By Cam Huffman
Teddy bear or grizzly bear? Depends on who you ask.
Those who only see West Virginia University basketball coach Bob Huggins on ESPN screaming at officials, players and anybody who stands in his way would probably say the Morgantown native nicknamed “Huggy Bear” probably belongs in Alaska or Montana with the rest of his species. His players see that side of him on a daily basis, but when they leave the program and come back, they approach their former leader more like he’s on the shelf at Build-A-Bear Workshop.
Why do they love him so much? Why do so many of his players — even from his days at Akron and Cincinnati — come to Morgantown on a regular basis?
Maybe it’s because he develops them into better players. Maybe it’s because he makes them better people. But, on top of everything else, it’s because they understood why he pushed them so hard.
“I played for my dad, and if I said why, No. 1, I had to duck, and two, I knew what the answer was. It was, ‘Because I said so,’” said Huggins, who has a chance to move to No. 15 on the all-time wins list if his Mountaineers can beat Missouri tonight. “I didn’t want to be like that. I wanted them to understand why I tried to have them do what it was I wanted them to do.”
Huggins remembers his dealings with Joe Alexander, a John Beilein recruit, who was already at WVU when Huggins arrived. The 6-foot-8 forward, who’s now playing in the NBA D-League, spent just one year under Huggins’ guidance but quickly developed into the eighth overall pick in the 2008 NBA Draft.
“I don’t think I have talked to anybody as much as I talked to Joe Alexander,” said Huggins. “Thank God my wife wasn’t here (she was still in Manhattan, Kan., where Huggins spent one season as the head coach at Kansas State), because I was with him for all kinds of hours to get him to understand what I wanted him to do — and not just what, but why.”
That willingness to explain is one of the only things Huggins doesn’t pattern after his father, Ohio basketball legend Charlie Huggins. When it comes to X’s and O’s, the coach said nobody has had a bigger influence on his career.
Huggins said he remembers going to see his father play at Alderson-Broaddus. He can still see himself wadding up empty Coke cups and transforming them into basketballs.
Charlie continued to take part in the game as a coach, and the son was always by his side as he coached high school teams and ran summer camps.
“I don’t ever remember not being in the gym,” said Huggins. “My dad always took me to practice on the weekends, so I’ve always been around it and I’ve always been around coaches.
“I’ve always been around the X and O part of it, so my dad has been a great influence on me.”
That knowledge of the game is a big reason Huggins has won 729 games, three Conference USA Coach of the Year awards and been to the NCAA Tournament 20 times, including two trips to the Final Four. But it’s not the reason those players return.
“I think I’ve always had good communications, and those guys have been incredibly loyal,” Huggins explained. “I think that’s a two-way street. If you expect players to be loyal to you, then you need to be loyal to them.”
Huggins said that’s a lesson he learned after being turned away at Cincinnati after going 398-128 in 14 seasons with the Bearcats. Huggins made Cincinnati into a national power, going to 14 straight NCAA Tournaments and winning eight regular season C-USA championships.
Despite offers to leave for other positions, including one at WVU after Gale Catlett retired following the 2001-02 season, Huggins stayed loyal to the Bearcats. But when Huggins was cited for driving under the influence in 2004, Cincinnati president Nancy Zimpher wasted little time in asking the coach to turn in his resignation.
That lack of loyalty during a difficult time for Huggins hit home, and that’s why he’s stood by his players — even those he had to remove from the team or assist with a transfer — in every situation.
It’s also why he’ll have hundreds of former players rooting for the Mountaineers and their coach tonight as he tries to pass to legends and inch closer to John Chaney, who’s next on the list.
— E-mail: chuffman
@register-herald.com and follow on Twitter @CamHuffmanRH.