Michael Carvelli, theet.com (http://m.theet.com/ncwvlife/coach-bob-huggins/article_342f4b4f-1b08-5f43-98b5-c311b9c9b9ae.html?mode=jqm)
It’s pretty well known at this point that Bob Huggins doesn’t like to reflect much on his coaching career. He’s not the kind of person who dwells on specific games, specific moments.
That’s not to say he forgets about everything. He remembers the mentors, the coaches who helped to shape him into the veteran head coach who has won nearly 800 games in more than 30 years of walking the sideline. He remembers the teammates and the players he has coached.
Piece by piece, these people and the relationships he’s built have been a big part of his career — a big part of who he is.
But there’s one piece of advice that still, to this day, sticks out more than others. It was something the late Charlie Spoonhour, the former St. Louis coach who was a dear friend and a former adversary of Huggins’ old Cincinnati teams, told him.
“It’s never as good as you think it is and it’s never as bad as you think it is.”
It’s not a complicated piece of advice, but it’s always been something to keep Huggins and his teams pushing forward, in both good times and bad.
He remembered it a few years ago as the Mountaineers were struggling to win games, trying to overcome the impossible task of playing games with a team that just didn’t seem capable of playing together, and struggling to get through seasons that ended in disappointment.
And he remembered it this offseason as he camped out in the film room, studying game tape with Kevin Mackey — the former Cleveland State coach who taught Huggins in the ways of the full-court pressure that helped West Virginia transform from that underachieving team into “Press Virginia” — looking for ways the Mountaineers could improve and keep building off 2015’s Sweet 16 finish.
“You’re dumb if you don’t learn from the past, but I don’t really think it does much good to sit back and think a lot about those times,” Huggins said. “When things are really bad, you can’t get so depressed. When you think things are really good, you can’t get all giddy. You have to keep working, you’ve got to keep an even keel.
“That’s why I like to worry more about what’s to come than what happened before.”
Over the next two years, things slowly began to spiral out of control.
The losses continued to pile up, players became divided and it just appeared to be too much for the Mountaineers to overcome. WVU won just 13 games and missed the postseason altogether. The next year there were slight improvements but the team suffered a similar fate as it fell off at the end of the campaign and finished 17-16 with a devastating defeat to Georgetown in the first round of the NIT.
“Pretty much everything that could go wrong did. It was horrible,” Huggins said of those first two years in the Big 12. “The one year we just had a bad combination of guys. The other year was good for a while until we had a couple guys who started pointing fingers, started getting selfish.
“It’s hard to have a team when you’re not on the same page.”
After that, players slowly started filtering out of the program — with a total of eight players leaving WVU either to embark early on a professional career or transfer to another school following those two seasons. As a result of that, Huggins and his staff got the opportunity to get back to the basics of what has made the program great over the years.
He began to rebuild the program around high-character players who he knew he could trust and build a relationship with. Those types of players build successful teams and programs.
Gone was the “me-first” attitude that had plagued the Mountaineers in the past, and in were a group of players who knew their roles and were willing to do whatever it took to win and represent the program and the state the way Huggins had wanted them to.
“You could tell when this group of guys came in things were different,” Huggins recalled. “I think the reason we were so good in (the Final Four season) was because that group of guys liked each other.
“They got along so well and they trusted and believed in each other. It’s a simple thing, but that really is something that makes a team great. Everyone has to be pulling for one another to do well.
“Teams like these we have now are the types of teams that keep you young. They keep you enthused to come to work every day.”
For many of the players on this current Mountaineer team, Huggins serves many different roles. He’s their coach, their father figure, the man who is trying to help them get to the next step of their basketball career and fulfill the dreams they had as children.
Even more than that, in some cases, he’s the guy who gave them a chance when no one else would.
“We have junior college guys who had to work their way up, we have guys who weren’t recruited like they probably should have been,” senior guard Jaysean Paige said. “But the common theme is Coach Huggins believed in us and wanted to take a chance on us.
“It’s hard to not trust the guy who gives you this chance you’ve been waiting for and working your whole life toward. He’s been great to all of us.”
That trust is something that is earned from both sides in this relationship. It’s something Huggins has prided himself in being able to build over the years as he’s formed relationships with his players.
And Huggins has seen firsthand what happens if that trust isn’t there, which is why building that relationship with the players has been such an important factor during the Mountaineers’ recent reboot and rise back into national prominence.
“They have to trust you that you’re going to do the best you can possibly do to look out for them and we, as coaches, have to trust that they’re going to come out and do the best they can possibly do for us,” Huggins said. “The most important thing in the world for a coach is that there is trust there between you and your players. There needs to be that common trust there between both sides that you’re going to be truthful to each other, and it’s earned on both sides.”
Success began to come, as did a confidence level West Virginia just hadn’t quite been able to achieve up to that point since entering the Big 12. For the first time in a long time, the Mountaineers were back to being what looked like a Bob Huggins team.
Huggins “has this reputation as a tough guy that is real no-nonsense, but off the court he’s going to joke around with you and have a good time. If you look at these teams” — last year and this year — “they definitely have a similar Bob Huggins swagger,” WVU assistant coach Erik Martin said.
“They all came in here feeling they had something to prove; they felt like they had been overlooked. And then you look at Huggs and his career and see he almost has 800 wins, has been to a couple of Final Fours and has been one of the best coaches in college basketball for a couple decades now, and somehow he’s been overlooked too.”
Huggins has said multiple times that the players he’s coaching now have been able to teach him and the rest of his staff how it feels to have fun coaching again. It was a feeling they had lost along the way, but there was just something about this group that brought it back finally.
“It’s crazy what happens when you have guys who love basketball. It’s become a bit of a lost art,” associate head coach Larry Harrison said. “There’s a difference between the guys who really love the game and guys who love what they get out of the game, but don’t really like to work at getting better during those early mornings, those late nights. That’s never been an issue with this group.”
There’s an infectious energy around the West Virginia basketball team these days, and the same can be said for its head coach. Of course the winning helps with that. The Mountaineers are off to a solid start to the season that has allowed them to continue to climb up the national polls and has them looking like a big contender for the Big 12 championship.
That bond between Huggins and the rest of the team has been a big factor in making this jump in progress happen. It’s a lot easier to be successful when everyone feels like they’re in the right place and they all feel comfortable working toward a common goal with one another.
“If you go to any workplace and you see people who are enthusiastic about what they’re doing, you can tell,” Huggins said. “It’s just so much more enjoyable for everyone, people are happy to see each other and you just go into every day feeling a whole lot better. That’s just human nature.
“Right now, we have guys who are enthusiastic. They love to play basketball. We had some other guys in those couple years before that were playing for the wrong reasons. That in itself is a huge, huge difference.”
His attitude has rubbed off completely on this team, thanks to their tight-knit relationship — and it’s another reason this group has done so well at buying into the system and what Huggins wants them to do with their full-court, uptempo pace that catches a lot of opponents out of their comfort zone.
“A great team takes on the personality of its head coach. We’re not pretty, but we’re gritty and we know what we are,” Martin said. “These guys just all came together and had great chemistry from day one, and that’s so rare for a group like this. It’s kind of impossible to imagine this a couple years ago, honestly.”