By Stewart Mandel
March 26, 2010

SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- Bob Huggins didn't need any pep talk from George Clooney upon receiving his pink slip from Cincinnati in 2005. The way he describes it, Huggs was the happiest fired person in America during his seven-month exile from coaching.

"It was wonderful," he recalled Friday. "Just to wake up and say, 'What do I want to do today?' People were trying to get me to come in and watch practice and I'm like, 'No, I don't think I want to do that.' You all try to make it out like it was a terrible thing. I kind of enjoyed it."

Huggins, 56, returned to coaching soon enough, and now, three years into his stint as head coach at his alma mater, West Virginia, Huggins has the second-seeded Mountaineers (30-6) one win away from their first Final Four since 1959. They'll face No. 1 seed Kentucky (35-2) in Saturday's East Regional final.

In hindsight, getting fired was the best thing that ever could have happened to the Morgantown, W. Va., native. He was a good coach with the Bearcats -- but he's a better coach today. In large part, friends say, it's because he's home.

"Even my mom says, 'He sure is calm compared to when he coached you guys," said West Virginia assistant Erik Martin, a starter for Huggins' 1992 Final Four team at Cincinnati. "But make no mistake, he's still intense. He still wants to win so much."

Was that fire missing a little bit during his latter days with the Bearcats? Huggins would never admit it -- but it certainly seemed that way at the time.

It's easy to forget now, but Huggins' Cincinnati program started losing its swagger years before his unexpected ouster by reform-minded president Nancy Zimpher. Only once in his last nine seasons there did the Bearcats make it as far as the Sweet 16, in 2001. His teams seemed perpetually on the wrong end of tourney upsets, losing in the second round as a No. 2 seed in 2000 (the year Kenyon Martin broke his leg) and '02, and falling to lower seeds in seven out of eight years.

But tourney losses were hardly Huggins' downfall. After years of bad p.r. involving his players' poor graduation rates and litany of police run-ins, newly hired president Zimpher decided it time for an image change. Huggins' embarrassing June 2004 DUI arrest (documented on police video) set the wheels in motion, and 14 months later she forced him to take a contract buyout.

Cincinnati fans were -- and still are --livid. Their program has yet to recover. Huggins, on the other hand, is enjoying a professional renaissance.

Though he took significant heat for bolting Kansas State after just one season in 2007, "even early in his career, he knew he wanted to coach at West Virginia when it came to an end," said Martin. K-State fans are presumably more forgiving now -- what with Huggins' protégé, Frank Martin, leading the Wildcats to the Elite Eight this week.

In Morgantown, Huggins inherited a roster ill-suited to the bruising brand of basketball he'd employed at Cincinnati. They were John Beilein players, recruited to play a more finesse motion offense. During that first season Huggins' approach was a reminder as to how he's won all those games (currently 655) over the years.

"I've never seen a guy watch as much tape as he did when he got here," said Mountaineers star Da'Sean Butler, then a rising sophomore. "He found out what everyone's strengths and weaknesses were and he incorporated our old [offense] into his new things."

His first West Virginia team in 2007-08 finished tied for fifth in the Big East and upset Duke in the NCAA second round. Despite losing star Joe Alexander, the Mountaineers returned to the Dance last year.

But this year's group is the first that has truly taken on Huggs' likeness -- an indisputably rugged, blue-collar defensive team that seems to play above its collective talent level. There's no bruiser like Kenyon Martin or Danny Fortson clogging the lane, but the Mountaineers are long (Butler and forwards Kevin Jones, Devin Ebanks and Wellington Smith are all between 6-7 and 6-9) and disruptive. Against Washington in Thursday night's Sweet 16 win, the team posted a plus-20 rebounding margin and forced 21 turnovers.

The Mountaineers also deviate from Huggins' preferred man defense at times to break into a 1-3-1 zone, which was particularly effective against the Huskies.

"What Bob has done, he's looked at his team and says, 'How do we have to play to win?'" said Kentucky coach John Calipari. "They're always going to rebound, they're always going to be physical. They're going to be bump-and-grind. Now he's thrown in a 1-3-1. I imagine we'll see a triangle-and-two or something like that."

Calipari is better suited to assess Huggins' evolution than nearly anyone. They are close friends dating to Huggins' days as a 27-year-old head coach at Walsh College, when Calipari, a Pittsburgh native, was working at a high-school all-star camp. They also faced each other annually in Conference USA when Huggins was at Cincinnati and Calipari at Memphis.

In 2002 they reunited in the Steel City under far more serious circumstances after Huggins, then 49, suffered a heart attack at an airport car-rental station. Calipari was the first coach to visit him in the hospital. (In a strange coincidence, Calipari's nephew was one of the paramedics in the ambulance that transported him.)

"It was scary," said Calipari. "I saw the paddle burns."

The heart attack was one of several events that contributed to Huggins' transformation from one of the sport's most combustible coaches to a mellower, sometimes sedated-looking alternative (embodied by his famously casual choice of game-day attire, a West Virginia warmup suit). He still gets after his players (one need only sit behind their bench during a game for a sampling), but not nearly to the degree he did during his coat-tossing, vein-popping days in the early '90s.

"When we made mistakes [in practice], they were going to run us," said Martin. "At least he warns these guys. Back when Huggs was coaching us, he didn't give us a warning."

Huggins, as he does with most questions, offers a simple explanation.

"You get older, you know?" He said. "I was [31] when I got the Akron job. I was 35 when I got the Cincinnati job. I think that's where the term 'youthful exuberance' comes from. You are a little more excitable."

These days, Huggins is the farthest thing from "excitable" -- off the court, at least. ("On the court, he's crazy. Everyone knows that," said injured guard Darryl Bryant.) His press conferences are oddly entertaining in that his facial expression is usually one of complete boredom, yet at the same time he clearly gets a kick out of cracking up the room with his desert-dry humor.

Asked about any lingering "misconceptions" the media perpetuated about him, Huggins said Friday: "I've been accused of not liking you [media] people. That's not true," he said. "Some of you I don't like. I'm being honest. Some of you are -- I'm not going to say the word. ... I don't care. I honestly don't care."

Considering he remains one of the sport's most recognizable figures, considering he's won 21 conference regular-season or tournament titles, it's hard to believe that Huggs has not graced the Final Four since that initial breakthrough run in 1992. This is in fact his first Elite Eight appearance in 14 years.

On Saturday, he gets his long-awaited chance to return to college basketball's biggest stage -- only this time, if it happens, it's going to mean so much more to him. He cried after West Virginia knocked off Georgetown to claim the school's first Big East Tournament title two weeks go. Many never would have pegged Huggs to get sentimental -- and maybe, in his previous stops, he wasn't.

"When you grow up and you're born and raised in West Virginia ... to be able to go coach in Madison Square Garden -- and when the game is over with, to hear Country Roads come over the loudspeaker in Madison Square Garden, it's unbelievable," he said. "You don't understand unless you've ever been to West Virginia how much it means to the people."

He's coaching with a renewed purpose -- and it shows.

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