Long enough ago that Walsh College hadn’t yet gotten itself promoted to university, Bob Huggins walked onto its campus in northeastern Ohio to become head coach of the men’s basketball program. He was 27 years old. He had spent a short time as a graduate assistant at West Virginia and a couple of years on the Ohio State staff. That he had such little experience apparent on his resume was of no consequence, though, because he already had lived a lifetime in the game.
His father, Charlie, was a high school coach, a lifer who ran his program during the winter and basketball camps during the summer. Huggins grew up around all the great coaches his father knew and admired, listening to their stories and ideas and strategies. He played the game from playgrounds to high school to three seasons with the West Virginia Mountaineers, when he became known for a competitive ferocity that might have been matched in the years since, but never exceeded.
Was he ready to be a head coach so young?
Walsh entered the NAIA championship tournament with a 34-0 record in his third season.
That was the first loud clue that there was something extraordinary about Huggins, and it has been obvious so many times in the years since: in 1986, when his second team at Akron was assigned a No. 15 seed in the NCAA Tournament and came within six points of knocking off favored Michigan; in 1992, when his third team at Cincinnati reached the Final Four; in 2000, when the Bearcats entered March with the No. 1 ranking but Huggins saw the dream of winning his first championship snapped in tandem with Kenyon Martin’s right fibula; and in 2010, when Kentucky took future NBA All-Stars John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins into a matchup with Huggins’ 1-3-1 zone, and it was West Virginia and Huggs who advanced to the Final Four.
It always seemed he was capable of winning 900 games as a college coach, if anyone was. Bob Knight got there first, in 2008, and this exclusive club since has been joined by Mike Krzyzewski, Jim Boeheim, Jim Calhoun and Roy Williams. Huggins will get there the next time he directs the Mountaineers to a victory, perhaps in the Big 12 Championship quarterfinals Thursday against Oklahoma State.
It appeared for a long while, however, that he would not last long enough to coach 900 games. There were too many who perceived and projected him as disinterested in his players’ education or their behavior and worked to get him deposed. His coaching has been compelling and consistent, but, only now, having survived beyond the interest and influence of his most zealous critics, does he operate free from the harangues of those who misunderstood and misinterpreted his methods and motivations.
It is because of those forces, though, that Huggins has had five stops along his trail toward 900, rather than three. He climbed from Walsh to Akron to Cincinnati on the way to the top of the game. Then, after he was forced out of the UC job he meant to hold forever — he even turned down a lucrative offer to come home to West Virginia just three years before Cincinnati forced him out — came Kansas State and West Virginia as he worked to remain at the highest level and to coach until he saw fit to do something else.
Those who have played or worked with him along the way got a view of what drove Huggins to his standing among most successful of all Division I basketball coaches. They can tell us what he was like in the beginning — and more than 40 years later.
Da’Sean Butler, West Virginia
Butler had completed his freshman year under John Beilein with a double-figure scoring average as the sixth man for an NIT champion when he learned Beilein was leaving for Michigan and Huggins would come home to his alma mater after a year at Kansas State. It seemed, on the surface, that there would be a major adjustment for Butler in terms of dealing with his head coach.
By the end of his three years under Huggins, he felt the full extent of Huggins’ compassion when Butler tore his ACL with nine minutes remaining in the 2010 Final Four against Duke. As Butler lay on the floor weeping at what the injury meant to the end of his college career and the start of his pro aspirations, Huggins knelt beside him and cradled Butler’s head in his arms. Many, in that moment, saw a Huggins they assumed did not exist.
BUTLER: When I got a chance to meet him, he was very honest. He didn’t talk at me. He talked with me. He asked me questions about what I wanted and what I wanted to do. No one really had done that before. Coaches will tell you what they need you to do and what they could do for you. No one really asks what you want.
From then on, I learned how to become a professional. I learned how to become a better defender. I learned a lot more about the game. And by learning those things, I learned other things off the floor, as far as being accountable and just being a good team player, working for what you want and earning it. I enjoyed playing for Coach Beilein and I’m sure I would have learned a lot under Coach Beilein, but I feel like Coach Huggins was placed there almost to help me prepare for the world. And it worked out.
I had a history of just being late all the time. Just being lazy. And it was affecting me with some of my classes. And also, I wasn’t playing well at the time. Coach Huggins basically pulled me to the side and it was like, “Obviously, you know I love you, and this is becoming a serious issue. But you can’t play your best basketball if you have things off the court that are interfering. If you have issues with your girlfriend, you have issues with school and that stuff’s weighing on you, you can’t play your best basketball. You can only play your best basketball if your mind is clear. You just go out there and play free. Just do right.”
Do right was always one his mantras.
When I got hurt, looking back, I wasn’t surprised how he dealt with me. It was awesome. Well, the ACL wasn’t. But this is somebody that will go to bat for me. If that wasn’t even me, if it was Devin Ebanks or Joe Mazzulla, it would be the same thing, because that’s who he is. I don’t know what everyone else sees him as, but we didn’t see him as this guy that could care less if somebody got hurt. That’s not who he is. It was a terrible time for me personally, and it’s always good to know there’s somebody who cares, who cares about your well-being.
Tom Gilbert, Kansas State
Huggins was available for Kansas State to hire in the spring of 2006 because nine months earlier he chose to resign rather than be fired from his position at Cincinnati. University president Nancy Zimpher had been eager to replace him almost from the moment she arrived in July 2003, fixating on reports about the program’s graduation rates and off-court incidents. He provided some impetus for her mission with a drunken driving arrest a year later. The athletic director at the time, Bob Goin, told Sporting News in 2010 that Zimpher ordered him to fire Huggins after the incident. “I wouldn’t do that to a janitor,” Goin said.
Gilbert had been in charge of media relations for the K-State men’s basketball for three years when Huggins came to take Manhattan. It was difficult to know what to expect.
GILBERT: I was very nervous meeting him for the first time. Who is this guy I’ve heard so much about? He was completely the opposite of all those things I’d heard. All the Cincinnati and grade-point stuff — I only know what I dealt with. He’s quiet. He’s extremely intelligent. I don’t think people understand that. He’s a very smart individual.
He was the perfect guy for us at the time. We were in such a really apathetic place. Bill Self had gotten to Kansas and had taken what Roy Williams had been doing and just kept going. Everybody was just like: This is how it’s going to be, we’re going to go 15-15 every year. We needed kind of a culture shock.
K-State has a good history; it’s just overshadowed by the blue blood that is Kansas. K-State’s been to 31 NCAA Tournaments. Lots of guys have come through here, players and coaches. There just had been several uninspired hires. Bringing Huggs here was a great fit for both parties. He was only here a year. I wish it was longer; it seemed like a blur. But everyone understood it was a perfect fit for him to go back to West Virginia.
He could be pretty hard on the guys in practice. There would be some times when I brought TV guys to practice, and he told me it was fine, and there’d either be somebody just get destroyed, or two guys getting ready to fight. He also feeds off that. Those practices were really intense. But I think that just played into who he is.
I remember we were playing at Texas, and one of the refs came over to one of our admins down in Austin and said, “I can’t believe the difference between where your team was last year and where your team is this year. You’re just so much better.”
Melvin Levett, Cincinnati
A high-flying guard from the Cleveland suburbs, Levett had been on campus more than a year when Sports Illustrated published the November 1996 article on the Cincinnati program that would set in motion nearly every development that led to Huggins finishing his coaching career back home. It was meant to present the Bearcats as the preseason No. 1 team, but it hardly was flattering. The headline included the phrase, “Has he done it the right way?” The article’s conclusion, quite clearly, was that Huggins had not.
Its assertions about the program’s graduation rate came to define Huggins in the ensuing years and helped lead to his “resignation.” The method of calculating those rates, however, was irretrievably broken. Four of the five seniors who played for the 1992 Final Four team graduated soon after finishing that season, and Cincinnati’s rate for that season was 0.0 percent. Four-year transfers weren’t counted, nor junior-college transfers, nor promoted walk-ons. That covered UC’s class of ’92. The NCAA eventually abandoned that statistic for the flawed but more realistic Academic Progress Rate (APR). It was too late to redeem Huggs in the eyes of some UC board members and the school’s new president.
LEVETT: A lot of people don’t get the chance to see what goes on behind the scenes when it comes to academics, but … the importance of going to school and taking care of your business was first and foremost with Huggs. Obviously, he couldn’t walk guys to class, couldn’t be there to make sure guys were taking care of their business in the classroom every day. It was something we had to do as human beings and individuals, because we knew there was chatter about it.
It was important to me to be one of the guys that helped curb that. I had an opportunity to come back after going on to pursue a pro career and ended up finishing.
Huggs knew what buttons to push, which things to say to you. That’s what was unique about him. Each guy had a certain quirk, and he knew it. People didn’t understand that, thought he was a mean guy, yelled at his players all the time. He was a very encouraging individual. That type of motivation for the guys we had on those teams was warranted. We wanted that. We wanted that in-your-face type of stuff. That’s what we thrived on.
He knew, at times, I kind of sulked because I wasn’t doing as well as I needed to, and I got down on myself. So he would say little things like: Hey, you can be the most athletic cheerleader we’ve ever had in the University of Cincinnati basketball history, or you can decide to get your stuff together and become a basketball player. I was like, OK, now it’s time for me to show you what I can do.
Huggs was a good guy; a lot of people just saw a rough exterior, because he didn’t let a lot of people in. But there are stories where he was just over the top with his heart. One sticks out about the Great Alaska Shootout, us being there during Thanksgiving. It was boring, but we knew we had a job to do as far as trying to beat Duke — or trying to win the Alaskan Shootout. It was a long day of practice already, and he decided to start practice over, which was one of his classic moves. We’d get an hour and a half or two hours in, and he’d say: Start it over.
We couldn’t understand it, because we thought we were going hard. After that, we’re on our way back to the hotel and we’re all disgusted. Everybody’s ready go their own separate ways. But once we got back to the hotel and got into the lobby, we were ushered into a room and the boosters who had made the trip with us had prepared this unbelievable Thanksgiving feast. To see what those people did for us, and to find out Huggs started the practice over so they could finish … that’s one of the all-time greats.
Marcel Boyce, Akron
After two seasons at Carl Albert State College, a JC on the eastern edge of Oklahoma, Boyce became perhaps the most important recruit of Huggins’ career.
The first Huggins team at Akron had gone 12-14, and we know now that Huggins was never going to allow those results to linger. A 6-6 forward, Boyce immediately became Akron’s best player and leading scorer, averaging 17.5 points and eight rebounds as the Zips won the Ohio Valley Conference title with a victory over Middle Tennessee State.
That was the team that challenged Michigan in the NCAAs. A chance at a second straight bid was spoiled with a loss in the OVC tournament, but Boyce’s 20 points and nine rebounds per game led to another 20-win season. Huggins was going places, obviously.
BOYCE: Playing for him was a hell of an experience. He was a disciplinarian. He wanted everything done in a certain form, a certain manner, a certain fashion. It benefited us greatly as a team, the way he ran his ship.
One of the simpler things was basically boxing out. Someone always had to be on the “back side.” What he meant by the back side, if you shot from the left corner, somebody better have their keister on the right side of the basket to box out. Because nine times out of 10, the rebound is going to be on the back side. That always stuck in my mind, because Russell Holmes, we used to start calling him “Back Side,” because he would always get there before anybody else could. Huggins made sure if we didn’t do it, the buzzer would ring and somebody would be coming out of the game.
With some kids, he was a hard coach to play for, because he demanded so much of you. He would get on you and stay on you, and that’s how you knew he really cared about you.
It wasn’t a tough adjustment for me, because my high school coach almost had the same demeanor. I wasn’t the type of kid or player that had many problems. So he really didn’t get on me; he just guided me and made me do things a little differently, made me do things the way you’re supposed to do them and not half-assed or taking shortcuts.
He would let you voice your opinion but inevitably had the final say-so. And being able to voice your opinion, it gave us more growth. That way, we could understand what he wanted and the way it was supposed to be done. He would sit down and tell me: What do you want, and how are you going to go about getting it? Because there were a couple of times I could have went astray, and he had to be a coach, a father figure, a teacher.
Kris Kowalski, Walsh
Huggins had been on the job at Walsh for a year when Kowalski transferred in to join the Cavaliers. Kowalski had begun his career as a part-time starter at Ashland University in Ohio, then believed he could play at the Division I level and chose to transfer to junior college hoping to be recruited from there.
It didn’t work out, so he thought about giving up the game, but was encouraged to continue. Some of the Ashland players he knew had transferred to Walsh, so he gave Huggins a call and was invited to the campus for a visit. Two years later, he was an essential player on a team that took a 34-0 record into the NAIA championship tournament but was upset in the first round on a buzzer shot by Salem University of West Virginia.
KOWALSKI: I went up there, and just talking to him for five minutes, I knew that’s where I was going to go. It was the two best years of my life.
I went to Huggins’ father’s camp back in the eighth grade. And in the state of Ohio, we won a state Class A championship in 1978 at Mansfield St. Peter’s, and we beat his brother Larry’s team in the semifinals. So I kind of had that Huggins connection, knowing who he was from back in the camp. He was out there working the camp in those days, and we watched those guys play.
Going back and looking at it, he knows the talent, and where he can mix and utilize guys’ strengths and weaknesses — and not only that, let them know what their roles are going to be. I averaged double-double in high school. I thought I was a pretty good shooter. But I wasn’t. But I could guard the best player on the other team.
He was tough on us. He busted our tails out. We practiced hard. That era and time was different. He laid it on us. People always say: Was he crazy? Was he wild? Yeah, there were times in the locker room when he got on us pretty hard, told people to stay in the locker room. One of our best players one time, we came out in the second half, Huggs said: You’re not ready to play, stay in the locker room.
It was a good experience. I wouldn’t trade it. … It taught me the work ethic, and that in order to be successful you’ve got to have good people around you.
When I went there my junior year, I bet my first open gym there were probably 55 kids there. I went: Wait a minute, he only told me about five or six guys. Where are all these other guys coming from? And when conditioning started, he had a bucket at the end of the floor, and he had us running. I remember he chased some big 6-8 guy. He said: You done puking yet? Get your ass out of here! That’s just the way it was.
Out of those 55 guys, there were the select guys that were good enough, and you could tell they were good enough to help us get to where we were at the time.
I knew when he left after that senior year, he was working the path. When he went with his friend, with Chuck Machock, down to Central Florida for a year, and then the very next year getting the Akron job, I knew the guy could coach and recruit and find the talent. From Akron to Cincinnati, and then the BS went down at Cincinnati, and then out to Kansas State and back to his hometown at West Virginia — he got it done, right from the beginning.