West Virginia's Huggins definied by hard work, passion -- and winning
Bob Huggins cares deeply about basketball and about competing the right away
He learned the game from his father, who rode him and expected perfection
Huggins' teams always play hard, get after you and almost never get blown out
"There's one thing you have to understand something about us. We don't get blown out. We play too hard to get blown out."
There are certain things that West Virginia coach Bob Huggins has told me through the years that just bang around in my head, perpetually, like a relentless summer song on the radio. We've known each other for a long time. Huggins gave me the above quote the first time I met him, in 1994, when I had just gotten the job as sports columnist of The Cincinnati Post. I went to meet him for the first time after a practice, and to get to practice at Cincinnati you had to go down these concrete stairs into what looked like a pit, walk through these double doors that looked like they could only lead to a supply closet. There was a dark little atrium on the other side. Huggins was dressed in sweats, of course. It seemed the sort of place where you would meet Deep Throat. It seemed like the place where Batman might meet the Joker in some sort of Gotham City Peace Summit.
I don't remember much of what we talked about that day, but I remember the fierce look on his face when he talked about how his teams did not get blown out. If you have only seen Huggins on the sidelines -- where his face burns the orange-red of cigar embers and little comic symbols like #$!&$%@! seem to fly out of his mouth -- it's a jolting experience to talk to him in person. His interview voice is flat and muffled; you can't help but feel like you are overhearing a conversation he is having with himself. And, this is strange, in these sorts of settings he barely seems to move his lips. An interview with Bob Huggins is like an interview with a ventriloquist.
I do remember Huggins was trying to explain what he thought the Cincinnati program was about. Two seasons before, Huggins' Bearcats had shaken college basketball by crashing the Final Four with a team loaded with tough junior college players who had no place else to go and who pressed full court and defended the goal like they were Spartans at Thermopylae. A year later, playing with the same fury, the Bearcats went to the Elite Eight where they took eventual national champion North Carolina to overtime before finally fading. They played with a hunger that crossed over into desperation. In a college basketball world where the white hats apparently were worn by historic powers like Duke and North Carolina and Kansas and Kentucky and UCLA, people tended to look at Huggins and Cincinnati as something sinister. Huggins would never forget how he and his team were treated at that first Final Four -- like outsiders, like gate crashers. He would use that insult (real or imagined or both) to coach at an even higher level of intensity, to convince his players that they had to look out for each other because nobody else would, to build teams that played angry all the time.
"You'll see," he was telling me as he explained how hard his teams played. He was saying that when his teams made shots, they would win. When his team didn't make shots, they would still probably win because of their defense. But, he wanted to be clear, that his teams would not get blown out, not ever. Of course, this was a crazy statement -- every team gets blown out now and again. But I don't think he meant it literally. I think he meant that his teams would never lay down. Not ever. They would play with a fury until the final whistle and then beyond that whistle if the ball was still out there. They would play with rage because their rage never subsided. That, he was saying, was what Cincinnati basketball was all about. That, he was saying in his barely audible way, was what Bob Huggins was all about.
"I could make the Cincinnati Bengals winners. I don't know anything about football. But I think I could make them winners."
Huggins is the son of coach, the son of the fiercest high school basketball coach to ever blow a whistle in the state of Ohio. Bob will tell you that Charlie Huggins was five times the coach he will ever be, and that's not just a son deferring to his father. No, Charlie Huggins won four state championships by enraging and inspiring and driving the sons of coal miners to become better than they ever imagined. People who watched them both coach will tell you, hard as it may be to believe, that Bob is the kinder, gentler version of his father.
One of my favorite Bob Huggins stories comes from the days when he played for his father at South Valley High in Gnadenhutten, Ohio. Charlie was hard on every player; but he was brutal on his son. Bob was a good player, an intense player, the best player on a team that would win the state championship, but he never played well enough to draw praise from Charlie. Halftime speeches were dedicated to tearing Bob apart. Practices were Bob Huggins roasts. And Bob would always remember the time when he played the perfect half. Really ... the perfect half. He scored 20 points -- in memory, he did not miss a shot -- and he grabbed seven or eight rebounds, and the player he defended did not score a single point. Perfect. Bob Huggins ran into the locker room convinced that finally, this one time, he had lived up to his father's impossible expectations. There was nothing his father could say to him at halftime.
And for the entire halftime, Charlie Huggins savaged his son for not passing the ball more.
Well, that did it. Bob had enough -- he was, after all, his father's son. He quit the team. If perfection was not good enough, well, he did not need that kind of aggravation in his life. The next day, he came out of school and saw his father waiting outside for him. Bob's basketball gear was in the back of the car.
"Come on," Charlie said.
"No," Bob said. "I quit." And he meant it. He was not going to play basketball again.
"Come on, let's go," Charlie said.
And ... Bob Huggins got into the back of the car. "What else was I going to do?" he asked years later.
But maybe Bob learned the lesson of his coaching life that day. You don't back down. Not ever. Even if you are wrong, you don't back down. Even if the odds look bleak, you don't back down. What is this year's Final Four West Virginia team all about? The Mountaineers can't shoot. They are not especially big. They don't have many NBA prospects. Most analysts pick against them game after game. But they will go through hailstorms to get offensive rebounds, and they will defend for 40 minutes and beyond (they are a much better second half team, once they wear opponents down) and they will make the final shot more often than not. They have pummeled teams throughout the NCAA tournament with relentless body blows, but the essence of this team was probably best seen during the Big East tournament when they won three straight games by three points or less, no team scoring more than 60 in any of the three games.
See, this gets at the heart of Huggins' philosophy. Sure, you need talent. Sure, you need discipline. Sure, you need leadership. Sure, you need heart. But the difference in Bob Huggins' world is something more subtle, a secret he has been keeping ever since he quit his high school basketball team. It doesn't matter the sport -- in 1994, the Cincinnati Bengals lost their first eight games and went 3-13, but Huggins was really convinced that, given the chance, he could turn them around. Why? Because to him winning in football, like winning in basketball, like winning in life, is all about the same thing.
You make the other guy get into the car.
"Why would I read anything written by a short, fat guy who has never worn a jock?"
If you asked the average college basketball fan to tell you three things about Huggins -- say a fan who has never rooted for a Huggins team -- you would almost certainly get two or three of the following items:
1. He was arrested for a DUI.
There is truth in all those statements ... and some untruth too. It's like the challenge Nick Hornby throws out to readers in High Fidelity: Write down a list of the worst things you have done. "Don't dress these things up or try to explain them; just write them down, in a list, in the plainest language possible. Finished? OK, so who's the a------ now?"
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