Bob Huggins’ basketball teams don’t lose that often, but when they do - particularly during the holidays - that’s when Dr. Jekyll turns into Mr. Huggins, the dual-personality coach his early Cincinnati players used to call him.
“Love-hate relationship, man,” WVU assistant coach Erik Martin, who played on Huggins’ first Final Four team in 1992, said. “He loved me and I hated him.”
It was difficult then for Martin to reconcile in his 20-year-old brain the two conflicting coaches - the guy who could invent new cuss words when he was on the basketball court or the other guy away from it who often barely spoke above a whisper.
It was almost as if those three hours Huggins spent yelling at everything moving in the gym had never happened, or, was being done by someone else.
“One of his unique traits is it doesn’t matter how much Huggs yells at you, screams at you or is talking about you like a dog dragged in off the street, when practice was over it was almost like it never happened,” Martin said. “And I really had a problem adjusting to that because I thought, ‘Okay, this guy is going to call me all these names during practice so he’s still got to be thinking that.’ I know what he said to me but once we were done with practice it was like nothing had ever happened. I was immature and it took me a while understand this.”
Bob Huggins pictured with his father Charlie Huggins, an Ohio boys basketball coaching legend. Submitted photo.
It was the same deal for two-time national junior college player of the year Corie Blount, who along with Herb Jones, were the first big-name recruits Huggins landed at UC. There is a popular misnomer about Huggins through the years that he has always had a roster full of McDonald’s All-Americans. That’s not true. He’s probably had less than 10 during his coaching career, or about the same number Mike Krzyzewski, John Calipari, Roy Williams and Bill Self have on one team.
“I came from California, was a juco All-American and my coach there was a little more mild-mannered and a little more relaxed than Huggs is,” Blount recalled recently. “Me being the big guy and the star player I had a little favoritism going my way and then I get to Cincinnati and meet Huggs for the first time and he was real mild-mannered, was breaking down how I was going to fit into the offensive scheme and how he’ll push me and make me a better player.
“Then, once I got there, damn, I was every prima-donna, no good piece of (garbage) he’s ever seen. I was like, ‘Where did all this come from? When you were recruiting me I was the best thing since sliced bread and now I’m this?’” Blount laughed.
Truck Bryant, one of the first players Huggins signed when he returned to West Virginia in 2007, spent so much time running on the treadmill during practice his first two years playing for Huggs that the thing should have been renamed the truckmill.
“He’s killing me on the court but I’m a senior now,” Bryant remembered. “He cares, but he knows I’m leaving soon. So we go over to his new house for a cookout or something when it was finished and downstairs in his basement was this big framed picture of me that says ‘Keep on Truckin’ with a No. 25 on it. I was like, ‘Man, this is beautiful Huggs.’ He was like, ‘Trust me Truck, I didn’t do it. June (his wife) did it.’”
Huggins never played favorites on his teams - everybody, one through 15, caught hell.
“Man, that was the thing I really respected about him,” Blount said. “He didn’t pull any punches, but it became a respect factor real quick once you came to understand the method to his madness.”
Terry Nelson, another Bearcat player, said Thanksgiving practices under Huggins could be the absolute worst. Back in the day there were no limits on the amount of time teams were allowed to work out, meaning coaches could go as long as they pleased.
If it was an early morning practice and Huggs had his glasses on, then the probability was very high that there were going to be some seriously sick dudes by the end of the day.
“He would sit at the table, say nothing and we’d go through the whole practice schedule and then he’d tell one of the managers to call June and tell her to start slow-cooking the turkey because we were going to be there for a while,” Nelson said. “He didn’t start over with the part where we messed up, he started the whole damned thing over again. ‘Guards down here, big men down there’ and before you knew it, a three-hour practice had just turned into six!
“During Christmastime when we lost, he would say stuff like, ‘I hope you have a miserable Christmas because I am!’”
The most important four-letter word in Bob Huggins’ vocabulary starts with a W and ends with a K - work. It’s what has made him one of the most successful coaches in college basketball history and one of only 10 men at the highest level to ever win 800 career games.
The other nine - Krzyzewski, Bob Knight, Jim Boeheim, Dean Smith, Adolph Rupp, Jim Calhoun, Jim Phelan, Eddie Sutton and Rollie Massimino - all have things named after them.
Bob Huggins with his staff at his first coaching stop at Walsh College. Walsh University photo.
Coach K has gotten most of his wins at Duke, Knight’s victories were mostly at Indiana, while Boeheim, Smith, Rupp and Phelan got all of theirs at one school.
Calhoun took the harder route, starting at Northeastern in 1972 and then moving on to Connecticut in 1986 where he built a college basketball powerhouse in Storrs. But only Sutton and Massimino have traveled paths similar to the one Huggins is on. Sutton got his 806 wins at places like Creighton, Arkansas, Oklahoma State and San Francisco, not exactly a bunch of blue blood schools, with the exception of the five years he spent at Kentucky.
Massimino recently got his 800th win at NAIA Keiser University after Division I head coaching stops at Stony Brook, Villanova, UNLV and Cleveland State.
Look at where Bob Huggins has spent the 35 years it has taken him to get his 800 victories - Walsh, Akron, Cincinnati, Kansas State and West Virginia, places where you can’t just pick your rosters.
“I’m a basketball junkie, and he’s signing guys I haven’t heard of before they get to Morgantown,” ESPN college basketball analyst Fran Fraschilla said. “Jaysean Paige, Tarik Phillip
and now Jevon Carter
, who is on his way to a great four-year career, these are guys that you talk about being under the radar, yet are really a big part of what Bob is doing right now, which is continuing to win a lot of games. Bob’s reputation as a basketball coach is the equal to anybody who is in the hall of fame or has more wins than he currently does.”
Huggins wins because he has never cheated work - ever. His father, Charlie Huggins, wouldn’t let him.
“We obviously didn’t adhere to the philosophy of everyone getting a trophy,” Huggins’ youngest brother Larry, who played collegiately at Ohio State, said. “We were taught when you crossed the line and walked on the court all bets were off. You played to win and Bobby has taken that to heart. That was my father.”
Bob Huggins is a modern-day version of Charlie Huggins, the only exception being the colorful language. Charlie yelled just as loud and just as often as Huggs does these days, he just used nicer words.
Momma Huggins, Norma Rae, was no pushover either. There was a steel bar that ran down her back that makes up a big part of Bob’s personality. This is probably from where the intense loyalty he has always shown his players and those within his inner circle comes.
“Everyone thinks my mother was soft; she wasn’t soft,” Larry said. “She was devoted to my father and her family and she did what she had to do to keep the family together. She was the glue.”
Charlie wasn’t part of the Greatest Generation, just missing it by a few years, but he was certainly aware of it. The values they valued he also valued - attitude, hard work, commitment, dedication, and, yes, obedience. Those were the things he carried with him into the 1950s when he played basketball, first at WVU, and then at Alderson-Broaddus, and then into the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s when he coached and kids were more apt to challenge authority figures.
The Huggins boys had to wear their hair crew-cut style, two finger-lengths above the scalp until Charlie finally let them grow it out a little bit more when they became seniors. It was probably the only non-negotiable Charlie Huggins ever negotiated with his boys.
“His father was very demanding on him, very demanding,” said Billy Hahn, who has known Huggins since his high school days when Hahn, as a Terrapin player for Lefty Driesell, showed Huggs around Maryland’s campus.
Bob, being the oldest of seven children, was the one Charlie usually took with him to watch games or a college scrimmages, many times with Ed McCluskey. What young Bob was exposed to sitting with them was a Ph.D-level education in basketball.
Both of them were incredible high school coaches, capable of turning six-foot country boys into basketball ninjas. Then, when the Huggins boys were old enough to play, they were only allowed to participate in whatever sport Charlie was coaching at the time, mostly basketball, but also some track or football when he needed to make a few extra bucks to feed all those hungry mouths.
One year, Charlie even coached the cross country team, which meant Larry got to experience the thrill of a lifetime - running in the woods for his half-crazy father.
“I couldn’t stand it,” Larry laughed.
Charlie helped out with the football team until Bob’s sophomore year when the younger Huggins got injured. That put Charlie’s basketball team in jeopardy, which meant football was no longer an option for Bob, although he did show some promise as a quarterback. When Huggs played basketball in college at West Virginia, he hung out a lot with the football players because those were the guys with whom he mostly identified.
“If truth be told, I would have rather played football myself,” Larry admitted. “But we didn’t have that choice.”
Bob Huggins took Akron to the NCAA tournament in 1986 with two Zip football players in his starting lineup. University of Akron photo.
Even years later, when Huggins coached at Akron, he took a team full of football players and walk-ons (his kind of guys) to the NCAA Tournament where they almost upset Michigan in the first round. One of those football players, Russell Holmes, guarded Michigan’s Roy Tarpley all the way to the water fountain that night.
Walsh was where Huggins learned to coach on his feet, and Central Florida was where he realized that he was built for the spotlight and not the wings, but Akron was where Huggins put it all together.
At Akron he learned that there was more to having a successful college basketball program than just being a good coach. Everyone had to pull their oars in the same direction to make things work and that wasn’t happening at Akron.
There was a turf war going on between the football and basketball programs and a young Bob Huggins wasn’t about to back down, even if that meant standing up to former Notre Dame football coach in Gerry Faust.
“This is where Huggins got the term, ‘Are you a football guy or a basketball guy,’” longtime friend Denver Allen, then a 24-year-old fundraiser for the Zips, recalled.
Huggins immediately made Akron formidable with outstanding players such as Marcel Boyce and Eric McLaughlin, two guys Allen believes were good enough to start on some of Huggins’ best Cincinnati and West Virginia teams. Toss in football players Holmes and Chris Kelley, plus some pretty good walk-ons such as Mike Dowdell, and Huggs had a pretty good thing going there.
But soon Akron dropped out of the Ohio Valley Conference and chose to go the independent route for football, which meant basketball and the other sports didn’t have access to the NCAA Tournament. It was only a matter of time before Huggins found something better. That happened in 1989 when the Cincinnati job came open.
“His Akron days were really fun,” Allen said. “Those games against Cleveland State were always great. They had Kevin Mackey and Mouse McFadden, and they used to pack the place.”
It was at Cincinnati where Bob Huggins became a household name, his 1992 Bearcat team taking the Queen City (and the nation) by storm.
“Once you popped into the top 25 that meant your highlights were on SportsCenter,” Nelson, now executive director of the C-Club, said. “When that happens you are no longer a local team. We just kept winning and climbing up the charts and people were now meeting us in airports, hotel lobbies and they were traveling with us. It was a whole different thing for us because nobody traveled to the games before that.”
Right in the middle of the hysteria was Bob Huggins, yelling, screaming and cajoling the way only Huggs can. His Bearcat teams were big, physical and tough. They walked into other gyms like they owned them - “no fear,” as Al Maguire used to tell Huggins. And they wore black uniforms. For the out-of-towners, it was virtually impossible not to hate them - or Huggins.
Years later, when sports columnists would take their potshots at Huggins without ever talking to him, most of their opinions of him were already formed during those early days watching him and his teams perform on television.
Bob Huggins' Cincinnati Bearcat men's basketball teams took the Queen City by storm in the 1990s. University of Cincinnati photo.
“When he got to Cincinnati nobody knew anything about him,” Martin said. “We were in a new conference, the Great Midwest, and when we went to the Final Four the media gave Huggs the black hat because Jerry Tarkanian was on his way out.
“I was like, ‘Huggs, how did this happen? You never did anything wrong, and the Sports Illustrated article that said you didn’t graduate any of your guys was one of the most fabricated articles ever written.’ When that article was written I had just graduated,” Martin said.
Frank Martin, not related to Erik, coached three years with Huggins at Cincinnati and one with him at Kansas State. He has a similar persona today as South Carolina’s head coach and understands how easy it is to get labeled, and how hard it is to shake it.
“The part the public never embraces is you hear the people that know Huggs and they will tell you, ‘Don’t judge him by that five-minute moment during a game 30 times a year. Judge him by who he is 365 days a year.’ The public refuses to understand that there are a lot of guys that are the complete opposite,” Martin explained. “When the cameras are on they are a certain person and then when the cameras are off they are a completely different human being.
“That’s why the people who know Huggs absolutely love him. For a guy who is supposed to be this rough, tough guy, you ask me in the 30-whatever years he’s been a head basketball coach, when is the last time one player has been publically critical of Bob Huggins? They won’t do it,” Martin said.
“I’ve known Huggs for a long time and he’s kind of been my mentor over the years, and I’ve probably not made any career moves without talking to him first, but I never understood how deep the loyalty ran with his former players until I got here,” WVU assistant coach Ron Everhart said. “Everybody comes back. Everybody calls him.”
Sure, he yells at his guys. Sometimes they even yell back at him. But he also listens. When Huggins got to West Virginia, the players here were stunned to learn that they could walk right into his office and talk to him. Some of them went to Martin’s office first, asking him some questions that were really intended for Huggins.
“‘Why are you asking me?’” Martin said. “‘Go in and ask Huggs yourself.’”
‘We can do that?’ was the stunned response.
“It’s always been that way with Huggs, ever since I played for him,” Martin said.
“Nothing against Coach (John) Beilein, but he didn’t have as much of an open-door policy as Huggs,” guard Joe Mazzulla, now an assistant coach for the Maine Red Claws in the NBA D League, said. “Once we got beyond that barrier we could go to him for anything.”
Bob Huggins comforts injured forward Da'Sean Butler during West Virginia's loss to Duke in the 2010 Final Four played in Indianapolis. WVU Athletic Communications photo.
What sealed things for the players Huggins inherited from Beilein - and demonstrates his true brilliance as a basketball coach - is what Huggins did once he returned to his alma mater in 2007.
He scrapped most of his Cincinnati stuff and used a lot of the things Beilein did because it better suited the players he had. In fact, it worked so well they went to the Final Four in 2010.
“He has no ego,” assistant coach Larry Harrison said. “When we got here he took some of the stuff Beilein taught these guys that they were comfortable with and we kept it because that’s what the guys knew. Then we sprinkled in some of the things we wanted. That’s great coaching there.”
There were times in games when Huggins even stepped aside and let the players sort things out, particularly when it came to Beilein’s 1-3-1 zone defense they were using.
“He wouldn’t talk but would just listen,” Mazzulla said.
One specific instance Mazzulla recalled the players figured out on their own was against Notre Dame in the first round of the 2009 Big East Tournament. Irish forward Luke Harangody was killing the Mountaineers at the soft spot of the 1-3-1 and adjustments had to be made.
“Usually the wing is really high and I would have to go corner to corner,” Mazzulla explained. “Heading into that game they ran a lot of their offense through Harangody on the short corners and in the blocks. We pretty much said it was pointless for me to run corner to corner because he’s so much of a threat, so we dropped one of the weakside wings back and it almost became like a half-court, extended 2-3 zone to where I would guard the short corner and the middle and let the weakside wing come back and he would take the corner until I could get there or he would just stay.
“We used to have all this ball pressure and the wings were really high, but against Notre Dame we pushed it back and the wings became really, really low and (Devin) Ebanks would just flatten out and guard the guy out there because he was so long anyway. That was an adjustment Beilein had in that defense and something we knew to make.”
Three years ago, Huggins made another significant adjustment. His team was coming off an awful 13-19 record - one of the most miserable years of his life and one of the few losing seasons he has ever been involved with in anything, including rec league softball. He knew something drastic needed to be done.
Not only did he blow up his roster and cycle through the players not willing to play the way he wanted, but he also reached back into his past to do a little soul searching - just as he did in 2002 when he was sprawled out on the sidewalk at the Pittsburgh airport when he nearly died of a heart attack.
He survived both.
West Virginia players celebrate Bob Huggins' 800th career victory on Saturday, December 17, 2016 against UMKC at the WVU Coliseum. All-Pro Photography/Dale Sparks photo.
“I remember talking to him three summers ago and he said, ‘I’ve got to go to Milwaukee and get this figured out,’” Larry said.
Huggins went to see Kevin Mackey, the old Cleveland State coach. They talked about full-court pressure defense and what came out of that was “Press Virginia” - the style of play Huggins unveiled in 2015 that led to 25 wins and then 26 more last year, including a big home victory over top-ranked Kansas.
This season, Press Virginia has already claimed another big victim in sixth-ranked Virginia. This is one more example of how Huggins continues to reinvent himself to stay ahead of things. This old dog has always been able to learn new tricks.
When he first got into the game there was no three-point arc, no shot clock and defenders weren’t even allowed to breathe on the player with the basketball. He kept up with all of that.
“He changed the Cincinnati culture and took them to the Final Four by pressing and running,” Ole Miss Coach Andy Kennedy, who worked four years for Huggins with the Bearcats, said. “He then changed his style of play when he had Danny Fortson and really played inside-out for the years I was there with him. When we had Steve Logan, who was the runner-up to Jay Williams for the Wooden Player of the Year, we played through our guards.
“Now he’s turned West Virginia into ‘Press Virginia’ based on his personnel and this just speaks to his abilities as a coach,” Kennedy said. “He’s one of the all-time greats of this era.”
He truly is. The guys coaching against him in the Big 12 think so, too.
“There are very few that have had the consistent success that coach Huggins has had,” Oklahoma’s Lon Kruger said. “Regardless of where he’s been his teams have won. And they have won at a very high rate. They’ve always played extremely hard and that will continue. You’ve got to last a long time and have great success along the way to accomplish 800.”
“I don’t know how long Huggs is going to go, but he’s going to easily get 900 wins, and he may get 1,000,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “That’s unheard of for somebody to get that many wins. Even though he’s a somewhat colorful figure, and one who has been absolutely great for our league, I don’t think he always gets the credit he deserves as a coach because he’s really good. Really good.”
Those in the media are beginning to see some of his great qualities those closest to Huggins have been observing since his Midvale-Gnadenhutten days where there are only 500 people, two stop lights, nine bars and three churches.
“Oh man, I’ve been hearing that now for 27 years,” Harrison, shaking his head, said.
“Bob Huggins is one of the least appreciated elite coaches in college basketball,” ESPN’s Andy Katz said. “He was unfairly painted with a black hat early in his career and what was lost amid that was his excellence at taking teams/players and molding them into winners. The loyalty shown by his players and their commitment is a credit to his persistence in maximizing talent. Huggins may have mellowed a bit as he has aged, but his determination to excel has never faded.”
And there is this from ESPN.com senior writer Dana O’Neil, in Charlottesville, Virginia, earlier this month to cover West Virginia’s game against the Cavaliers.
“There are many ways to view Bob Huggins’ 800-win milestone - he’s been around a really long time, or he’s really good at his job,” she said. “Yes, Huggins has been at this college basketball thing for more than a few years but if longevity were the simple route to success, he’d have a lot of company in the 800-win club.
“The game has changed, players have changed and how you can coach has changed so a good coach not only has to have ability, he has to have adaptability. That’s Huggins. He hasn’t changed as a person. He still demands of his players without apologies, but he has evolved as a coach as the game has demanded it.”
Huggins’ best player at West Virginia, Da’Sean Butler, was a lot like Kenyon Martin - the best player Huggins has ever coached. Martin didn’t know how good he could be until Huggins showed him the way.
Bob Huggins with his wife June watching the video tributes from his former players during the post game celebration of his 800th career victory against UMKC at the WVU Coliseum. June is wearing his game jersey and lettermen's sweater when he was a WVU player. All-Pro Photography Dale Sparks photo.
It was a similar deal with Butler, except there weren’t any heart-to-heart speeches or epiphanies. It was just Dr. Jeykll turning into Mr. Huggins.
“My sophomore year I was just taking it as it was,” Butler, now playing overseas in Germany, recalled. “I didn’t really do anything real great and after the season he told me that I needed to get into the gym because I was not getting up enough shots after practice. I was like, ‘Alright, cool.’”
So Butler took Huggins advice and worked his butt off all summer on his shot and made himself a much better player. Then, during the team’s first scrimmage game against Virginia, Butler was posting up trying to get open to score but his teammates wouldn’t throw him the ball.
Mount Huggins called timeout and erupted.
“This guy has worked on his shot every day this summer because I told him to and you damned guys won’t give him the ball!” he yelled.
Butler sat back in his seat and listened to this great coach - one day a hall of fame coach - tear into the rest of the team for not throwing the ball … to him.
Huggins didn’t say a single word to Butler. He didn’t have to. What he said to the others meant everything in the world to him.