"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."-- Bob Huggins, 1994
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."-- Bob Huggins, 1995
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?"-- Bob Huggins, 1996
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.2. His players seemed to get arrested a lot.3. He got into some sort of trouble with the NCAA.4. He got shoved out at Cincinnati after clashing with the president. "Character counts," the president, Nancy Zimpher, famously said.5. His players had a zero percent graduation rate.6. His teams lost in March a lot.7. He almost died of a heart attack a couple of weeks before practice one year.
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?"
The problem with Huggins is that people have always been quite content to see the worst. There has always been smoke billowing around his programs. People were happy to imagine the raging fire. Does he break rules? Come on. Does he have his priorities in the wrong order? What do you think? The critics served their purpose as fuel for Huggins. The more enemies he could make, the more convincing his "Us Against The World" speech would sound to his players. The more intensely people tried to tear him down, the harder he would work to make it stronger. This is not to say that Huggins will not talk about what he believes is an unfair reputation. Sure, he will talk.
1. The DUI was the worst mistake of his life.
2. His players have made mistakes -- many came from rough backgrounds -- but that happens all around the country and he believes his players have been picked on and are, in fact, as good and as smart and as decent as any other program's players.
3. In 1998, Cincinnati was slapped with probation on violations Huggins insists could be found "in any program."
4. Pass. Huggins has strong opinions about what REALLY happened at Cincinnati, but there's no point in opening that crypt again.
5. The zero graduation thing really chaps him -- Huggins will insist that was a reflection of the flawed way the NCAA measures graduation rates, and he will quickly provide numerous statistics that show academic excellence among his players.
6. His best team -- the one time Huggins truly believed he had the best team in America -- lost Kenyon Martin just before the tournament.
7. He was there for the first practice after the heart attack.
Yes, he will answer ... but he also wants to make it clear that he DOES NOT CARE what people think. Why not? They ... don't ... know. Those were his three favorite words in our conversations. They ... don't ... know. Outsiders could never understand how hard he and his players worked, how ferociously they prepared, how much they cared for each other, how rewarding it was to watch these players learn about basketball and life, how much of a commitment it takes to play at the level that his teams played. They ... don't ... know. And because they don't know, he would not care what they said.
Only ... he did care. He does care. Of course he cares. When a fan heckled him during a tournament game in Las Vegas, he turned to the fan and shouted, "Hey, do I come to your job at McDonald's and heckle you?" When Digger Phelps kept picking against West Virginia on ESPN, Huggins made point of it during a television interview. And, yes, when I wrote things that he did not like ... he let me know and also recited the above quote at various speaking engagements. Why, indeed, would he read anything written by a short, fat guy who has never worn a jock?
Of course, he did read. He more than read. I would get calls from Cincinnati now and again with word that another one of my columns had made "the drawer." The drawer in his office desk, was supposedly where Huggins would put those special columns that infuriated him just a bit more than normal. The insiders insisted that he laminated the columns first.
The funny thing is that, through it all, even though I criticized often, I always had this grudging admiration for Huggins. I knew about the bad stuff, just like anyone else, more than most. I wrote about that. But I had seen the good. I had seen his coaching genius. I had watched the merciless practices. I had enjoyed being around his players ("They're just real, aren't they?" Huggins would ask sometimes). I had watched him tear apart players during games only to embrace them at the end. After he was pushed out in Cincinnati, he sat out for a year, and I wrote a column in The Kansas City Star suggesting that if Kansas State really wanted to resuscitate its basketball program -- and they were willing to deal with the criticisms and put in checks and balances -- they should probably hire Bob Huggins, because he would do that.
And then, in a crazy turn, Kansas State hired Huggins.
The first thing Huggins said to me when he saw me at the introductory press conference?
"Hey, have you lost weight?"
"The dumbest thing a player can do is try to do too much and get his ass out of position."-- Bob Huggins, 1996
Huggins was a good player at West Virginia. He wasn't a great player -- he averaged 13 points his senior year -- but he was good enough to dream that he had a future in the NBA. He put himself through a staggering workout regimen as he prepared to get drafted by the Philadelphia 76ers. It was while working out on his bicycle that he got hit by a car. His arm smashed through the windshield. He bounced in and out of consciousness, and the one thought that he remembers having was simply this: "I can't believe this happened."
Maybe Huggins would have had an NBA career. Maybe not. The one thing that was certain, though, is that he had to refocus his dream before he was ready. And, because of that, he was obsessive about learning basketball. Many people don't know this about Huggins, but he graduated magna cum laude from West Virginia. He earned a Master's Degree in Health Education. He was -- and is -- a student at heart. He has written as many coaching books as probably any coach in the country. A few of these include:
• Press Breakers
• Special Situations: Making the Most of Limited Possessions
• Coaching Matchup Defense
• Set Plays to Score
• Coaching Fast Break and Secondary Offense
• Building a Man-to-Man Defense
• Motion Offense: The Principles of the Five Man Open Post
Having read a couple of these I can honestly say ... you might want to stick with Grisham for your airplane reading. But I can also honestly say that these books are very good for what they are; they give you a great insight into how much Huggins THINKS about basketball. People will see him as a motivator, an intimidator, a recruiter ... but he has a genius for basketball. And he never stops. I will always remember that once, when The CincinnatiPost was doing a story on coach burnout, a reporter asked Huggins what he did to get away from the stress of coaching. Huggins' answer: Watch film.
Because he has spent so much time studying the game -- the tiniest details -- he has come up with a series of simple things that he believes win basketball games. These include:
• Get more and better shots than your opponent.
• Don't assume things will happen correctly if you don't practice them correctly.
• Make the offensive player catch the ball going away from the basket.
• Identify what is a good shot for each player and try to get them those shots.
• Create mismatches.
• Coach aggressiveness, all the time, every day.
And then there's his belief that the worst thing a player can do is try to do too much. Watch Huggins on the sideline -- it's this that sets him off more than anything. If a player lunges for a steal and doesn't get there, he leaves his team facing five on four. If a player jumps too early to block a shot, he sets himself up for a foul or to be out of position, again leaving his team at a disadvantage. If a player tries to take on two defenders, he is betraying his four teammates and particularly the one who is open. And so on.
"Why is that the worst thing?" I asked him.
"Because it's selfish," he said.
"It's selfish to try too hard?" I asked.
"You don't get it," he said, and he shook his head because for decades now he has been thinking about this. "People who try to do too much are taking the easy way out."
"Wouldn't it be a better world if everybody put as much passion into their work as I do?"-- Bob Huggins, 1994, 1995, 1996, 1997, 2000, 2006, 2007
If Huggins has never coached your school, you might not appreciate just how much people love him. Sure, you will say, people love the winning ... and they do. Huggins has always won. His first job was at Walsh College -- a job his father turned down -- and three years later his team went 34-1. He went to Akron and in his second year the Zips were in the NCAA tournament. He went to Cincinnati and led them to to the Final Four in his third year -- and to 13 consecutive NCAA tournaments after that. He went to Kansas State and in his first year the Wildcats won 23 games and got the top recruit in America, Michael Beasley. He left after one year for his alma mater, West Virginia, and you see how well he's doing there.
But his popularity among fans, well, that goes beyond the winning. There's something joyous about being on the Bob Huggins side of things, where players play hard and the coach is a regular guy who wears sweats on the sidelines, and all those critics just DO NOT UNDERSTAND. They ... don't ... know. If all those outsiders want to see the worst in Huggins, well, the insiders see the regular guy who coaches with heat and refuses to bow to the whims of the times. "My father believed that it was important to win," Huggins told me once. "And that's how I feel to. Somehow winning has become a dirty word or something. This country was founded on winning."
People at West Virginia mostly love this stuff, just like people at Kansas State mostly loved this stuff, just like people at Cincinnati mostly loved this stuff. Huggins will tell the story sometimes about being a cocky young basketball player in Midvale, Ohio, and a couple of the older guys on the court took him to the coal mine where they worked. They took him down ... down ... down ... Huggins would never forget how deep it was or how hard it was to breathe.
And, in many ways, he carries that feeling with him everywhere. Maybe that's what his fans can sense in him, what you can't help but see when you are close up with Huggins. He has seen the depths of a coal mine. He has felt unfairly criticized. He has tasted defeat, bitter defeat, lots of times. He has watched players, time and again, try to take the easy way out. And still, he's going, as hard as ever, as inflexible as ever, pushing his players beyond their talents, trying to win because winning isn't a dirty word. This country was founded on winning.
"Well, wouldn't it be a better place if everybody put as much passion in their work as I do every day?" Huggins follows up. He asks this question a lot. And while it's hard to imagine a planet populated by red-faced people in sweat suits cursing occasionally at authority figures, nobody would argue about how hard he works, how much he cares, how zealously his players play for him, how much people around him love the guy for all his faults. And in the end, the answer to the question does seem to be yes.