A willingness to adapt opens hoops Hall of Fame door to WVU’s Huggins

By John Antonik

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – College basketball’s worst-kept secret was confirmed earlier today when coach Bob Huggins was officially announced as a member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame Class of 2022.

Huggins becomes only the third person affiliated with West Virginia University to be honored. Rod Thorn got in as a contributor in 2018 and Jerry West was part of the 1980 Hall of Fame class.

That’s it.

Beyond WVU, the only other two with state ties that I’m aware of are Marshall standout Hal Greer (1982) and Grafton’s Clair Bee, who got in as a coach in 1968.

“This is special moment for Coach Huggins, and I could not be more pleased for him and his family,” West Virginia University President Gordon Gee said today. “Being inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame is an incredible achievement. I join the rest of our University, and Mountaineers everywhere, in sharing our congratulations. Let’s go!'”

Huggins also joins an elite West Virginia University roster of Hall of Fame coaches that includes Clarence Spears, Earle “Greasy” Neale, Bobby Bowden, Frank Cignetti and Don Nehlen in football. All five are members of the College Football Hall of Fame. And, Steve Harrick is a member of the Association of College Baseball Coaches and wrestling’s Helms halls of fame.

When I think of Huggins and where he sits among some of the greatest coaches ever, I recall something Nehlen once told me about his outstanding 21-year tenure at WVU from 1980-2000.

“We did what we could with what we had,” Nehlen said.

Think about that.

That’s a perfect description for what Huggins has managed to do during his amazing coaching career that began at tiny Walsh College in Canton, Ohio, before advancing to Akron, Cincinnati, Kansas State and now West Virginia!

These places are not college basketball factories.

“West Virginia is a state where they love their basketball, but it’s not a state that produces top talent like they do in Ohio or the big cities on the East Coast,” ESPN college basketball analyst and Bob-Huggins-to-the-hall-of-fame supporter Fran Fraschilla told me a few years ago when Huggins won his 800th career game. By the way, his win total has now swelled to 916 after this past season.

As the late Bowden used to say, “Once you cross the state line to go recruiting, the best you can be starting out is No. 2.”

But that never deterred the former Mountaineer standout. When Huggins first arrived at Cincinnati, he rebuilt the Bearcats by recruiting junior college players. With the exception of Jerry Tarkanian, nobody recruited the JC ranks more successfully than Huggins.

Then, when Huggins got Cincinnati established and was able to sign high school stars Danny Fortson and Kenyon Martin, he adapted.

“He changed the Cincinnati culture and took them to a Final Four by pressing and running,” Alabama-Birmingham coach Andy Kennedy once recalled. “He then changed his style of play when he had Danny Fortson and really played inside-out during the years I was there with him.

“When we had Steve Logan, who was the runner-up to Jay Williams for the Wooden Player of the Year, we played through our guards,” he added.

When Huggins returned to West Virginia following a one-year stop at Kansas State, he sized up his roster and realized immediately that his players were best-suited to play John Beilein’s style, so he let them tinker and make adjustments to Beilein’s 1-3-1 zone they played that year.

Why change something that’s so successful?

Eventually, when those guys cycled out of the program and things began getting a little stale around 2013-14, Huggins stepped back into his past and came up with what came to be known as “Press Virginia.”

Once again, what he decided to do perfectly suited his roster.

“He adapts to his personnel,” Kennedy marveled. “I know from being his recruiting coordinator for four years there are certain characteristics that most of his great teams have and it starts with toughness. I know that’s a word people throw around and say, ‘okay, what does that mean?’ Well, kids have to be resilient and they have to persevere and they have to continue to apply pressure and that just really comes from him.

“He’s been able to sustain that at a high level for a long period of time and that speaks to his incredible ability,” Kennedy added.

Frank Martin, who worked with Huggins at Cincinnati before branching out on his own at Kansas State, South Carolina and now Massachusetts, says Huggins is the most “underrated great coach” in the country.

“Look at the places he’s won, whether it’s Walsh College, whether it’s Akron, Cincinnati, K-State or West Virginia, it’s not like he’s won at blue-blood schools,” he said.

“The style of play has changed at every school because he can adapt to the kids he can recruit at the school he’s at,” Martin explained. “He wins with his players; he takes over at other schools like he did at K-State and West Virginia and wins with other people’s players. He is the truest man I have ever met in college basketball.”

Martin has said Huggins is one of the most genuine persons he’s ever met in his life, and the closest thing to a “pure man” he’s ever met in the profession. He said Huggins shouldn’t be judged by those five minutes people see of him berating officials or getting on his players on television.

“Judge him by who he is 365 days a year,” Martin said. “The public refuses to understand that there are a lot of guys that are the complete opposite. When the cameras are on they are a certain person and then when the cameras are off they are a completely different human being, and that’s why the people who know Huggs absolutely love him.

“You want to be around him. He’s smart. He’s genuine. He’s honest, loyal and he doesn’t sugarcoat things to make you happy,” Martin said. “He tells you the truth and at the end of the day, all of us that are hoping to succeed are always searching for the truth and Huggs always gives it to you.”

This is how Fraschilla summed up Huggins’ great coaching success.

“When it’s all said and done, the role of a coach is to get the very most out of a young man both on and off the court. I think if you look at Bob’s long career it’s hard to argue with his track record,” Fraschilla said. “He basically pushes players beyond the limit of what they think they can accomplish.

“There is no question there are days when he’s unreasonable and demanding and is probably not the most popular guy in the locker room after practice, but the formula speaks for itself. In an era when coaching hard and coaching with tough love is no longer in vogue, it’s still Bob’s greatest strength because the kids know that he cares about them.”

It’s a formula that has finally opened the door for Huggins to enter tIt’s a formula that has finally opened the door for Huggins to enter the Naismith Hall of Fame. Congratulations Huggs, you’ve earned it!

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