WVU's Huggins returns to Big 12
On Wednesday, just 134 miles east of the college town he left broken-hearted five years earlier when he bolted Kansas State for West Virginia and the Big East, Bob Huggins returned to the Big 12 in typical Huggy style: owning the room at his new conference’s media day with humor and straight talk and drastically changing the look of the league with his very presence.
“You get a little East Coast flavor, you get a personality coming into the league, you get to go dabble recruiting there,” Kansas head basketball coach Bill Self said of Huggins. “His personality and his presence will get people so excited about playing West Virginia that it’ll be great for us.
“Even though he was just there one year, our fans liked him being at K-State because it brought energy and that kind of stuff,” Self said. “I’ll be surprised if West Virginia-Kansas doesn’t become an instant rivalry, so to speak, in large part because of Bob.”
These are the remarkable facts of the Bob Huggins Effect: It can instantly transform conferences and programs. It can build hope where there was none and turn it to bitterness just as quickly. And it’s always, without a doubt, propelled by great basketball and a guy utterly likable despite himself.
Five years ago, the Huggins Effect bounced quickly from one extreme to another. First he arrived as the savior of Kansas State and Manhattan, Kan., bringing players like Bill Walker and Michael Beasley and the promise of basketball superiority. At once the sorry program mattered, and won.
Then after just a year on the job he dashed for home and the job in West Virginia, leaving behind a bitter fan base, a university president near tears and an athletic director so angry he couldn’t help but point out to the funeral-like press conference how wrong it all was.
Now Huggy returns to the land he left, after West Virginia's decision to flee the Big East for the Big 12, and a vastly different landscape, one shaped in subtle but important ways by Huggins himself. Five years ago, Kansas State had little choice but to retain Huggins’ staff, led by former high school coach Frank Martin, to keep those recruits.
The move was a home run.
Martin turned into one of the nation’s finest head coaches. He used a Huggins-style approach to grind out wins, mold his teams into heavyweight competitors and post a 117-54 record over five seasons, including an Elite Eight appearance and four NCAA Tournament berths. Martin and his players earned every single win, but it’s doubtful he would have gotten that chance without Huggins’ involvement.
Echoes of Huggins’ presence had turned K-State into a team in his own vision. Now that Martin and his staff have left for South Carolina, Huggins will make sure his bruising, physical style of play remains a cornerstone to at least one Big 12 team.
“Physically they’re as tough a team as you’ll face all year,” Baylor head coach Scott Drew said. “I think everybody knows Coach Huggins is a Hall of Fame coach for a reason. They’re not going to beat themselves, and they’re going to be very physically imposing.”
Huggins was also a key player in steering West Virginia toward the Big 12, pointing out several times Wednesday that he was a part of the conversations and thinking that led to the change.
“It’s going to be a great challenge for us,” Huggins said. “When you have something new, there’s lots of excitement. Our fans are excited about every team playing in the Big 12.”
The same is probably true in reverse. Huggins has a force of personality that extends beyond how his teams play. He’s a coach, love him or hate him, who knows X's and O's with the best of them, and also has that unique way of instilling his will on an entire team.
Huggins also a magnet, a guy you can’t help but want to be near. This, as Self noted, will do only good things for the conference. All that personality was on display here as Huggins lit up a room of tired, interview-weary journalists with random asides followed by long, awkward silences.
• About having to fly so far for road games: “You ever notice (players) sleep better sitting up than laying down? You sit them up, they go right to sleep. You lay them down, they’re up all night.”
• On new rivalries: “They asked me in there who our rival will be. I said it’s probably Iowa State. They’re the closest. It’s only 853 air miles.”
• On the tweaks West Virginia will need to make as it transitions from the Big East to the Big 12 to adjust for different styles of play: “If we are, I’m not smart enough to do it.”
Everyone laughed. Everyone loved it. But it’s what Huggins said later, away from the podium, without even a hint of a smile, that is the real force of his presence: “We’d like to be a team that doesn’t have ‘Kansas’ on their uniforms that wins. We want to come in and win.”
Missouri is gone, now part of the SEC. So is Texas A&M. It’s West Virginia that will fill said void, led by a man who as their head coach has gone 120-56, made the NCAA each of those five seasons and seen a Final Four and another Sweet 16. And yet West Virginia is sixth in the Big 12 preseason poll.
Yes, Bob Huggins is a funny guy. He’s also a helluva coach, and his mere arrival is going to change things in serious, lasting ways.