It’s a kinder, gentler, more avuncular Bob Huggins that brings his fifth-seeded West Virginia Mountaineers to TD Garden to challenge for a trip to the Final Four. Huggins is no longer a college basketball villain, associated with high-voltage outbursts, low graduation rates, and rough-and-tumble teams like he was during his tenure at Cincinnati.
Enjoying a successful second act coaching at his alma mater, Huggins is now seen as a raffish college basketball raconteur, not an outlaw.
He might be the best thing to happen to West Virginia basketball since The Logo, Jerry West, was a Mountaineer. Huggins is here to spice up a bit of a blasé NCAA Tournament East Regional at TD Garden. The Mountaineers, in the Sweet 16 for the third time in four years, are joined here by top-seeded Villanova, Texas Tech, and Purdue.
Huggins is the anti-establishment coaching legend, having won most of his 845 games (good for seventh all-time in Division 1 and third among active coaches) at non-traditional power programs Cincinnati and West Virginia. Despite his success, he’s not afforded the same fawning respect, heralded recruits, or place in the Basketball Hall of Fame that coaches with names like Krzyzewski, Boeheim, and Williams enjoy.
Perhaps, some of that is because Huggins is the college basketball coaching equivalent of the best golfer to never win a major. No coach has won more games without winning a national championship. This is his ninth Sweet 16 and fifth at West Virginia. He guided Cincinnati to the Final Four in 1992 and West Virginia there in 2010.
Both fierce and folksy, Huggins commands a press conference like Bill Parcells, capable of cutting up reporters with a witticism or cutting them down with a rebuke. Huggins’s West Virginia team, led by guards Jevon Carter and Daxter Miles Jr. and shot-blocker Sagaba Konate, mirrors him, unyielding, aggressive, and determined. That is best represented in the frenetic press the Mountaineers employ, a defense that dictates to opponents and doesn’t back off or back down. It has earned the nickname “Press Virginia.”
Riding their relentless press, the Mountaineers are second in the country in turnover margin at plus-5.2. West Virginia ranks 10th in the nation in turnovers forced per game with 16.53. The only power conference school that averaged more was Illinois (16.97).
West Virginia is old school. It doesn’t do one-and-dones. It’s not philosophical. It’s practical.
“I told my athletic director that really he had two choices, either fire me for recruiting the guys I recruited or give me a raise for being able to win with them,” said Huggins, who after a re-entry season at Kansas State took over West Virginia in 2007. “We got a bunch of guys that really were looking for an opportunity to play at the highest level. We got a bunch of guys, quite frankly, that were recruited kind of whatever — mid-major schools — and we saw something in them.”
Respectful, not fearful, Huggins said his team won’t change the core of what it does much. That will be the case even in the face of Friday night’s Sweet 16 date with a Villanova team that’s a favorite to win it all and leads the nation in points scored per game (86.9) and offensive efficiency (122.9).
His teams don’t change, but Huggins has evolved. The combustible and controversial coach has mellowed.
At age 64, Huggy Bear is more of a gruff teddy bear than the guy who stalked the sidelines at Cincinnati, not backing down from confrontations with players, referees, opposing coaches, and even Cincinnati’s school president, who ousted him from the program where he won 399 games, following the 2004-05 season.
“Old age, I guess,” said Huggins. “I don’t know if I’ve mellowed. I just think I pick and choose my spots better. How’s that? That was pretty diplomatic, wasn’t it? I don’t know. You know, the younger you are, I think, it seems like it’s more life and death. And as you get older, and you get more experience, then you’ve seen so many things, it’s not as much life and death.
“Now, you say that, but we lost to Oklahoma State, and I went home and pulled the covers over my head and stayed there for four hours . . . I think age, maturity, and experience have a lot to do with it. You know kind of when to do it and when not to do it.”
West Virginia assistant coach Erik Martin, who played on Huggins’s Final Four team at Cincinnati that lost to Michigan’s famed Fab Five, said he tries to explain to West Virginia players who think Huggins is irascible and demanding now that they have no clue.
Martin, his eyes widening, said Huggins has “really, really mellowed, really mellowed.” Huggins lets his assistants do some of the screaming now.
“Now, we’re the bad cops and sometimes Huggs is the good cop. Back in the day, Huggs was never the good cop, never,” said Martin.
Good cop is not a role that a lot people would’ve associated with Huggins. He was seen as a college basketball bad boy when he revitalized Cincinnati, a school that hadn’t been to the Final Four since the final year of John F. Kennedy’s presidency.
People treated Cincinnati under Huggins like the Raiders of college basketball, rebels, rogues, and rascals.
They encouraged some of it. The program was put on NCAA probation in 1998, and Cincinnati had 21 players with law enforcement issues between 1990 and 2006, according to an ESPN story. Huggins was arrested for DUI in 2004.
But what damaged Huggins’s reputation and legacy the most was a report in 1999 that his Cincinnati team had a zero percent graduation rate for three seasons. He’s graduating 80 percent of his players now, according to the latest NCAA Graduation Success Rate (GSR).
That zero has stuck to Huggins, even if the NCAA methodology that was used — it didn’t count junior college players who graduated — was flawed.
One of those junior college players who graduated was Martin.
“I was there in Huggs’s third year. There were three guys before me that graduated, so I don’t know how they were doing those numbers, but those numbers weren’t right,” said Martin. “I think he got a bad rap. I mean, zero percentage? Zero means zero. It means none, and I was always the one out there like, OK, I graduated from UC.”
In a sport with a lot of unctuous acts, college basketball needs genuine characters like Huggins. He isn’t a cookie-cutter coach serving up boilerplate quotes.
He is going to be what he has always been — just toned down a bit — unfiltered, unapologetic, and feisty.