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."
“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.