- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 22, 2008

Fifty-four years and one heart attack later, he’s still Bobby Huggins of Gnadenhutten, Ohio, a tiny hamlet south of Canton with “500 people, two stoplights and nine bars,” he says. (You also get the impression, given his hard-driving, hard-living reputation, that he spent a lot more time at the nine bars than at the two stoplights.)

Has he matured since his days as a Young Turk coach at Akron and Cincinnati, when he readily admits “I didn’t have a clue.” He certainly hopes so. “But I haven’t changed dramatically, no.”

His basketball players at West Virginia, encountering his wrath for the first time this season, can attest to that. As Da’Sean Butler puts it, “He has a unique way of getting you to do certain things you’re not used to doing.”

Things such as rebounding — never one of the Mountaineers’ strengths under Huggins’ predecessor, John Beilein— and playing nose-to-nose defense. Heaven help the Huggins team that doesn’t out-tough its opponents, out-floor burn them. After all, he never would have gotten out of The Town With Two Stoplights And Nine Bars if hadn’t have been the hungrier than the next guy.

And Huggins’ clubs are nothing if not an extension of himself. Just as he is nothing if not an extension of Gnadenhutten, where the 500 people he grew up with “are still my friends,” he says. “I admire people who kind of stick to their roots and stay grounded.”

That’s one of the reasons he’s developed a relationship with Mike Krzyzewski, whose Duke team will go up against West Virginia today in the second round of the NCAA Tournament at Verizon Center. There’s a great deal to admire about Krzyzewski as a coach, of course, but Huggins likes him just as much for being “the same guy who grew up in Chicago, went to Weber High School and still hangs out with his friends [from way back when].”

In fact, Huggins is an occasional guest on Coach K’s radio show — a mercy guest, to hear him tell it. “He’s so dry and boring that he needs somebody to give it a little bit of life,” he says. “So I try to help him every chance I get. Can you imagine listening to him for an hour? It would be brutal. That’s why he has guests.”

The gift of gab is a lost art in sports — not gab as a shtick, gab as a blunt object, gab as unvarnished honesty. Huggins, however, remains one of the all-time great talkers. Ask him a question, you get the straightest of answers — shockingly straight sometimes, like an arrow fired back at you that splits the apple on top of your head.

For instance, he’ll tell you straight out that he doesn’t think about his near-death experience, the day he was “shocked back to life three times,” because “it has a tendency to bother you” — as it would anybody.

But then he adds: “I’m going to tell you an interesting story. When I was in the ambulance, the guy who was in there was [Memphis coach John] Calipari’s cousin. John grew up in Coraopolis [Pa.] It’s the gospel truth. There were a couple of things that went on, but basically what he said is: ‘We’re not going to let you die until John beats you at least once.’ ”

Huggins, you can be sure, would love to give Calipari a chance to beat him this year. That would mean West Virginia had vanquished the West region and reached the Final Four — in his first year back at his alma mater. But there are still some major roadblocks in the Mountaineers’ path — the Blue Devils, for starters, and probably UCLA after that.

No matter. If they don’t get there this season, there’s always next season or the season after. Huggins ain’t exactly doddering, and he knows how to build a winner. The problem he ran into at Cincinnati, where he was forced out in ‘05, is that the president became convinced he wasn’t winning the right way, that not enough attention was being paid to academics and off-court behavior (the party-hearty coach’s and the players’).

So Huggins has that ax to grind as he tries to take West Virginia to the next level. Indeed, in many ways, he’s a perfect fit for the school — which, despite its athletic successes, has always felt Lost in the Appalachians.

“We always get overlooked,” Mountaineers star Joe Alexander says. “It seems no matter what we do on the national stage — Elite Eight, Sweet 16, win the NIT — nobody ever gives us any credit.”

They will if Huggins keeps reeling off 25-win seasons, keeps teaching his players Basketball the Gnadenhutten Way. And what way would that be? “Generally, they’re more afraid of me than who we’re playing,” he says. “They’ve embraced what we’re doing, though, and you have to have good kids to do that. But the reality is, it’s not a democracy. They don’t get to vote on it. They don’t get much choice.”

Memo to the Duke Blue Devils: Bring plenty of ice packs.

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