W.Va. coach Huggins keeps bouncing back

SYRACUSE, N.Y. – In a testament to the difficulties of building two championship-caliber programs, only 12 coaches have taken multiple schools to the Final Four. It’s an elite fraternity that West Virginia’s Bob Huggins, who coached Cincinnati to the 1992 Final Four, will attempt to join Saturday against Kentucky in the East Regional final.

With a Mountaineers’ victory, Huggins can actually join an even smaller group – one that explains the 56-year-old and his career perfectly.

Only Eddie Sutton has ever led a team to a Final Four (at Arkansas), been fired as a college head coach (at Kentucky) and then resuscitated his career and returned to the tournament’s last weekend (at Oklahoma State).

Huggins doesn't care what you think of his coaching style or his attire.
(Matt Cashore/US Presswire)

It’s probably the ultimate testament to a person who is flawed, imperfect and, in the end, just an exceptional pure coach of the game. College basketball is fickle. Career momentum is everything, usually a meteoric rise and then eventual downfall. Almost no one comes back from a college firing (a failed NBA adventure is different).

Compounding the challenge, Huggins, like Sutton, wasn’t let go because of a lack of victories. A DUI arrest, complete with wobbly field sobriety video and vomit on the door accounts, helped do him in at Cincinnati. There was also a less than desirable (if not quite accurate) graduation rate, a history of player arrests and a near-fatal heart attack.

To say Huggins was slightly radioactive in 2005-06, when he sat out a year, understates it. Many schools were never going to touch him. It caused his friends to call him and check on his mental health. While everyone figured he’d coach again, there was no precedent, other than Sutton, to returning to an elite program. Something in Conference USA seemed more likely.

Huggins laughed at his friends’ concern then. He laughs even harder at attempts to describe that year as a dark time in his life. He got fired. He didn’t just deal with it; he kind of reveled in it. He was a millionaire who got to spend a year enjoying life.

”It wasn’t as bad a low point as you all try to make it out to be,” Huggins said. ”It’s kind of fine. I [worked] my whole life. And just to wake and say, What do I want to do today? Somebody would call and say, ‘Do you want to do this? No, I don’t want to do that.’

”[Former Auburn coach] Cliff Ellis called me and said, ‘Huggs, are you all right?’ I said, ‘I’m fine.’ Cliff said, ‘What are you going to do?’ I said, ‘Well, I think I’m going to open a bottle of red wine and have a glass of red wine.”

Huggins has never lacked confidence. He was the son of a high school coach who, through all the drama, has always been known among his peers as an exceptional motivator and teacher of the game. It’s often not what his teams do, but how well they do them – namely, defend and rebound. He’s always been able to get his guys to play hard for him.

His career is self-made. At 27, he was named the head coach at little Walsh College in Ohio. Three seasons later his team was 34-1. He took mid-major Akron to the NCAA tournament. He restored the tradition at Cincinnati and for much of the 1990s had one of the hottest programs in the country. No matter where he ended up, he was convinced he’d make it work.

”I knew I would coach again,” he said.

Kansas State gave him the chance in 2006-07. The Wildcats won 23 games and set a foundation, by signing Michael Beasley, that continues today – Huggins’ former assistant, Frank Martin, has KSU in the Elite Eight. Then West Virginia, Huggins’ alma mater, called. He couldn’t resist.

The return to his roots has suited him perfectly. What you see now is a man in full contentment. He’s surrounded by family and friends in Morgantown. His relationship with the school’s president is ideal. He’s on a first name basis with the governor. He loves representing the working people of West Virginia, so much that he’s been moved to tears when he hears ”Country Roads.”

Huggs is getting sensitive.

He isn’t particularly popular among rival fans. His preferred sideline attire – a black warm-up jacket – is often mocked. He’s gotten more bad publicity than he can recall.

”There’s nobody in here that’s going to write anything about me that’s any worse than some of the stuff that people wrote [who] never met me,” he said Friday.

He hardly cares about how he’s perceived anymore. You like him, fine. You don’t, you don’t. There was a stretch at Cincinnati when he tried to dress like the other coaches, buying designer suits for thousands of dollars. It didn’t work. He often looked uncomfortable or ridiculous. He was heckled as ”Thuggins.” So now he wears the warm-up jacket. ”It’s comfortable,” he shrugs. He’s the Bill Belichick of college hoops.

What Huggins has always been is the blue-collar exception in an Armani-clad world of coaching. He likes going to barbeque joints, drinking Miller Lite and hanging out with regular folks. He goes out in public and interacts with people. He loves when his neighbors have a cookout and haul out a cooler full of beer and everyone sits around in what he calls, ”driveway parties.”

If you got to know him, you’d probably like him; certainly a lot more than a number of coaches with a more polite public image.

”People who know me, know what I’m about,” he said. ”My kids know what I’m about. That’s what’s important to me.”

If Huggins gets back to the Final Four, his 18-year gap between appearances will be the second longest in NCAA history (Lou Henson, 19 years). It’s a testament to his resilience. He has 669 victories, and if not for some crushing injuries (Kenyon Martin’s broken ankle in 2000 most notably), he’d have been back already, if not the owner of a national championship.

”[Former Louisville coach] Denny Crum said one time, ‘[To win a title] you have to be lucky and you can’t be unlucky,”’ Huggins said. ”He pointed at me and said, ‘That’s the most unlucky guy I know.”’

In a sense, yes. In another, not so much. A title at Cincinnati wouldn’t make this current run with the Mountaineers any better. It wouldn’t make a trip to Indianapolis next any more meaningful. It wouldn’t make the strange fact that after all these years, Huggins has almost boomeranged back. Saturday he stands to be the sympathetic fan favorite – mostly because at this point anyone who goes against John Calipari is a fan favorite.

”I don’t care,” he said, pretty much his answer to everything.

The guy has fallen down more times than he can count. Each time he’s gotten back up and kept coaching. Now he’s returned to glory’s doorstep, one win from another Final Four, 18 years, three schools, multiple scandals and one high-profile firing later.

Dan Wetzel is Yahoo! Sports national columnist.

Dan Wetzel is Yahoo! Sports' national columnist. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Dan a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Friday, Mar 26, 2010