- The Washington Times - Friday, January 25, 2008

Bob Huggins always belonged in the Big East.

From a personality standpoint, the first-year West Virginia coach fits in perfectly in a conference that seems to have cornered the market on colorful coaches — see Rick Pitino, John Calhoun and Jim Boeheim. And few hoops philosophies could mirror the nation’s black-and-blue league more closely than the lunch-pail coaching style of one of the game’s ultimate defensive disciples.

“When somebody says college basketball, you think about the Big East,” Huggins said in the preseason at Big East media day. “When somebody says Final Four, you think about the Big East. When somebody says Big Monday, you think about the Big East. … If there’s not a Big East team in the Final Four, it’s kind of an upset. When you think about ESPN, which really is a basketball station, you think about the Big East. They started together.

“You’ve got two [coaches] in the Hall of Fame [Calhoun and Boeheim] and two or three more guys that are probably headed in that direction. You play your conference tournament in Madison Square Garden. I don’t see how it gets any better.”

Well, the league became more interesting when Huggins returned to his alma mater and hometown last spring to replace Michigan-bound John Beilein. And thus far, the Huggie Bear era in Morgantown has been a rousing success. Transitioning from Beilein’s signature efficiency to Huggins’ trademark intensity, the Mountaineers (15-4, 4-2 Big East) again are among the league’s elite teams as they prepare to play host to ninth-ranked Georgetown (15-2, 5-1) tomorrow night.

And Huggins? Well, he just might be in the midst of the most impressive coaching exhibition of his career.

From 1989 to 2005 at Cincinnati, Huggins forged quite a reputation as one of the game’s ultimate outlaws. A volcano on the sideline, Huggins had an affinity for junior-college recruits who were ferocious on the floor but often failed in the classroom. When Nancy Zimpher became Cincinnati’s president in 2003, she targeted the low graduation rates of the basketball program as her cause celebre. And when Huggins was arrested for DUI in 2004, Zimpher pounced, dismissing the locally beloved coach after the 2004-05 season.

Often lost amid the renegade chatter, however, is the fact that Huggins has remained one of the game’s finest coaches. He took the Bearcats to the NCAA tournament in each of his last 14 seasons at Cincinnati, reaching the Final Four in 1992. In his only season at Kansas State, the Wildcats finished 23-12, earning an NIT bid and falling only two victories short of the program record.

This season, his team is again excelling against all odds. Though he inherited a young team with little depth or size that was picked to finish 10th in the Big East, Huggins’ charges are 9-0 at home and tied for second in the league standings.

“We’re not very big, and we’re not very deep, but the kids have been terrific,” Huggins said. “We will guard. And we can make shots. We just can’t foul, and we can’t get hurt. That’s the only two rules I gave them. They show up to play every day. It’s not like pulling teeth to get them to play. They really try. They want to get better. They want to learn.”

How have they responded to Huggins, who is more verbally severe than his predecessor?

Said the dry-witted Huggins: “They love me like everybody else does.”

They should. Huggins collected his 600th win just before Christmas. His 605 victories rank sixth among active coaches, and among his peers with 600 or more victories, only Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski (.751) boasts a higher winning percentage than Huggins’ .738.

Actually, his players do seem to love him at West Virginia.

“I think he’s a guy who’s been totally misunderstood,” said Alex Ruoff, the junior forward who leads the Mountaineers with 15.8 points a game. “He’s passionate. He’s caring. And he’s very bright.”

Perhaps that last attribute is what troubled many observers when Huggins was at Cincinnati. How could a man who was a two-time academic All-American at West Virginia from 1975 to 1977 direct a team with such poor graduation rates? Huggins’ primary response is the NCAA now has a more accurate manner of measuring academic success; the new APR formula no longer penalizes schools for early departures to the NBA or transfers in good standing.

“I think people forgot that I graduated magna cum laude,” Huggins said. “If I didn’t care about academics, I wouldn’t have had a 3.97 [GPA].”

Perhaps Huggins’ teams will fare better in the classroom in Morgantown. The only certainty is he is ready to move past all things Cincinnati.

“Obviously, I still have feelings for [Cincinnati],” Huggins said. “Sure, it’s a little awkward being in the same conference. And I wish [Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin] all the best. Mick’s one of my guys. I’m the one who started him in the business. I loved Cincinnati. I never wanted to leave. And I wouldn’t have left Kansas State for any other college job. But I don’t live in the past.

“[West Virginia athletic director Ed Pastilong] called me and said, ‘Are you ready to come home?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, I am.’ I’m home. I’m where I belong.”

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