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West Virginia coach Bob Huggins loves where he is, has no regrets

Bob Huggins, who has yet to win an NCAA Tournament, has his highest-seeded team (No. 2) ever.

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Bob Huggins, who has yet to win an NCAA Tournament, has his highest-seeded team (No. 2) ever.

BUFFALO, N.Y. — In a perfect world, this would be a story about redemption. Start with the low point, fill in with the background and end with the triumphant return to the place where everyone knew the hero always belonged.

Except the world is not perfect, and neither is Bob Huggins. He didn't ask for your candy-coated version of redemption, and he probably doesn't think it fits anyway. To be redeemed, one must first accept there was some sort of undoing along the way.

And, despite considerable evidence to the contrary, Huggins has never really bought into the idea that he may have screwed up. Not at Cincinnati where a university president forced him out despite his wild successes. And not at Kansas State where he jumped ship one year after the university rescued him from the unemployment line.

To Huggins, all that seems to matter is that he is back home. Back at West Virginia where he starred as a point guard in the 1970s. Back on the sideline where he is fourth among active coaches in victories. And back as a favorite in the NCAA Tournament.

"He's at a point in his life right now where he's very confident in who he is and what he's all about. No matter what else you say about him, he's not a phony," said West Virginia assistant coach Larry Harrison, who was an assistant at Jefferson High and Hillsborough Community College while getting his masters degree at USF in the mid 1980s.

"If people want to talk about him that's their problem, not his."

When it comes to Huggins, people do talk. Sometimes they gush. Sometimes they rage. Rarely do they lack an opinion. For Huggins is a man who does not operate in life's grayer areas. He has his way of doing things, and to heck with anyone who might disagree.

So he isn't interested in your psychoanalysis. He doesn't care about someone else's version of past events. Yesterday was gone the moment his head hit the pillow.

"I grew up in Midville (Ohio). One day, I got in this guy's pick-up truck to go play. There was no rear-view mirror. I said, 'You don't have a rear-view mirror.' He said, 'We ain't going backwards, boy,' " Huggins said. "I don't deal much with the past."

We tend to assign narratives to our coaches. Storylines that neatly sum up years upon years of work. Bob Knight was a brilliant tyrant. John Wooden was a modest genius. Those are the kind of simple, if wildly inadequate, caricatures we like to draw.

Well, in the case of Bob Huggins, the image is still fuzzy. He's supposed to be a renegade, but the NCAA has banged on his door only once in his 28-year head coaching career. He's supposed to be lax on academics, but he graduated magna cum laude from West Virginia, then went back to get his master's. He is profane, and he is charitable. He only cares about winning, except in the eyes of those who play for him.

"Coach Huggins has two different personalities," West Virginia junior John Flowers said. "On the court, he is not to be messed with. People watch the way he acts during games, and they think he's an a-hole. But they don't understand he's just doing his job. If he's yelling at us, it's because he's trying to make us better. That's what he's supposed to do.

"Off the court, he really cares about us. He invites us to his house for dinner. He has us over at Christmas. He knows a lot of us have nowhere to go, and so he watches out for us. We know he'll never turn his back on us, and that's important to guys."

He is 56 now, and maybe not as combative as he once was. There was a time when Huggins was the lord of the campus at Cincinnati and was not afraid to exercise his power where he saw fit. That worked well for him until a new university president decided she wanted to be in charge.

She was not impressed with the basketball program's tiny graduation rate and large police file. When Huggins was charged with DUI, she took the opportunity to usurp some of his control. A year later, she handed him a $3 million buyout and sent Huggins on his way.

The outrage in Cincinnati was immediate. Attendance dived at basketball games. Deep pocket donors walked away. Cincinnati had gone 11 consecutive years without an NCAA Tournament appearance before Huggins' arrival and has missed all five tournaments since he left. During his era? Cincinnati made the tournament 14 times in 16 years.

His one season at Kansas State was similarly polarizing. During his year away from coaching, Huggins apparently continued recruiting in a legal, if slightly unethical, loophole manner. He brought a bevy of recruits to K-State, more than doubled the season ticket base, then hit the nearest interstate when West Virginia came calling.

At this point, there is no arguing Huggins' genius at coaching. All his resume lacks is an NCAA championship. Only eight coaches have ever won more games (667) without a title, and only two have more tournament appearances (18) without a ring.

So is this to be Huggins' year? With West Virginia at No. 2, he has his highest-seeded team in eight seasons. His confidence appears real, his outlook seems relaxed. All in all, his life seems to be back on track.

On another man, it might even look redemptive.

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

West Virginia coach Bob Huggins loves where he is, has no regrets 03/20/10 [Last modified: Saturday, March 20, 2010 11:15pm]

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