SYRACUSE, N.Y. – Bob Huggins has never been like this before, shown so much of his emotion about his school.
Huggins has been different this season. He is as unique a character as there is in coaching. He has a powerful presence when he walks into a room or onto the court. But he’s not loud. He talks softly, mumbles at times, and doesn’t change his expression too often.
He has been through quite a bit in his career with health problems, a public DUI while at Cincinnati and the embarrassment of being fired.
He won with the Bearcats, took a one-year stint to resurrect his career at Kansas State, which through loyalty helped get assistant Frank Martin the chance as a head coach he so richly deserved and is proving so with the Wildcats’ Elite Eight appearance.
But what Huggins has done at West Virginia has meant so much more to him. He is home. And it shows. He nearly wept when “Country Roads” was being played at Madison Square Garden two weeks ago when the Mountaineers won the Big East tournament title game in thrilling fashion against Georgetown.
He didn’t cry after Thursday night’s Sweet 16 victory over Washington. But he is clearly moved by the power of the people in the state of West Virginia. The Mountaineers probably have never had a coach in the modern times that can relate to the working man as much as Huggins. He is an everyman, someone who loves a cold brew, a cigar, good cheer with the fellas and with his refusal to conform, wearing a black windbreaker and coaching a team that plays as hard as the people of West Virginia seem to work in blue collar jobs that Huggins champions.
“He talks to our team all the time about what this team means to the state of West Virginia,’’ said assistant coach Billy Hahn. “Basketball in the state of West Virginia affects everybody’s lives. They’re all watching. All the TVs were turned on us in the entire state. Huggs tries to get them to understand what it means to the people in West Virginia. He’s sincere about it.’’
I’ve known Huggs for nearly 20 years. I don’t think he’s phony about his passion for these people. I’ve never seen him this emotional about what a win means for the state. And that’s probably why there is much more of an attachment to this team in the Elite Eight then when the Mountaineers made a surprising run to the same spot in the NCAAs in 2005 under former coach John Beilein.
Huggins refused to say how much he has gone through to get to this point, instead talking about how he grew up in Midvale, Ohio, and once got into a pick-up truck and was told that it didn’t have a rearview mirror.
“We were going to play a game and I said to him, ‘Man, you don’t have a rear-view mirror in this truck,’ and he said, ‘Boy, we ain’t going backwards,’ That’s kind of how I live my life,’’ Huggins said.
Huggs is every bit his own man. And while Kentucky gets plenty of publicity for being the Commonwealth’s team -- a passionate fan base that embraces the Wildcats like no other -- Huggins would like to offer West Virginia’s faithful as just as obsessive about their team.
Huggins said West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin III told him prior to the Washington game Thursday that it was “piped into all the factories and the mines. Everyone was trying to get off their shift because they wanted to watch the game. So they piped it in, everywhere in the state of West Virginia. That’s how much it means to our state. There’s such great pride there.’’
Huggins was born and bred in West Virginia.
“My dad grew up in Dug Hill, my mom grew up on Eighth Street, so I understand how much it means,’’ Huggins said. “I think the great thing is that these guys understand how much it means to the people.’’
Huggins said his emotions in New York are easy to explain if you grew up in West Virginia.
“It’s unbelievable,’’ Huggins said. “I mean, I think it’s a culmination of all the hard work that those guys put in and the dedication and effort that they had. You don’t understand unless you’ve ever been to West Virginia and how much it means to the people.’’
If Huggins beats rival Kentucky on Saturday in the Elite Eight and “Country Roads” reverberates throughout the Carrier Dome then you can expect another tear. And based on the way Huggins has shown himself of late it will likely be genuine. He is home now. He’s not leaving. Regardless of any previous perceptions of the man, know this: Huggins wants to win a title for West Virginia more than anything he has ever done in his career.
“I’ve always wanted to coach at West Virginia,’’ Huggins said. “It didn’t work the first time (when John Beilein got the job). We are what we are. We just keep playing. We’re not nearly as big a state as Kentucky. But without question it means as much.’’