Ron Cook: Bob Huggins belongs in basketball Hall of Fame
March 15, 2017 12:00 AM
Orlin Wagner/Associated Press
Bob Huggins has won 817 games — third most among current coaches behind Mike Krzyzewski and Jim Boeheim and eighth-most all time — in 35 seasons, which should be his ticket into the Hall of Fame.
By Ron Cook / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Five Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame coaches will lead teams into the NCAA tournament when the field of 64 gets started Thursday. There should be a sixth. West Virginia’s Bob Huggins belongs. Someone please tell me why he shouldn’t be in. Please explain to me why he wasn’t even nominated for the Class of 2017.
It can’t be Huggins’ resume. He has won 817 games — third most among current coaches behind Mike Krzyzewski and Jim Boeheim and eighth-most all time — in 35 seasons at Walsh College, Akron, Cincinnati, Kansas State and West Virginia. This tournament trip with the No. 4-seeded Mountaineers is his 24th. He made it to four Final Eights and two Final Fours. He has been national coach of the year six times.
It shouldn’t be because of the way Huggins’ 16-year run at Cincinnati ended. He was forced to resign after the 2004-05 season for a number of reasons: An NCAA investigation that resulted in probation and a loss of scholarships, a poor graduation rate among his players and his DUI arrest. None of that is admirable, but other coaches in the Hall of Fame have had issues with the NCAA. Boeheim, whose Syracuse team didn’t make this year’s tournament. John Calipari. Other Hall of Fame coaches have been at the center of major off-the-court scandals. Rick Pitino comes to mind. Huggins is far from perfect and knows it, but he’s comfortable in his own skin.
“I don’t cheat,” he told ESPN, pointing out he wasn’t specifically charged in the NCAA’s Cincinnati investigation. “I’ve never cheated.”
Huggins’ work at West Virginia the past 10 seasons should put him over the top for the Hall of Fame. This trip to the NCAAs is his eighth with the Mountaineers, who finished second to Kansas in the Big 12 Conference and lost to Iowa State Saturday night in the Big 12 tournament title game. His success has been especially impressive for two reasons. One, West Virginia had to join the distant Big 12 to find a home for its football program. Huggins has adjusted much better than Jamie Dixon did after Pitt’s move to the ACC. And two, West Virginia is a small state that produces few quality players. Senior Nathan Adrian is a rare prominent exception on this season’s team, joining former Mountaineers star Kevin Pittsnogle.
“I’ve never been at a place where I can select the way some guys do,” Huggins said. “We have to take what we think are good prospects and try to put them in a place to be successful.”
The formula has worked for Huggins. He took the Mountaineers to the 2010 Final Four. This season’s team has at least an outside shot to get back. West Virginia opens against No. 13 seed Bucknell Thursday afternoon. If the seeds hold, it will have to beat Bucknell, Notre Dame, Gonzaga and Arizona to make it to Glendale, Ariz., the first weekend of April. There are no guarantees, of course. West Virginia was a No. 3 seed last season and lost to No. 14 Stephen F. Austin in the first round.
“I don’t think we’re as good as we were in 2010,” Huggins said. “We could score the ball then. We had multiple guys who could score the ball. This team has to live and die off of creating turnovers and getting out in transition and scoring. We don’t have a Da’Sean Butler or Devin Ebanks or Kevin Jones …
“I think the best thing is they’ve got great camaraderie. They like each other. They play well together. We’re not the most talented group. We lost our two best players from last year — Jaysean Paige and Devin Williams. I don’t know if we’ve replaced them, but just our camaraderie and the way our guys go about things has carried us. We’ve got confidence. I don’t think our guys have been anything but confident. We won 26 games and I think we’re all saying, ‘Gawd darn, we could have won three or four more.’ We were close to having just a great year.”
Huggins is 63. He has given no thought to retirement, although that always depends on his health. He had a massive heart attack at the Pittsburgh Airport in 2002, yet returned to coach just two weeks later. He gave everyone a scare at WVU Coliseum Feb. 20 during a game against Texas when he dropped to his knees on the court late in the first half with a look of horror on his face. It turned out his defibrillator went off, which he said felt like a hard punch in the back. He continued to coach the rest of the game.
“That wasn’t a lot of fun,” Huggins said. “Other than that, I feel good. My energy level is good, as the officials can attest on Saturday. I think all three would tell you my energy level is pretty good.”
Huggins might not last long enough to get back to a Final Four let alone win a national championship. It’s hard to imagine him losing any sleep if it doesn’t happen. He nearly won it all in 1992 when his Cincinnati team lost to Michigan in the national semifinals, a win that later was vacated by Michigan because of its NCAA scandal. Cincinnati lost another brutal game in the 1993 East Regional final — 75-68 in overtime — to eventual national champion North Carolina.
“We’ve been close,” Huggins said. “When Kenyon Martin broke his leg in the first game of the conference tournament in ’90, we were the best team in the country. There wasn’t anyone even close.”
Maybe this will be the year …
No one in West Virginia is ruling it out because of Huggins.
“I don’t think there are five coaches in the country better than him,” West Virginia legend Jerry West has said. “He’s equal to any of them.”
West — the NBA logo — is in the Naismith Hall of Fame. Huggins deserves to be next to him.
Ron Cook: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @RonCookPG. Ron Cook can be heard on the “Cook and Poni” show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.
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