INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Bob Huggins is bombastic to some, a lovable, emotional Huggy Bear to others. He’s known as a great recruiter, been called a cheater.
The West Virginia coach is considered incredibly loyal, yet left Kansas State hanging after a single season. He can seem bored answering questions one minute, affable and joking the next. He produces NBA players, though few graduates. He’s magna-cum-laude smart, but occasionally has lapses in judgment.
Of all the coaches at the Final Four, Huggins is the enigma.
Michigan State’s Tom Izzo is always going to be sincere and friendly, yet fiercely competitive. Duke’s Mike Krzyzweski efficient, professional, fiery when he needs to be. Butler’s Brad Stevens young, driven, enthusiastic.
Huggins? He’s been a winner wherever he’s been. The rest depends on the perspective.
“People don’t see the charismatic, joking, laughing side. I wouldn’t call it a smile; It’s more of a grin for him,” West Virginia forward Kevin Jones said Thursday, two days before the Mountaineers face Duke in the Final Four. “They don’t see that outside the cameras. They just see him yelling at us all the time.”
Huggins’ journey has the earmarks of a redemption story: Coach builds winning program, survives heart attack, gets fired, returns to his alma mater and leads it to the Final Four for the first time in 51 years.
But this odyssey has nothing to do with atonement or recovery for Huggins.
Loved or hated, Huggins is going to be consistently inconsistent, the nonconformist in a black windbreaker who does things his way — whether people like it or not.
“The people who know me know what I’m about,” Huggins said.
Huggins’ trip started where it has ended, in Morgantown, W.Va. He was born in the town along the Monongahela River, was a two-time Academic All-American as a player at West Virginia and got his start in coaching with the Mountaineers, as a graduate assistant in 1977.
But Cincinnati was where Huggins made his name — good and bad.
He led the Bearcats to the 1992 Final Four in his third season, 13 straight NCAA appearances after that. Huggins established himself as one of the nation’s best recruiters, producing NBA-caliber talent nearly every year and earning a reputation as a demanding coach who could get his players to do things no one thought they could.
An unlucky rash of injuries kept his teams from making deep runs in the NCAA tournament, but his reputation as a winner was set.
“I was at a speaking engagement with (Louisville’s) Denny Crum and he said, ‘You have to be lucky and you can’t be unlucky,'” Huggins said. “Then he pointed at me and said, ‘That’s the most unlucky guy I know.'”
But Huggins also created some of his own bad luck, trouble stacking up along with the wins.
Huggins’ teams had a 0.0 graduation rate several seasons and his players were viewed as thugs who were constantly in trouble with the law, including an incident where two were accused of punching a police horse.
Huggins survived a heart attack in 2002 — he was back on the court less than two weeks later — but couldn’t shake the effects of an embarrassing DUI arrest that was caught on video and helped start a contentious feud with university president Nancy Zimpher that led to his firing in 2005.
Nowhere left to turn, he spent a year out of coaching before returning at Kansas State. Huggins led the Wildcats to the 2007 NIT, but erased all the goodwill by bolting for his alma mater after a season.
Since then, it’s been all good Hugs.
On the court, he’s led the Mountaineers to the NCAA tournament three straight years, including their first run to the Final Four since Jerry West did it in 1959. Off it, he’s been a perfect mesh for the blue-collar work ethic of an entire state — he’s one of them, after all — and become the man everyone in West Virginia seems to love.
“There’s not a better human being in this business than Bob Huggins,” said Kansas State coach Frank Martin, Huggins’ assistant at Cincinnati and K-State. “There’s not a more deserving person in this business than Bob Huggins. It’s about time people start talking about the man and the coach that he is rather than some of his unfortunate transgressions, which we’ve all had in our lives. He is a man’s man.”
This man still has two sides to him.
Though he’s toned it down a decibel or two — OK, maybe just one — Huggins is still unafraid to let his players or an offending official know what he thinks in his typical hurt-your-feelings bluntness. He’s got an emotional side, too, allowing the tears to flow when West Virginia’s adopted anthem, John Denver’s “Country Roads,” played after the Mountaineers advanced to the Final Four.
After all he’s been through, he’s still an enigma, a hot-blooded Huggy Bear.
“At times, it gets hard, but look at where you’re at because of him,” West Virginia forward Wellington Smith said. “Once you see that and how your game has evolved as you’ve been with him, you see how many opportunities open for you with him being your coach. It’s a great experience and I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.”
Neither would Huggins.