Years ago, when I was a wispy and naive young sportswriter in Akron, Ohio, I was assigned the arduous task of interviewing Bob Huggins, who had begun his coaching career in the area before migrating to Cincinnati, where he had managed to piss off the majority of the basketball establishment. Huggins answered most of my questions with blunt and intimidating declarations, as he did last week, when asked by a reporter why he chooses to wear windbreakers instead of suits on the sidelines.
“Because I’m not a banker,” he said.
Huggins, of course, wound up leaving Cincinnati after presiding over a series of embarrassing player transgressions (highlighted by one player’s attempts to punch a police horse), a DUI and a program that at one point boasted a zero-point-zero graduation rate. After a brief stint at Kansas State, Huggins returned to his home state of West Virginia, where he’s mostly been known for his sartorial casualness and the near-comical state of rage he displays on the sidelines.
There is no pretense to Huggins at all; he has never even attempted to play the role-model game that coaches like Mike Krzyzewski or Roy Williams or late-period John Calipari attempt to foist upon the public. Huggins has a straightforward way of asserting that the whole backbone of college sports is laced with highfalutin bullshit. When asked about the late hour of the NCAA tournament’s final Round of 64 game in Columbus on Friday, he replied, “Now you’ve got to remember this, it’s all for the betterment of the student-athlete,” and when asked about his team’s late Sunday game – and the short turnaround the Mountaineers would have in preparing for top-ranked Kentucky on Thursday evening – he said, “It just tickles me to death that we’re doing this for the student-athletes. It’s all for the betterment of the student-athlete.”
This is what Huggins does. He is the son of a legendary basketball coach, grew up in rural America and feels no need to pretend that the sport is anything other than what it is. He is obnoxious and publicly joyless and also happens to be very good at the coaching part of his chosen profession: He’s one of college basketball’s winningest active coaches, has been to 21 NCAA tournaments and will likely win his 700th Division I game next season. It’s not that he doesn’t care about his players – that became clear in 2010, when Huggins comforted Da’Sean Butler after blew out his knee during the Final Four; it’s that he has no need to genuflect to either the media (he also went on a brief tirade about ESPN’s Jay Bilas for picking against his team last week) or the system itself. For a while last season, he actually wore a suit just to cross people up. He doesn’t care about pretenses or about the impact of such things on his own reputation.
On Thursday evening, Huggins’ West Virginia team will become the latest to attempt to knock off an undefeated Kentucky squad that appears increasingly un-knockoff-able. They’ll try to do it by pressing the floor, as they’ve done all season, by rotating players on and off and rendering the game into a street fight, which is the kind of style Huggins has always been partial to.
His players have bought in, but I’m not so sure. It seems doubtful at this point that anyone can figure out a way to stop Kentucky, but if it happens, I imagine Huggins will revel in the small amount of poetic justice inherent to such an upset. He does not wear suits like John Calipari; he’s not a banker, in that his disdain for the system has never been hidden behind a shiny façade. He is a man who recruits junior-college players and others who can help him win games; he is a man who dresses down for the occasion, because, for better or worse, he recognizes that he is nothing more than a basketball coach.
Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb