a man who is often misunderstood in a state that’s often misunderstood.
“That would be the greatest thing ever, to win a national championship for this state,” Huggins says. “Let’s win a national championship, let’s rent a tour bus, and let’s take off and go. Break into programming on these small-town radio stations, say, ‘ The Mountaineer Caravan is 15 minutes away from downtown, go down and see the trophy.’