WVU coach Bob Huggins: Tough guy, big heart

SYRACUSE, N.Y. (AP) — When Da'Sean Butler found out Bob Huggins had been hired to replace John Beilein as basketball coach at West Virginia, he was ready to make a bee line north.

"The first time I heard he was coming, I was like, I'm getting ready to go to Michigan," Butler said Friday with a big smile. "I'm glad I didn't leave. It's been a great experience. I'd be doing all kind of nothing right now."

Instead, the senior star of the second-seeded Mountaineers and his teammates, who have won a school-record 30 games this season, are preparing to face top-seeded Kentucky in the East Regional final Saturday night with a berth in the Final Four at stake.

These are heady days again for Huggins, who was born and raised in West Virginia. He finally came back home three years ago after a coaching odyssey that took him from West Virginia as a graduate assistant (1977) to Ohio State, Walsh College (now University), Central Florida, Akron, Cincinnati and Kansas State.

Now, Huggins is one step away from his second Final Four. His 1991-92 Cincinnati team lost in the national semifinals to Michigan, 76-72.

"His path to where he is, is amazing," said Kentucky coach John Calipari, who counts Huggins among his very good friends. "What he's doing at West Virginia and this program is amazing stuff. He's as good as any coach out there. He's also a guy that will give you the shirt off his back."

And therein lies the roots of his team's sense of extreme loyalty to its mentor.

"He's a tough guy, but he's a nice guy," senior forward Wellington Smith said. "You only see the guy on TV, yelling at somebody. Nobody will see him in the type of light we see him in, and that's bad for people. And yet I feel like he likes it a little bit, likes a little intimidation."

Huggins inherited a bunch of sharpshooters that Beilein recruited and has completely transformed the way they play. Beilein, now at Michigan, is an offensive strategist; Huggins preaches in-your-face defense and demands that his players crash the boards for every rebound. The Mountaineers also spend countless hours in the weight room, and for proof you only have to look at 6-foot-8 sophomore forward Kevin Jones, who's gone from 215 pounds to 245 under Huggins.

"You kind of called it a country club (under Beilein). It was fun. We did work, but we never had any altercations," Butler said. "The intensity level has changed dramatically."

It started with those 3-hour practices.

"The way that we practice, people bleeding, swollen lips, eyes," Smith said. "Things get ridiculous in practice. I've been here three years and it's built that toughness."

Maybe that toughness stems from the place where Huggins grew up — Midville, in his words "a town of 500 people, two stoplights, and nine bars."

Huggins used that toughness to turn Cincinnati into a national power. But during his 16 years there, all the wins were tainted by player arrests, NCAA probation and a drunk driving arrest in 2004. Huggins, who had a heart attack in the fall of 2002, was forced out by former Cincinnati president Nancy Zimpher in 2005, sat out a year, and spent one season at Kansas State before taking over at West Virginia.

"I knew I would coach again," said Huggins, who initially turned down the West Virginia job — because the timing wasn't right — before Beilein accepted it. "Everybody wants me to pontificate about all these things, and I don't think about those things, I honestly don't. I don't look back."

Befitting his tough-guy persona, Huggins didn't go quietly from Cincinnati. He stayed in town, did commercials and attended a Bearcats game at Xavier. He even accepted an invitation from the seniors to attend the final home game of the season and sat across from the West Virginia bench while Cincinnati beat his alma mater by three points.

The 56-year-old Huggins has a contract that will keep him at West Virginia until he's 65. He has 669 career victories in 28 seasons. If the next one comes Saturday night, rest assured things won't be the same back home for a while.

"You don't understand unless you've ever been to West Virginia how much it means to the people," Huggins said. "Let me tell you what the governor told me before the game (against Washington on Thursday night). They piped in to all the factories and all the mines and everything, the play-by-play, because otherwise guys were trying to get off their shift because they wanted to watch the game. It's piped in everywhere in the state of West Virginia. Everybody in West Virginia is listening to the game or watching the game. That's how much it means to our state. There's such great pride there."

The players know a big reason why.

"He just changed the whole outlook of West Virginia basketball," Smith said.