K-State should celebrate Huggins’ return

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — To fully grasp what Bob Huggins meant to Kansas State basketball, you have to go back to the winter of 2005-06. The Little Apple had become a football town — which was great, but it was also a football town that was learning to hibernate through the dark of winter, counting the days until spring pigskin got under way.
 
To fully grasp Huggins’ impact, you have to understand this: Manhattan, a burg where Jack Hartman and Tex Winter and Lon Kruger and Rolando Blackmon and Mitch Richmond had once made magic, had effectively become — well, Lincoln (Neb.) South.
 
“My first few years there, I was learning that basketball was not only not relevant, but it was even to the point where people were somewhat OK with close losses,” recalls former K-State athletic director Tim Weiser, the man pushing the buttons for the department at the time. “It was kind of like, ‘Well, at least we’re hanging in these games.’ And that really, to me, was the scariest part of what had happened with K-State basketball; it had gotten to the point where people were OK with K-State losses.”
 
The Wildcats hadn’t reached the NCAA Tournament since 1996; they hadn’t sniffed so much as an NIT bid since 1999. Bramlage Coliseum was almost 20 years old, but the locals had yet to see K-State beat rival Kansas there. In a building that held nearly 13,000 bodies, the Wildcats were routinely drawing crowds in the 3,000-4,000 range.
 
“It just really was a dead atmosphere,” says Weiser, now deputy commissioner of the Big 12.
 
Tonight, Bramlage will rock. Tonight, the students will sway and chant and stomp and scream themselves hoarse. Tonight, the customers will only be OK with victory — Kansas State has won 20 games for a seventh straight season, a first in the program’s long history, a new benchmark for continuity and consistency. Tonight, The Octagon of Doom will welcome back Huggins, these days the coach at West Virginia, to witness firsthand the monster he basically created.
 
“In all honesty, if I had a list of 100 things to worry about,” Huggins told reporters on Saturday, as only Huggs could, “that might be 112.”
 
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To fully grasp what Bob Huggins did to Kansas State basketball, you have to consider the shock. It looked, on paper, to be a strange marriage: Huggy Bear was a product of the Rust Belt, a West Virginia guy who’d made his name in places such as Cincinnati and Akron. He towered over the scorer’s table dressed head to toe in black, a visage of pure menace pitched somewhere between Bob Knight and Johnny Cash.
 
Manhattan was (and is) a quiet, God-fearing, two-lane kind of college town nestled in the hills of northern Kansas. Huggins was (and is) a blunt, worldly urban type, prone to loud outbursts of rather — ahem — colorful language when faced with times of stress.
 
“And I was completely caught off-guard by the difference between what I had thought and seen on television and heard from others and what I really felt after sitting down and talking to him,” recalls Weiser, who raised eyebrows across basketball when he lured Huggins to the Little Apple in March 2006.
 
“He was really an engaging, bright person. And I really felt like the issues that kind of created the stumbles for him at Cincinnati, he took ownership of.”
 
When a mutual friend, former Wichita State and South Carolina coach Eddie Fogler, had initially recommended Huggins to Weiser, the latter’s first reaction had been to laugh Fogler off. You’re kidding, right?
 
“Just do me a favor,” Fogler, who was then advising Weiser in his search, told the K-State administrator. “Just talk to him before you make your decision.”
 
Weiser did, and after meeting Huggins, the more he thought about it, the more sense it began to make. Huggy Bear was looking for a fresh start — redemption, even — after a nasty feud with his president at the University of Cincinnati and a DUI arrest had brought his tenure with the Bearcats to a stunning halt in August 2005. K-State was looking for a splash hire, a big name with substance: Between 1989 and 2005, Huggins had posted 14 seasons of 20 wins or more (the Wildcats, by contrast, had managed just one over that same span) and reached the Big Dance 14 times (K-State: three).
 
“I sometimes think somebody on their second chance is more predictable than somebody on their first chance,” Weiser says. “I just felt that with Bob, it was time to take that kind of risk, and to send the message to our fan base and to our alumni that basketball was going to be important at Kansas State.”
 
Some groaned. Others howled. Several pundits pointed at Huggins’ academic and disciplinary failings at Cincinnati, warning that Weiser was foolishly linking arms with the wrong sort of crowd, selling out for a quick buck.
 
Except that it worked — at least, the “quick buck” part did. The fans, especially K-State students, largely embraced Huggins’ presence. The Wildcats had averaged 7,510 at home in 2004-05 and 7,665 in 2005-06; attendance jumped to 12,301 per game in the new coach’s first season.
 
Moreover, a program that had lost its identity — any identity, really — claimed Huggins’ bad-boy mystique as its own. The new-look ‘Cats swept Missouri and won at No. 22 Texas. Huggs wound up 22-11 during the regular season, K-State’s first 20-win regular season since 1987-88. It was the first K-State team to notch at least 10 league victories since the Big 12 was formed.
 
The Wildcats were snubbed on Selection Sunday but landed in the NIT, reaching a postseason tourney for the first time in eight years. And Huggins’ 23 wins were the most by any first-year coach in the program’s history.
 
“I have yet to see a coach who could be that demanding of his kids, and then turn around and have those same kinds wanting to run through walls for him,” Weiser says. “It was just so different to anything I had seen.”
 
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To fully grasp what Bob Huggins did to Kansas State basketball, you have to consider the divorce.  In the spring of 2007, John Beilein left West Virginia for Michigan, starting a chain of dominoes that rolled all the way to the Flint Hills.
 
The lure of the Mountaineers called out, and Huggs went home, replacing Beilein and leaving the Wildcats — and Weiser, who’d extended him a lifeline — after just one season.
 
“There’s no doubt that the initial feeling was one of, ‘Wow,’” Weiser says now. ” ‘I cannot believe (this), after taking the heat that I felt like I took for having hired him.’”
 
And yet, while he’d left, Huggins hadn’t left the cupboard bare.
 
During his year away from the sideline, the coach doubled down on his recruiting pipelines, forging relationships and building a staff that would lure Michael Beasley, Jacob Pullen and Bill Walker to K-State for the 2007-08 season. Frank Martin, Huggins’ confidant and right-hand man, replaced him in the captain’s chair, and the Wildcats reached three NCAA tourneys and one Elite Eight over the next four seasons.
 
“Bob’s fingerprints were all over those kind of beginning steps,” Weiser says. “And, ultimately, what happened with Frank and those postseason appearances, there’s no doubt in my mind that it’s all about what Bob did.”
 
Meanwhile, what was once a “dead atmosphere” is now one of the liveliest in the Big 12. Last season, K-State finished among the nation’s Top 35 in attendance for the fifth time in six years. Its average attendance of 12,783 in 2011-12 was the second highest in Bramlage annals. Of the Top 5 crowds in Wildcat history, four have come over the past six seasons.
 
None of this happens without Huggy Bear.
 
“I think he’ll get a very warm reception,” Weiser says of this evening’s matchup. “And in my view, he should.”
 
Because whatever you think of Huggins, this much is undeniable: By the time he’d left K-State, Manhattan had discovered the joys of winter, the joys of being a basketball town once again. That’s legacy enough.
 
You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter @seankeeler or email him at seanmkeeler@gmail.com