Who is this man, Bob Huggins, a man who has won 900 collegiate basketball games as a coach and who worships at the church of basketball?
He is not a simple person, for he is both a bully and a gentle giant. He roars in anger at his players during practice, walks off the court with arm around them at the end.
He is an imperfect perfectionist, a different man to his closest friends than he is to, say the media. He is soft-spoken but yells loud.
You see him in an official’s face one second yelling at him, minutes later being in the same official’s face and both of them walking away laughing.
He has given of himself and his time for charity, being the driving force behind the Norma Mae Huggins Breast Cancer Research Foundation which earned $500,000 at his annual Fish Fry this year, named for his mother.
He has lived under a basketball cloud that has kept him from winning a national championship despite on a number of occasions having a team he felt capable of winning it, that seemingly being the biggest factor that has kept him out of the Hall of Fame.
Huggins recalled recently, “I was doing a thing at the Final Four years ago with (ex-Louisville coach) Denny Crum, and a guy asked, ‘What’s it take to win a national title?’ Denny said, ‘You have to be lucky. And you can’t be unlucky.’ And then he turned to me and said, ‘And this guy right here’s been the unluckiest coach in our era.’”
Huggins is, in a way, bipolar in his life … a man who has stuck to his life values but who has been chameleon-like in the way he coaches basketball systems and techniques, that aspect of his life moving front and center this year as never before after he had to change his entire approach offensively and defensively in mid-season and now has a top 15 team.
He is many things to many people. I know I once wrote that they call him “The Bear” but that sometimes it was hard to tell if he was a grizzly or a teddy bear.
First, about that cloud. In 1992, Huggins’ team reached the Final Four but lost to Michigan’s Fab Five by four points.
Erik Martin, who played on the 1993 team that lost to North Carolina on March 28, 1993, in overtime in the Elite Eight, believes the Bearcats could have at least reached the Final Four in the NCAA that year as well. This was a team not only with Martin but with future NBA players Nick Van Exel and Corie Blount.
But there was another injury that cost them.
“If we’d had A.D., you can’t tell me we wouldn’t have gotten to another Final Four,” Martin once said.
“A.D.” was A.D. Jackson, a guard who tore cartilage in his knee in the opening game of the tournament against Coppin State.
Jackson averaged only 7.0 points and 2.2 assists that season, but he meant much more to the team than that and could have changed the Michigan loss.
“He allowed us to do different things,” Martin said. “Nick [Van Exel] didn’t have to bring the ball up. Sometimes he could be off the ball. We would have had three veteran guards, all senior guards.”
If that sounds like Jordan McCabe’s role on this year’s team, in a way it was, freeing up Deuce McBride to be off the ball.
Huggins’ basketball philosophies remain intact, even from the UC days.
There is a lot of talk these days in college basketball of the importance of junior college players at the highest level.
It isn’t new and Huggins, who has made as good a use of jucos in his time at WVU as anyone, pioneered that aspect of the game when he first appeared at UC, following time at Walsh College and Akron of the MAC.
Van Exel, for example, was a juco player before Huggins added him at UC in a class that also included Martin, Blount and Terry Nelson. And they followed Herb Jones, who may have been the best basketball player of them all.
“I started (going after juco players) because I couldn’t get any high school guys,” Huggins recalled recently. “We tried like crazy but couldn’t get any.”
The one thing he wasn’t going to do was go without players as he was starting out at UC.
And, he immediately showed them just how difficult the game that had been easy to them throughout their careers would be right out of the gate.
Van Exel noted this on a podcast a couple of years ago.
“It was different,” Van Exel said then “It was different because I played for a lot of coaches who used to do a lot of yelling and screaming and cursing, but his was at a different level that was like, ‘Wow, is this serious? Is it like this every day?’ He was intense. He tried to get the best out of us.
“The thing is, and I think we all say this, when we were done playing or practicing on the court, we would go into his office and wouldn’t even talk about basketball. That’s what separated him, and that’s why we were willing go the extra mile. There was no doghouse — he didn’t have a doghouse.
“He knew what you could do on the court, and if you went out there (and) competed at the right level the way he wanted you to compete, that was it.”
Van Exel was talking about 30 years ago but could have been talking about the way Huggins coaches today, about the way he has dealt with Derek Culver.
Huggins has always had a love/hate affair with the media, but bottom line is he has been cooperative beyond belief, although perhaps might sometimes have offered his own version of the truth. Example:
Bill Koch, who worked as UC beat writer and columnist, covered Huggins in Cincinnati for both the Cincinnati Post and for the Cincinnati Enquirer and he is the only writer I know who has gone one-on-one with Huggins, not in an interview situation but on the basketball court.
“My sports editor, Mike Bass, thought it might make a good column to play Huggins one-on-one. I thought it was stupid, but I figured I’d approach him about it, thinking he’ll never do it but, without batting an eye, he said ‘Okay, but we’ll play Make It, Take It, first to 10 wins. And I’m going to shut you out.’”
So, late in the morning one day, they show up at the gym and the only people there are Koch, Huggins and his photographer.
“He comes in with his Seventies tube socks and says ‘Let’s go,’” Koch recalled.
They start and Huggins scores the first basket. He scores the first three, each time backing the smaller and lighter Koch, who is about 6-1, down deep and backing in.
Sound like Derek Culver, again?
“He finally missed a shot and I got the rebound. I know I can’t take him down inside because he’s bigger, so I shoot one from behind the 3-point line and it goes in. So I shoot another one and it goes in. All of a sudden I’m right there with him. It’s getting pretty hot. A shot hits off the rim and we’re both going after it and I get it and I hear him go ‘Bleep!’”
You might notice from that, Huggins is a competitor in everything, even one-on-one with a sportswriter.
Huggins went on to win, 10-6.
“But he didn’t shut me out,” Koch says, even today.
Huggins is winded and Koch admits he didn’t know he had a bad heart and this was before he had his heart attack.
“Damn, I can’t do this anymore,” Huggins said as he leaned on the scorer’s table. “It was 10-5, right?”
“No, 10-6,” Koch responded.
“No, it was 10-5,” said Huggins.
“Okay, you can tell everybody it was 10-5, but in Monday’s paper it’s going to be 10-6,” Koch said.
Ah, the power of the press.
With Huggins — and it’s probably never been more true than this year where five different players have had career high games — anyone is liable to be the hero, even on a team with Culver or McBride or Van Exel.
One of the really big moments in Huggins’ career was winning the first game at the Shoemaker Center, the new on-campus basketball arena after having played 12 years off campus, when he was at Cincinnati.
The Bearcats won the game, 66-64, over 20th-ranked Minnesota on a 3-pointer at the buzzer by Steve Sanders.
Never heard of him? Few have.
Sanders was a former football player. Huggins was just starting his career at UC and had replaced a laid-back coach in Tony Yates.
In many ways it was like Huggins coming in and replacing John Beilein, who had a different coaching philosophy
“It was like night and day,” Sanders said recently. “We went from a laid-back, casual atmosphere where the emphasis was not on winning to a very intense atmosphere where the atmosphere coming in the door was that we’re trying to win. We’re not waiting a year. We’re not rebuilding. We’re not conceding. We’re coming in to win and compete.”
And here was a big chance in his first year against a ranked team opening a new basketball facility.
There were 0.8 seconds left when Cincinnati was to inbound under the basket and Huggins had set up a play for a big guy to try and tip it in … but he had a backup plan and that involved Sanders.
Huggins called Sanders over and told him that if they couldn’t inbound the ball, he was to run to it and that he’d told them to throw him the ball to get off a quick shot.
Sure enough, they did. Sanders shot and scored the 3-pointer.
“I felt like I was plugged into a socket,” Sanders said. “There was so much energy and electricity going through my body. I jump and I run. My teammates tackle me. They pick me up. When they put me down, I run across the court and up into the stands where the band is. Then I come back down and when everybody is gone, I’m still on the court jumping around.
“Finally, I run in the locker room after everybody else and I’m so excited, this is how I calm down: I go in the shower and lay on the floor. I just laid on the shower floor.”
A game-winning play to win the first game in the new arena, and it came about because the play Huggins called did not miss out on any detail … and how many of them have you seen this year and last?
We now go back to my old Cincinnati friend and long-time, now retired, beat writer and columnist with Huggins at Cincinnati, Bill Koch.
He was there in New Orleans the day Huggins was ejected with 10:34 left in the first half against Tulane. This was in 1997 and a coach could only have contact with his team at halftime, but not during the game.
So, Huggins wasn’t really needed and decided he’d watch the second half in the TV production truck. Koch, ever alert for a column, asked if he could watch with him.
What other coach would say yes to that? Huggins did.
Here’s how the last 20 seconds went, Cincinnati trailing by one point, according to Koch:
Huggins leaned forward on his chair as he stared at the bank of monitors the production crew was studying.
“They’ve got to go to Darnell (Burton),” he said, “but Tulane’s defending the double screen pretty well.”
UC put the ball in play and Burton dribbled it up the court.
“What is Darnell doing bringing the ball up court?” Huggins said in disbelief.
Burton then passed to point guard Keith LeGree. Huggins relaxed. “They’re running a special for Darnell,” he said.
Those were his last words before Burton launched the game winning 3-point shot from deep in the corner that gave the Bearcats a 65-63 win. There was no reaction from Huggins as the shot went in. He just stood up, walked out of the truck and headed back into the arena.
Huggins had questioned only one decision by his coaching staff during the entire second half. He thought forward Danny Fortson should have been taken out on defense late in the game when he had four fouls.
“Why not take Fortson out?” he said. “And they’ve got him matched up with (Jerald) Honeycutt, too. They’re going to take it right to him and try to foul him out.”
Sure enough, the ball went to Honeycutt, but Fortson blocked Honeycutt’s shot. Fortson did foul out moments later, though, on the offensive end.
Sound like the platoon Huggins has been using late in games with Derek Culver and Gabe Osabuohien to get offense-defense?
What does Huggins mean to his players? Go all the way back to the one he says is the best he ever coached, Kenyon Martin, was ready to leave UC and came to him for advice.
“Kenyon said to me, ‘What do you think?’ And I said, ‘Honestly, I think if you come back you could be the first pick in next year’s draft. Or at least the top five. But that’s up to you. That’s not my decision. What do you want to do?’”
Martin thought for a moment, looked at Huggins and said “Coach, I want to win a national championship.”
“That’s why he came back,” Huggins said.
The next year Huggins believed his Bearcat team was ready to win that title when Martin broke his leg in the Conference USA tournament.
“I went out on the floor after he got hurt, but what I never heard come out of his mouth was ‘What about my career? What have I done? Should I have left last year?’ There was none of that,” Huggins said. “When I went out on the floor, all Kenyon said was ‘Why, Huggs? Why? All I wanted to do is win a national championship for you.’”
He wanted the championship for Huggins, just as this year’s team does.
“That’s what bothers you now,” Huggins says. “That gets you.”