It feels less like an office than a rec room--though neater,
undeniably, and with a couple of Rolodexes the size of semi
tires parked on a credenza. A hint of September afternoon
sunlight seeps through the one window. There's a black leather
couch, a jar full of matches, and walls papered tan and choked
with the spoils of public success: commemorative clocks and
plaques, framed magazine covers and autographed glossies.
Cincinnati coach Bob Huggins swivels behind his desk, wearing
his nongame face, the one serene enough for the no-limit tables
in Vegas, his blue eyes heavy-lidded but unguarded.
This is an article from the Oct. 24, 1995 issue
He is 42 and already considered one of the nation's elite
coaches, a peerless defensive tactician who was courted last
summer by the NBA's Miami Heat. Huggins is 138-58 in his six
seasons at Cincinnati, matching the school's victory total for
the previous 11 years. He reached the Final Four in 1992 and the
Elite Eight in '93 with teams that forced an average of 20.7
turnovers a game. "Two or three years ago, his 2-2-1 and his
half-court traps were the best in the country," UConn coach Jim
Calhoun says. "He took some 6'4" or 6'5" guys and made them into
5-men and 4-men. He disregarded size and a lot of other things,
and yet they won."
But Huggins's teams don't merely win, they play with a
tenaciousness unequaled in the land, their ferocity matched only
by Huggins's other mug, his game face, the one that oozes fury.
He rants, he swears, he points and jumps like an indignant
child, his puffy cheeks swallowed up in a rictus of rage. Ask
people who know him well what question is most often posed to
them about Huggins, and you invariably hear the same three
words: Is he crazy?
Junior guard Darnell Burton passes by the door. "Want to talk to
him?" Huggins asks in his customary drowsy (nongame) monotone.
Tom Hathaway, Cincinnati's sports information director, fidgets
on the couch. Burton is the Bearcats' only legit outside
shooter, but Huggins has suspended him for the upcoming season
for an unspecified violation of team rules. A player so harshly
disciplined would not be on most coaches' lists of keynote
speakers. "There was a rule and I broke it," Burton explains
later, out of Huggins's earshot. Any hard feelings with Coach?
The phone on Huggins's desk rings. It's the president of the
Dutch Basketball Federation. Huggins has been expecting this
call; twice this week, Louis Banks awakened him at 3 a.m.
seeking counsel as to whether or not to play in Holland. In '89,
when Huggins first arrived at Cincinnati, the Bearcats hadn't
played in the NCAA tournament since 1977, and Banks, a
sweet-shooting forward, helped lead them to the first two of
their six straight postseason bids. Huggins tells the Dutch
official that Banks was acquitted of rape charges in '91--in a
trial that aired on Court TV. The perception of Banks, Huggins
assures the caller, differs from reality. "I had no problem with
Lou," he says. "Lou hates to lose."
Erik Martin enters. A forward on the Bearcats' Final Four and
Elite Eight teams, he is best remembered for a mutinous episode
aired live on ESPN. Early in a Jan. 30, 1993, game against
DePaul at Cincinnati's Shoemaker Center, Martin failed to chase
down a loose ball. From his haunches, the 6'4" Huggins banished
Martin to the bench with a saturnine (game) stare and a string
of expletives; the 6'6" Martin snapped back. Huggins continued
to fume; Martin cursed from his seat. Huggins got up and
pointed Martin to the locker room; Martin rose, ripped off his
jersey and stormed off.
The whole scene took half a minute. Huggins arrived outside the
coaches' room at halftime to find Martin sobbing his apologies.
Huggins started him in the second half, the Bearcats won 80-54,
and the two hugged on the court afterward. Now Martin has
stopped by to say that after two years in the CBA, he is going
off to play in Spain. Huggins spins the Rolodexes for the number
of a marketing director he knows in Malaga and then calls Eddie
at Nike to make sure Martin gets two pairs of mid-cut size 15's
before he leaves.
"People always ask me, 'Are you the guy who walked out?'" Martin
says. "The funny thing is that Coach has never said anything to
me about it, and I've never said anything to him. You can't
carry stuff like that off the court and into real life."
Indeed, the seemingly set-to-detonate Huggins swings between
two extremes--from Type A (game) to Type Zzzz (nongame). In the
latter mode, he doesn't heave a nine-iron into the lake after
chunking a chip shot; he never hangs up on his wife of 18 years
and the mother of his two daughters without saying "I love you";
he scarcely raises his voice above a whisper as he puffs cigars
and cracks wise. Which raises another question: In a profession
littered with snake-oil salesmen and control freaks who play to
the cameras, how is it that a coach as volcanic as Huggins can
also be so...sane?
Fuzzbuster intermittently bleeping, the black Lexus roars down
the two-lane road, up and down the rolling hills, past the
cornfields and the mobile homes and the coal mines, then turns
down a gravel drive, spitting up dust. Huggins jerks his car
into park in front of a three-story house with ceramic rabbits
scattered out front. "Welcome," he says with a thin smile, "to
It is 19 1/4 acres of lumpy terrain tufted with grass. There are
10 rough-hewn buildings, two muddy lakes and nine basketball
courts, including one inside a red barn, where the water has
been known to run rust-colored. This is the Eastern Ohio
Basketball Camp in Sherrodsville, within 90 miles of where
Huggins went to high school (Gnadenhutten) and college (Ohio for
a year, before going to West Virginia), got engaged to June Ann
Fillman (Christmas 1976) and married (the day in '77 that Elvis
was buried), earned his first head coaching job (NAIA Walsh
College in North Canton, 1980) and his first NCAA bid (Akron,
'86). In many ways, this is home.
Charlie Huggins is in the basement, filling out papers in front
of a TV so huge that it should rightfully be accompanied by
Sensurround. He is the camp's founder, owner and overseer--though
his wife, Norma, has cooked and dished out its every meal for
more than 25 years. Charlie is 62, a squarish, bespectacled man
whose dulcet voice contains an unmistakable edge of steel. He is
a devout Christian who often speaks in the first-person plural
when he feels the presence of the Holy Spirit. Every Tuesday
during the summer when camp is in session, he makes sure a
minister comes by to offer salvation. "This is why we started
teaching and coaching," says Charlie, "to develop young people.
Teaching responsibility, discipline, respect and loyalty; laying
the background for them for life."
For 21 years he was a high school coach, winning 84% of his
games and, while at Indian Valley South, two state
championships. After suffering a heart attack at 40, he quit
smoking and became more religious. But he spared neither the rod
nor the decibels when it came to getting his point across. That
was especially true with his three sons: Bob (the eldest), Harry
and Larry, each of whom was named Ohio's player of the year as a
senior. "As bad as I am," Bob says, "my father was worse."
Charlie never failed to see the slightest misstep on the court,
and he never failed to point it out at the quarter's end. "His
attention to detail was incredible--what had to happen and when
and why," Bob recalls. Charlie had rules about hair length
(short) and talking to girls in school during the season
(never). He preached "the five intangibles" to his players and
self-discipline to his seven kids night and day, sentencing them
to either hard labor or hard play at the camp. The family
motto: Anyone can be average.
The closest Bob ever came to challenging his dad's authority was
when Charlie blasted him non-stop during one halftime after he
had just gone for 20 points. Bob announced after the game that
he was quitting, but the next day Char-lie showed up at the
school with his son's gear and sent him off to practice. They
both knew how much Bob loved the game. "If you could bottle what
Bobby had, you'd be the greatest coach in the world," Charlie
says. "He had the self-desire to be the best."
Bob would accompany his father on drives with Pennsylvania high
school coaching legend Ed McClusky, a proponent of the "amoeba"
defense. He rubbed shoulders with and picked the brains of
college coaches like Gene Keady and Eldon Miller, who were
instructors at the camp. Charlie didn't set out to make his son
a coach, but no one is surprised things turned out that way.
In 1980, Walsh offered its head coaching position to Charlie.
The paltry salary hardly made it worth his while to move, so he
recommended Bob, then 27, who after being an academic
All-America at West Virginia had served as an assistant there
and at Ohio State. In the 18 years before Walsh hired Huggins,
its Cavaliers finished above .500 twice. Three years after he
arrived, they wound up the regular season 34-0.
Huggins used the connections he had made at the camp to recruit.
He ran grueling three-hour practices. He racked up 17 technical
fouls in his first season. On a whim he extended McClusky's
amoeba to full court, spliced in traps and developed what would
become college hoops' most fearsome press. And was it any wonder
that he would one day light into a premed student with a 3.94
GPA for not having a 4.0? (Anyone can be average.) Or that he
would discover that one thing that drove him to bloody, ruddy
apoplexy was a player's failure to compete full bore in a
game--or in a practice? (Charlie's second intangible: There's
never any excuse for not playing hard.)
Chuck Machock, the Bearcat radio announcer and ex-Central
Florida coach who has taught at Charlie's camp and assisted Bob,
says, "Discipline is the biggest part of both of them. Their
ideas on how to compete in life are identical. Their ideas on
basketball are identical."
And yet though there is mutual respect, there is also a distance
between them that is almost palpable, even as they stand side by
side. It's as if in Charlie's presence, Bob doesn't know which
face to wear: the game face of his father or the nongame face of
At Cincinnati there are two rules for off-court behavior: 1)
Show up for class and study hall or be suspended, and 2) show up
for weight training or be suspended. There are no whistles in
practice, and the players work under a simple mandate: When you
think you're playing hard, play harder, or you will hear about
it before you sit down.
Huggins wears two faces but no masks. He does nothing for
effect. He drives his players like his Lexus, foot to the
floor. Danny Fortson, the team's star sophomore forward,
sprained his ankle once in practice, got taped up and kept on
playing, even though he felt as if he were running on glass. Yet
Fortson came to Cincinnati because of Huggins's practices,
because he wanted someone who had the knowledge to make him
better and the toughness to back it up. Listening to Huggins's
players speak of him is like listening to the coach talking
about his father. Says Fortson, "The more he knows you, the more
he rips you apart."
"The key with Bob is that he is consistent in what he expects
you to give on a basketball court, and few people can maintain
that on an everyday basis," Machock says. "I've seen him take
kids out because they boxed out four feet from the basket
instead of two. He demands that you succeed, and if you screw
up, he's going to chew ass and enforce correction on you every
At the same time, Huggins does not impose a training-table
regimen on his players ("They eat hamburgers and milk shakes in
the summertime and play well"), nor a set practice time when the
rest of the school is on break ("I'm going to be there whenever
it is"). What emerges is a message that is as clear and
consistent as the lines on Huggins's two faces: There is
learning what it takes to work and to win, which matters a lot,
and there is everything else, which doesn't matter nearly as
much. There are those who understand this, like Banks; those who
don't, like Burton; and those who walk away, like Martin.
But here is Martin, back again. He's a typical Huggins product:
a junior college transfer who went from being an indifferent
worker to being the CBA's runner-up for defensive player of the
year in 1994-95. "My parents [in Covina, Calif.] ask me all the
time, 'Why do you stay in Cincinnati?'" Martin says. "For me, I
guess it's kind of comfortable." He is not alone. Former
teammates and current L.A. Lakers Corie Blount and Nick Van Exel
come back to live in Cincy every summer. Dontonio Wingfield, a
high school All-America who starred as a Bearcat freshman in
1993-94 before going pro, spends his off-seasons there too. In
fact, a good 80% of the players who have suited up for Huggins,
most of them from out of state, have stuck around. In many ways,
this is home.
When Huggins toyed with the notion of going to the NBA--and
before the Heat switched its attention to Pat Riley--he was
fascinated with the idea of coaching that much talent, the best
in the world. That is, until one Saturday in June when a quartet
of former players, including Van Exel, approached him in the
parking lot and reminded him that in the pros he would no longer
have alumni like them trooping into his office, telling him how
soft he was getting. A few days later, Huggins signed a
10-year, $4.2 million contract extension to stay at Cincinnati.
"Coach might not tell you what you want to hear--hell, he'll
probably hurt your feelings--but you can never say he doesn't
care for you as a person," Martin says. "He's a pretty difficult
person to understand, but when you think about it, he's a pretty
easy person to understand."
An hour or so after Cincinnati lost to Michigan 76-72 in the
Final Four in '92, a locker room attendant asked Huggins if
there was anything he could do for him. Huggins jokingly asked
for a bowl of ice cream. The attendant brought back two, and as
Huggins wandered down the ramp toward the main floor of the
Metrodome in Minneapolis, he found his dad. He gave Charlie one
of the bowls and asked him what he thought. Charlie began
dissecting the game, never once congratulating his son on his
team's surprising tournament run.
Bob Huggins thinks he understands now why his dad prohibited
conversations with the opposite sex during the season. "If you
have a girlfriend, you're going to walk out of the locker room
after the game and she's going to console you," he says. "The
people who love you think you do nothing wrong. So you're going
to have excuses, and you're not going to attain what you could
It's a very sensible guess.