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December 6, 2007
Wetzel: Huggins happy to be home again
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – They crowded the courtside sections just to watch and listen to him conduct his postgame radio show, then lined up to shake his hand or give him a hug. Later, Bob Huggins would share jokes in a press conference with Mickey Furfari, the 84-year old local sports writing legend who covered him as a player all the way back in the 1970s.
Soon he would be at a local hotel for a reception with many of his former teammates. His dad would be there, of course, not to mention some siblings, some cousins, his daughters and some nieces and nephews. Later there'd be more friends and family then he could count at the football game.
Back here in the town where he was born and attended college, not far from where he grew up over in Ohio, and in a region of the country where all his closest ties reside, Huggins has allowed those country roads to take him home – where his first West Virginia team is 6-1 following an impressive 88-59 rout of Auburn on Wednesday.
But here last Saturday, in the minutes and hours following a solid victory over Winthrop, was the other half of Huggins happiness.
The guy might not boast much of a national public image – a combination of the snarling way he coaches and the way some of his teams have conducted themselves on and off the court.
But if nothing else, the man is undeniably loyal. To his players (sometimes to a fault), to his employer (he hung on at Cincinnati for 16 seasons even long after things got rough) and mostly to his friends and family.
Huggins is unapologetic in the way he acts and to some that is his best attribute. It might not project on television, it might unnerve those who want a more polished presence in the head coaching chair, but even here at 54, he is still the blue-collar, down-to-earth, small-town guy who grew up in a coal mining town with "500 people, one stoplight and 10 bars."
Which is how last April he was faced with one of the toughest decisions of his life.
Kansas State had hired him after a high-profile resignation at Cincinnati, after all the bad pub about graduation rates and police blotter stuff.
Huggins loved them for it. He loved the people out in the Flint Hills of Kansas who were an awful lot like him. He loved the players he inherited for buying into his demanding ways and the star recruits who followed him all the way out there.
He planned on being there for the rest of his career, building off the momentum of a team featuring top 10 recruits such as Bill Walker and Michael Beasley. He clearly dreamed of one day delivering victories over Kansas, giving the Wildcat fans the rivalry with the powerhouse across the plain that they covet.
But then the Mountaineers' coach John Beilein left for Michigan. All of a sudden this job was open – one Huggins almost took back in the spring of 2002, only to find himself incapable of bailing on his Bearcat players.
And now Huggins had a decision that was much more difficult than the usual coaching merry-go-round allows. He might not look like the emotional type and he might come across as unlikable on the sideline, but if you met him off of it, he's hard not to like. And, again, he is undeniably loyal.
But here came the calls from all those old friends bringing back all those old memories.
He knew he'd be hated in Kansas for leaving, for treating the place as a coaching purgatory. He knew it would be difficult to tell the players he had brought in from Florida, Washington D.C. and West Virginia that he was bailing on them.
He also knew what was the right decision.
"My dad is getting up in age. My wife's mother is getting up in age. I'm getting up in age. All my family, my four sisters, my two brothers are all within two hours now.
"It was the last chance. It wasn't ever going to happen again."
Huggins will win wherever he is. He won as a 27-year-old head coach at NAIA Walsh University. He won at Akron. He won at a then-dormant Cincinnati program. He even won immediately at K-State.
The guy is supremely confident in his abilities. So this wasn't about which job was better – it was what which life was going to be better. So he left. And other than the regret at how he knows he'll always be perceived in Manhattan, he couldn't be happier.
"It's just good to be around people that I've known my whole life and people who have been friends my whole life. My daughter is going to school here now. My other daughter is back in Cincinnati, she drove up for the weekend.
"It's just good. It's a good thing. It's something special about everybody's alma mater but its really special here. People here, West Virginians really care about one another more so than any other state that I've been in – probably because there are so few of us.
"It's like family. It's a good deal."
He went on about the trust he has in his administration, some he's known "pretty much my whole life." He talked about the $25 million practice facility getting built, about the commitment to winning national championships, about the immediate recruiting success. He talked about how Beilein had left him some excellent players, some of whom are even getting used to a new system and a, shall we say, more forceful way of coaching.
Mostly he just kept talking, which doesn't always happen with a guy who can be as quiet off the court as he can be loud on it.
"I've never seen Huggs this happy," said assistant Larry Harrison, who worked for Huggins at Cincinnati. "He's home. They're calling it, 'Huggstown.' Everywhere we go people come up and say, 'welcome home.'"
Soon enough Huggins would head to the banquet, head off to see his father and family, see his old friends, see those old teammates, see those old times flash right back into present here in his old West Virginia home.
Dan Wetzel is Yahoo! Sports' national columnist. Send Dan a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.