Bob Huggins, a Mountain(eer) of a Man
SYRACUSE, N.Y. – Bob Huggins could care less about what anyone thinks about him.
"I don't care," Huggins said Friday. "I honestly don't care."
Think Huggins is a great coach, who has turned around three programs? Or maybe your opinion of him was formed while watching him on TV, spewing profanities? Perhaps your perception of Huggins dates back to his days at Cincinnati, when his players were known as much for their off-court antics -- numerous legal issues and horrid graduation rates -- as on-court success?
Those old-timers out there can probably recall Huggins as a player at West Virginia in the 1970s. Or maybe it was his high-profile DUI arrest in 2004, to which he pled no contest? Or maybe it's something more recent like his undying love for the state of West Virginia and his alma mater, who he has now guided within one victory from the school's first Final Four since Jerry West starred in 1959?
Perhaps, it's none of that or all of the above. Whatever, it is, West Virginia's main Mountaineer doesn't really care.
"The people who know me, people who know what I am, know what I'm about," Huggins said. "My kids know what I'm about. That's what's important to me."
Jay Jacobs knows Huggins. In fact, he's known him for more than 30 years since Huggins played at West Virginia from 1975-77. Jacobs, 72, is the Mountaineers' radio analyst and has been involved with WVU's TV or radio broadcasts for three decades.
Jacobs played on that last WVU Final Four team in 1959, although Huggins likes to needle him that this year's team has won more games.
"When Huggins talks about West Virginia, boy that's passionate," Jacobs said. "That's real stuff. That's not the bull----. He's a unique guy. He's a guy that everybody likes. Anyone that's close to him. You're either close to him or you're not. He doesn't worry about those [that don't like him].
"These kids, they love him."
Early in Thursday's East Regional semifinal against Washington, one of those kids that love him -- senior forward Wellington Smith -- was getting an earful from Huggins.
"A [expletive] midget is whipping your ass," Huggins screamed at the 6-foot-7 Smith.
A couple of days earlier, Smith was asked about Huggins. "We'll do anything for him," Smith said. "We're happy to play for him."
Not that Huggins cares, mind you, but perhaps there is a method to his madness.
"He yells at us so much that he doesn't give us enough time and energy to not get along with each other because we're always complaining about how much he's on our case," junior point guard Joe Mazzulla said. "Basically in practice we find ways to come together and find ways to stop [Huggins from] yelling and getting on our case.
"We have one common denominator and that's not to get yelled at."
On Sept. 28, 2002, Huggins was once again screaming at someone. This time it was something about a heart attack.
Huggins was at a rental car facility in the Pittsburgh airport when he suffered a massive heart attack. He has joked about how John Calipari's nephew ironically was in the ambulance on the way to the hospital. Calipari's nephew promised he wouldn't let Huggins die until Calipari, then at Memphis, had a chance to finally beat Huggins.
Calipari, in his first year at Kentucky, was 0-5 against Huggins before the heart attack and is 1-2 against Huggins after the heart attack. The Wildcats and Mountaineers battle Saturday night in the Carrier Dome in the East Region final.
After Huggins' heart attack, Calipari and then Xavier coach Skip Prosser, who tragically died of a heart attack five years later, were the first non-family members to visit Huggins in the hospital.
"Really, nobody was supposed to be in there but family," Huggins said. "Cal being Cal talked his way back there."
Huggins then dropped the sarcasm long enough to admit how much it meant for Calipari to visit him in the hospital.
"I went in and I saw the paddle burns," Calipari said. "I just told him, you know, 'You're getting that second life here.' It was scary, to be honest with you.
"They told me he was going to be fine. It was a scare. It teaches to us take better care of ourselves and all those things. I saw his mom and dad were there. His wife was there. It was just a scary thing. It was really scary. We all think Bob being that big -- he's a big guy. All of a sudden this happens. I was like -- it kind of blew me away."
Weeks later at the Conference USA media day at the Chicago O'Hare Marriott, Huggins talked about how his heart attack had changed his lifestyle and his diet. He stopped smoking cigars and said he would limit his drinking to "maybe a glass of red wine" each evening.
Two years later, however, Huggins was arrested for DUI. Video of Huggins, bleary-eyed and slurring his words while he pleaded with the arresting officer "don't do this to me," is all over the internet.
A year later, Huggins' 16-year career at Cincinnati, which included 14 consecutive NCAA tournament appearances, was over. He was fired by Cincinnati President Nancy Zimpher.
Although he didn't coach during the 2005-06 season -- the first time he hadn't coached since he was a WVU graduate assistant in 1977 -- Huggins said it "wasn't as bad a low point as you all try to make it out to be."
A year later, Huggins returned to coaching at Kansas State. One of the assistants he brought to K-State was Frank Martin, who Huggins had hired at Cincinnati in 2004.
Ironically, on Saturday, hours before Huggins' Mountaineers take the court, Martin, now the head coach at Kansas State, will be in Salt Lake City also playing for a berth in the Final Four.
"When I was a high school coach [in Miami], I had a lot of guys come in and recruit my guys, and I never wanted somebody to hire me because they recruited my players," Martin said last week. "I had a lot of guys offer me jobs for players, but I wouldn't do it.
"[Huggins] never got any of my guys. But the guy that gave me the break in the business to move forward, like to go from Northeastern to the high level situation. was the guy that never signed my players. That shows [what] a human being that he is -- his belief in me as a person [and] not trying to utilize me as a pawn to benefit his career."
Huggins' career at Kansas State lasted all of one season when his phone rang one day. On the other end was West Virginia athletic director Ed Pastilong. He was brief and to the point.
"This is a true story," Pastilong said Thursday. "I called him and said, 'Bobby, are you ready to come back home?' He said 'definitely.' That was the conversation.
"No hesitation. We agreed we'd work out the particulars later on. We didn't want anything to get in the road."
Huggins immediately recommended to K-State officials that Martin take his place because it was his turn and "we need to take care of Frank."
"For a human being to do that for me," Martin said. "There can't be a better man in this business than him."
Also a West Virginia graduate, Pastilong was thrilled to have Huggins back home. In 1975, Pastilong was hired in the athletic department when Huggins played for the Mountaineers.
"He was very intense, very thorough," Pastilong said. "Just like you see him coaching, that's how you'd see him play."
Off the court, Pastilong knows a different Huggins, who graduated magna cum laude from West Virginia, then returned to get his master's degree.
"He's a very soft spoken gentleman, scholarly, a regular person," Pastilong said. "But when the ball's tipped, he becomes 'Huggs' and the action takes place. You have to have that intensity when that ball is tipped and it reflects to the players."
The players don't love Coach Huggins, they love the man they affectionately call "Huggs."
"We call him 'Huggs,' it's a different level of respect," Mazzulla said. "The way that 'Huggs' treats us is just that we respect him and there's a certain level of love there. When you're so comfortable being able to talk to somebody, it makes it easier to play for them.
"I think the 500 or how many ever players that played for him would stand up and say he deserves to be in the Hall of Fame. What he does, people don't see. They see the yelling or screaming -- they can call it whatever they want -- they don't see what type of person he really his."
Some folks insist there's no way Huggins could be this successful -- he's won more games than John Wooden -- without, you know, stretching the rules a little bit.
"People say things like he's a cheater and is dirty, and he is very far from those things," WVU senior Devin Ebanks said. "He expects a lot out of his players and, in turn, it makes us expect more from ourselves. He has been 100 percent honest with us since joining our team and makes us work hard and it makes you want to work harder for him.
"And I can do nothing else but thank him. He has made me a tremendously better player."
Huggins has 669 victories, but only one Final Four appearance. He's back in the Elite Eight after a 14-year absence – only former Missouri coach Norm Stewart's 18-year break between Elite Eight appearances is longer.
Only eight coaches have won more games without winning a national title. Think what you want about him -- not that he cares -- but there's no disputing that he's a winner. He's just not very lucky.
Through the years he's had a laundry list of injuries to key players -- A.D. Jackson, Keith LeGree and Kenyon Martin -- or he may have won a national title by now. Three days ago, another unlucky injury occurred when he lost starting point guard Truck Bryant to a broken foot.
A while back Huggins was at a speaking engagement with coaching legend Denny Crum, who was asked what it takes to win a national championship?
"You have to be lucky and you can't be unlucky," Crum said.
Crum then pointed at Huggins. "That's the most unlucky guy I know."
Whichever description you think of "Huggs" -- the most unlucky, the most profane, the best or the most misunderstood -- obviously doesn't matter to the 56-year old West Virginia native.
"There's nobody in [the media] that's going to write anything about me that's any worse than some of the stuff that people wrote that never met me," Huggins said Friday. "That never met me, never talked to me, don't know anything about me. So I don't care."
What he does care about is bringing a national title to his beloved alma mater.
Assistant Larry Harrison, who was with Huggins at Cincinnati, talked to Huggins when he was hired at West Virginia. Huggins asked Harrison if he thought they could bring a national championship to Morgantown.
"I told him we may not have a team full of McDonald's All-Americans, but we can get players to play the way we want to play," Harrison said. "He said, 'Do you want to do it again?' I said, 'Why not?' He said, 'OK, but this time we've got to win it.' "
Harrison has heard all the different descriptions since working on Huggins' first staff at Cincinnati in 1989.
"When he took over Cincinnati job in 1989, he told the people he was there to win a national championship and get to the Final Four," Harrison said. "Everyone laughed. But in three years we got to the Final Four and this also is our third season here at West Virginia.
"But I remember when he first got to Cincinnati: they all called him crazy back then."
Not that it mattered to Huggins.
Contact FanHouse senior writer Brett McMurphy at email@example.com or on Twitter @BrettmcmurphY