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Sunday, January 22, 2017

Tom Keegan: Huggins, WVU’s big-time coach armed with small-town charm

West Virginia coach Bob Huggins yells out after a foul during an NCAA college basketball game against Texas Tech, Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2017, in Lubbock, Texas.

West Virginia coach Bob Huggins yells out after a foul during an NCAA college basketball game against Texas Tech, Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2017, in Lubbock, Texas.

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Born in Morgantown, W.V., and reared in the small Tuscarawas County town of Midvale, Ohio, Bob Huggins doesn't quite understand why some seem so puzzled at coal miners choosing such a potentially dangerous occupation.

“I grew up in a coal-mining town,” Huggins said during a long interview at Big 12 Media Day in Kansas City, Mo., in October. “You go out on a Friday night and here come the guys who graduated (high school) the year before, two years before, and man, here they come with the new cars, the new clothes, all the sudden, don’t seem so bad. They went in the mines, made a lot of money and all the girls were hanging out with them because they had money and cars and all that.”

It wasn't for him, but he understood the temptation. A basketball scholarship gave Huggins another path and he used it to attend college, first at Ohio University and then West Virginia, where he became a two-time Academic All-American.

“I didn’t have a coal miner in my family,” Huggins said. “My (paternal) grandfather was a water commissioner and my grandfather on my mother’s side came over from Italy, settled in Morgantown, and became a glass-blower at the glass factory. The one thing I knew was I wasn’t doing any of that stuff.”

His upbringing gave him an appreciation for factory workers and those who emerge from a long, cramped day of underground labor with soot-blackened blue collars, so instead of merely talking about coal miners to his players, he took the lesson a great deal deeper than that. Huggins said that a handful of years or so ago, he took his Mountaineers basketball players into a coal mine for nearly an entire eight-hour shift.

“I wanted them to understand when they run out there and we’ve got 14,000 people in there cheering for them, I wanted them to understand what those people do to be able to pay money to come watch them play,” Huggins said. “I thought it was important for them to appreciate what the people up there cheering for them go through on a daily basis. Our guys put on the helmets, the boots, the whole thing. Most of them say it’s one of the greatest things they’ve ever done.”

The memory puts a smile on Huggins’ face — the face that during games so often boils with anger aimed at referees or his players; the face with the easily readable lips uncovered by a cupped hand or program.

“You have to go through the safety deal and they’re telling them about the helmet and the light on the helmet and they said, ‘If you cut the light out, you won’t be able to see your hand in front of you.’ Put your hand right here (inches from his face), and you can’t see your hand,” Huggins said. “It’s that dark.”

Elite athletes tend toward fearlessness. They tend to seek thrills. So what Huggins said next came as no surprise.

“That’s all they wanted to do when we first went down there: ‘Can we turn the lights out? Can we turn the lights out?’ When they said they could turn the lights out, it wasn’t 30 seconds and you hear them banging on their helmets, trying to get the lights back on. They’re scared to death,” Huggins said.

When the coach sees players from that team, he said that to this day they will remind him how you know you’re headed toward the exit of a mine by saying, “Make sure the small end’s first, coach, make sure the small end’s first."

Meaning?

“You go over to the wall and there’s like a, for lack of a better term, a clothesline, and you walk with the clothesline in your hand,” he said, “and if it gets bigger in your hand as you walk you’re headed toward the exit. If it gets smaller, you’re walking away from the exit.”

Huggins takes pride in the product mined in West Virginia.

“We have the best coal,” he said. “Methane coal is the hottest-burning coal you can get. Our problem is because we’ve mined it for so many years, it’s harder to get to, so you spend more money to get to it, but it’s the best coal. The cost of mining coal is getting it on the belt and getting it out. The longer the belt, obviously, the more it cost. You can mine it in Wyoming for one-third the cost, but our coal is the best.”

Nobody need remind Huggins how much his basketball team means to those who do toil underground.

“When we were in the Final Four (in 2010), they pumped the game on radio into the mines,” Huggins said. “The governor (then Joe Manchin) had it pumped in because nobody was gonna go to work.”

A big-time basketball coach armed with rugged small-town charm, Huggins aimed for the moon when asked before the season to name a goal for this team, and then his answer came right back home where he has shown for 10 years now that he belongs, his slice of almost-heaven, his alma mater and the state it represents.

“You know what would be really neat?" Huggins asked and then answered. "We really need to win a national championship, take the trophy and get on a bus, just go to all these places in West Virginia nobody’s ever heard of, have it on the radio: ‘All you people want to touch the trophy; in 20 minutes we’ll be on the square in Jane Lew.’ That’d be pretty neat.”

It will take more than West Virginia (15-4) losing back-to-back games to Oklahoma and Kansas State to kill the coach’s dream. He’ll have his team ready to give No. 2 Kansas, winner of 18 consecutive games but winless in its past three trips to WVU Coliseum, 40 minutes of hard-boiled basketball Tuesday night.

Comments

Jerry Walker 3 years, 10 months ago

I can think of more appropriate words than "charm" when describing Huggins.

Robert Brock 3 years, 10 months ago

Remind Huggins that coal cannot compete with natural gas these days.

John Randall 3 years, 10 months ago

That may be true for heating your house, but not for heavy-duty manufacturing.

Andy Godwin 3 years, 10 months ago

Fascinating story about coal mining, including what in his upbringing motivated Huggins. KU prepare to be exhausted. There is chance to score a lot of points if the can take care of the ball. This has been a bad matchup in the past, but maybe the 4 guard line up will change the outcome experienced over the last three visits to Morgantown.

John Strayer 3 years, 10 months ago

Gotta make West Virginia pay for playing Press Virginia....don't just break the press and start half court offense. Break the press and turn it into a night of layup drills. Gotta make pressure teams pay by capitalizing on when they are our of position defensively.

Joe Joseph 3 years, 10 months ago

Exactly.

I know it's a result of playing sped up, but I'm amazed at the number of dunks and layups teams miss when playing WVU.

Joe Joseph 3 years, 10 months ago

I'm not doubting that Bob Huggins is actually an alright guy. But nothing from his demeanor on the court, or on camera, portrays him as a likable figure to me. He always looks like the grumpiest, most scornful person on the planet.

BUT HEY, COAL!

RJ King 3 years, 10 months ago

grumpiest?

I'd put Jim Calhoun, Bruce Webber, Billy Tubbs, Norm Stewart, Bob Knight, even Krzyzewski, and of course, Jim Boeheim waaaaaaay ahead of Huggy Bear in the grumpy department.

Bryce Landon 3 years, 10 months ago

Huggins sounds a lot more likeable and engaging when Jim Rome interviews him on his CBS Sports Radio program.

Ryan Zimmerman 3 years, 10 months ago

Not a Huggins fan at all--- and probably the only thing I have in common with any KSU fan. Same thing Joe said above, seems like an arrogant and grumpy guy. Plus the fact he gets a big bonus for beating KU makes any loss sting any more than normal

Suzi Marshall 3 years, 10 months ago

Any normal person should love Huggs and his WVa heritage. The latest rage has been to claim WVa admittance into the Big 12 at the expense of Louisville as a huge error. I for one am very happy to have a guy like Huggins vs Pitino in our league. This is going to be a very tough game but the Hawks are overdue for a big W in Morgantown.

Sae Thirtysix 3 years, 10 months ago

SMarshall - Hits on all the key points, none larger than #4 - 1. ) Love the BHuggins - WVA heritage - 2.) No love lost, for not having 'Dville - 3.) Tough game Tues - 4.) BIG - W overdue!!

Harlan Hobbs 3 years, 10 months ago

Bob Huggins has made a lot of difference in the lives of a lot of young men, and for that, he deserves enormous credit. I respect him because I know that he greatly respects Bill Self and what has occurred at KU.

And "yes" Suzi, we definitely are overdue for a big W in Morgantown. I know that WVU and the crowd will be amped, but if OU and KSU can handle their press, we should be able to do so. I just hope that our defense comes to play also.

Bryce Landon 3 years, 10 months ago

I just gained some great respect for Huggins for taking his team to the coal mines to show them what life is like for those folks. It should teach them just how important hard work is, how fortunate they are to not have to do such a dangerous job, and make the most of their opportunity in college.

Maybe Bill Self should take his team to a Kansas farm to show his players what hard work looks like. (And no, not all farmers are Kansas State fans.)

Edward Daub 3 years, 10 months ago

30 years ago I worked with DuPont products that were sold for use in Coal Mining. I visited several mines and had the experience of going underground. I was always very happy to see the light at the end of the tunnel. I do respect the people who enter these mines daily to go to work, it is potentially dangerous and the logistics are complicated.

Suzi Marshall 3 years, 10 months ago

I worked for Conoco and went over to DuPont about a month after the merger. Over +10 years, I spent a lot of time at the Belle, Martinsburg, and Parkersburg sites. However, the time I spent in the mines was while working for Conoco's Consolidation Coal sub, which has HQ in Library, PA. It was an experience and those guys made some really good money....back then, late 70s to 2000 a guy could make over $100K in the mines. Safety and Health Care was terrific as well.

Harlan Hobbs 3 years, 10 months ago

Very well said, Bryce & Edward. Hope you have fun at the game tonight, Edward.

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