Huggins: More Wins Equals More Stories

  • By John Antonik
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  • December 21, 2011 10:55 AM
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On Monday night, Bob Huggins was asked to give his thoughts on reaching 700 victories sometime in the near future - either Thursday night against Missouri State, Friday night versus Baylor, or, heaven forbid, later on down the road.

The serial storyteller answered the question by telling a story.

“Honestly, I don’t think about those things,” Huggins admitted. “I guess growing up the way I grew up and growing up in the home I grew up in with my father … my father (Charlie Huggins) is in every hall of fame there is in Ohio and nobody could ever get him to send in his resumé.

“The guys I grew up with are basically the guys who researched it, put it together, and sent it in for him. None of that stuff has ever been important, and I guess maybe some of that has rubbed off on me to a degree.”

That doesn’t mean Huggins, 58, isn’t appreciative of all the great things that have happened to him during his long and successful coaching career. He just isn’t consumed by records or milestones – to him those are simply by-products of the journey.

“I’ve done this for 30 years. You do this for 30 years, you better win some games or else you’re probably selling insurance,” Huggins joked.

Listening to Huggins answer questions behind a microphone in almost a whisper is difficult to reconcile after you’ve just heard his voice project like a bullhorn on the court for the last two hours, or on many an afternoon inside the Coliseum when you hear him get on guys who commit the mortal sin of not giving their best effort during practice.

But the Bob Huggins everyone sees in the arena or on TV is the complete opposite of the laid-back Bob Huggins who likes nothing better than to hang out with friends and family in front of a barbeque grill, or at some secluded fishing hole off the beaten path with his line in the water seeking out the biggest trout in the pond. The one constant with Huggs has always been the stories - rarely about himself - but always entertaining nonetheless. Plus, the guy knows everybody, which can make a good story sound even better.

One day it could be meeting Rocky Bleier in the Pittsburgh airport; another, Nick Lachey somewhere else. You can bet your pocket change that Huggs will run into a celebrity or two he knows out in Vegas. A couple of years ago during an NCAA tournament game in D.C., Huggins walked across the floor to have a quick conversation with a guy sitting in the front row of the Belmont cheering section. That guy just happened to be country music star Vince Gill.

I was in a restaurant at the team hotel in Buffalo before a game against Morgan State back in 2010, repeating a story Fred Schaus had once told me about how close he came to signing John Havlicek before Ohio State’s Fred Taylor swooped in at the last minute. Schaus’ WVU teammate Bobby Carroll was Havlicek’s high school coach in Bridgeport, Ohio and Fred knew all about Havlicek long before anyone else did.

Huggins overheard me telling that story (storytellers are attracted to other storytellers like bugs to a light) and he sat down with us and proceeded to spend the next hour and a half explaining in full detail the entire power structure of sports in the state of Ohio. He recited the names of just about every important player and coach from the Buckeye state over the last 50 years. It was mesmerizing.

A few nights ago, Huggins was asked to provide an explanation for why his young players were having such a tough time scoring against a pretty average Texas A&M-Corpus Christi defense. Huggs thought about the question for a moment, pausing as he usually does to formulate the answer he wants to give, and then told the story about his old neighbor back in Ohio who once jacked up every single shot in the first quarter of the scrimmage game they were playing.

“I was shocked that my dad didn’t say anything,” said Huggins. “So at the end of the first quarter dad comes over and he says ‘you shot every ball.’

"He says but I was open.

“My dad says, ‘There’s a reason ... because the other team wants you to be! You suck. Here’s what we’re going to do. You’re going to shoot layups and free throws and if you miss another layup then you’re just going to shoot free throws.’ I never forgot that,” said Huggins.

Then he drove home his point.

“Our whole game is about getting the guys who can make shots shoot the shots, and the guys who can’t make shots not to,” Huggins explained.

When I heard Huggins say that, it reminded me of something another very successful college coach once told me about Jim Boeheim. The reason Boeheim wins so frequently, according to this coach, is because he plays a defense nobody can attack and his best players take all the shots. That’s great coaching.

Sound familiar?

Speaking of Boeheim, last month the Syracuse legend was asked who he thought could be the one guy who might catch Coach K for the most career wins in college basketball history. Boeheim said Bob Huggins.

“He's got a lot of wins - and he'll try and coach forever,” Boeheim said. “He's about the only one out there who could possibly do it.”

Huggins is not so sure. Eighty eight-year-old Mickey Furfari, who covered Huggins when he was a WVU player back in the 1970s and is still spry enough to write about the Mountaineers on a daily basis, asked Huggs on Monday night how much gas he has left in the tank.

1 - at Oberlin (11/22/80)
100 - vs. Tennessee Tech (2/10/86)
200 - vs. Memphis (2/2/91)
300 - at Dayton (1/26/95)
400 - vs. UNC Wilmington (121/30/98)
500 - vs. Boston University (3/15/02)
600 - at Canisius (12/22/07)

“I still enjoy doing it. Here is what I’ve always said: when the point in time comes that I don’t think I can give them everything that I have then I’m going to quit,” Huggins said. “I’m not going to cheat them. I’m not going to be a guy who quits working - who quits caring or who doesn’t come prepared for practice. I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to go out that way.”

Huggins learned the game on the knee of his father. Then, as he advanced in the profession he watched the masters – guys such as Bob Knight, Al McGuire and Denny Crum – operate on the other side of the scorer’s table. Huggins has never forgotten all those valuable lessons he learned through the years.

“I used to be in the office at seven in the morning and I wouldn’t leave until 11:30 or 12 o’clock at night because I didn’t know what I was doing,” Huggins admitted. “I used to go recruit and work like crazy and then I’d have one of those old guys beat me out for a kid and I’m like, ‘Man what did they do that I didn’t do?’ Well, what they did was they’d been doing it so long they knew what was going on. And they’re on TV all the time.

“You get smarter as you get older and you don’t have to put quite as much time in as what you used to put in.”

Then he added - almost correcting himself, “You still have to put the time in; in our business that’s what it’s all about.”

A couple of years ago on the eve of his 600th victory, Huggins recalled a conversation he had with his good buddy Steve Farmer - a guy who has known Huggins long before all those wins began piling up.

Yes, another story.

“I was getting phone calls from people … ‘I know you’re going to win’, ‘congratulations’, ‘great deal’ … and Steve calls me and he goes, ‘Wow, 599 wins, that puts you in elite company. That’s a wonderful thing but you know, I was looking and you’ve lost 200 and some games. Man, how can you lose that many games?’

“You have friends that kind of remind you,” Huggins said. “I’m not going to be 700-0.”

No, but talk about a story, now, that one would be a real humdinger.

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