It was painful to watch as Da’Sean Butler writhed on the floor at Lucas Oil Stadium. A great player, and by many accounts an even better person, was in a fit of hysterics on the court, clenching his knee.
As Bob Huggins walked over, his first reaction was that of a coach. He let referee Tim Higgins know he wasn’t happy with the no-call on the play. Coach Huggins was quickly replaced by Huggie Bear.
A man who during his 16 seasons at Cincinnati had garnered the disdain – even hate – from basically everyone outside of Bearcat country, got down on all fours, pinned his star senior down and talked to him in the hopes of calming Butler down.
The latest edition of the NCAA tournament produced plenty of ready-made shining moments (thanks for ruining it, CBS and Jennifer Hudson) and none was as touching as seeing Huggins, sweatsuit and all, get down on the floor to console Butler.
“I treat people right, and the players know how much I care for them as a person,” Huggins said before his team played Duke in the Final Four. “People see me on the floor, and they think that’s the way I am all the time. But when it’s over, I walk off the floor.”
Huggins is possibly the most misunderstood coach in college basketball. He replaces the Jay Wright Armanis with his windbreaker. His press conferences have the feel of a backroom conversation over cigars as he sits there, hand on his chin, spouting his dry sense of humor. After the Big East tournament championship, he described his hometown as a place with two stoplights and 10 bars, to the laughter of Butler.
When it comes to his players there is no doubting the level of trust and respect they have for each other. He may throw some four-letter words their way on the court, but if there had been any question about his love for his players, last Saturday erased them. Hearing Huggins talk about his players is like listening to him talk about his own sons.
Huggins, with his brash style, could not coach at most places, Georgetown included, but then again not a lot of coaches can coach at West Virginia. The Mountain state is a no-frills place and Huggins is a no-frills guy.
The Mountaineers mean so much to the state that radio broadcasts of their games are played for workers in the mines. John Calipari may be a cars salesman, but Huggins comes off as a working class guy, albeit a very wealthy one, and in a working class state he is just the guy for the job.
Earlier this week following the coal mine tragedy, that left 25 miners dead, Huggins went to meet with the victims’ families. Huggins fully understands the tradition in Morgantown and in the state of West Virginia and it translates to his players, many of whom are northeastern city slickers from the New York area.
Following the Big East championship, Huggins showed what a man of the people he was, making an appearance at a local establishment near Madison Square Garden to the applause of the Mountaineer faithful and a roaring rendition of “Country Roads”. How many other coaches in the Big East, let alone the entire country, would mingle with the commoners after the game?
Huggins may play dumb, but he’s dumb like a fox. He understands West Virginia, but he also knows how to win, and sometimes that requires seeing the gray areas.
At Cincinnati, the former academic All-American teams had a graduation rate that actually was at zero percent – yes, zero percent – but he won. After taking a year off following his departure from Cincy, he took over Kansas State, where he took one out of Calipari’s playbook and hired coaches, such as Brad Underwood as director of basketball operations, with the intention of bringing in players, such as Blake Young, whom Underwood had coached at Daytona Beach Community College.
At West Virginia he brought in disgraced former La Salle University Coach Billy Hahn, a Gary Williams disciple, who had led the recruiting efforts that put together Maryland’s 2002 championship team. While he was the head coach at LaSalle, Hahn was fired because he violated the Clery Act when he did not report an alleged sexual assault after a women’s basketball player told him she had been assaulted by a men’s player. The charges on the players eventually were dismissed, but Hahn’s lack of oversight certainly did not speak well of him.
aybe Huggins, who was charged with a DUI while at Cincy, felt he deserved a second chance. Or perhaps he realized that Hahn has recruited blue chip talent, like Juan Dixon and Steve Francis, consistently for 20 years. Maybe it was a little bit of both.
Huggins obviously is not a saint, but West Virginia is not quite paradise. Either way, West Virginia found a coach who loves his players like a father and understands and respects both the state’s basketball traditions and its personality.
Huggins? He has found a chance at redemption after the debacle of Cincinnati and the contentious departure from Kansas State. Even if the rest of America does not understand Huggins, there are 1.8 million people on those country roads who love him.
Ryan Travers is a senior in the College and a former Sports Editor at The Hoya. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/illprocedure. He can be reached at traversthehoya.com. Illegal Procedure appears in every Friday issue of Hoya Sports.