It is often difficult to draw Huggins out on topics other than basketball, at least in the quasi-structured setting of interviews. He has a few stories that veteran media members have heard multiple times. Ask him to look back, and you will get the “no rear-view mirror” story. Ask about a difficult league schedule, and you'll get the “game video on the bus” story, complete with delivery of a Jimmy John's sub. They're all fun, and familiar, but they don't go very deep in illuminating what he really thinks of the way his life turned out, and the meaning of 800 victories – a massive number.
That's why it was surprising to hear him open up, at least a little bit, about his career choice. After answering a question about the general meaning of those 800 wins to him, I ventured with a follow-up about what he might have been had he not been a basketball coach. The answer was surprising, at least to me. I figured that for someone as driven and determined as Huggins, a plan had to have been in place. He had to have had a goal set before he arrived at Ohio University. Heck, I figured he probably had one set by the time he got out of elementary school. Turns out he did, but it wasn't to be a coach.
“I always wanted to be a player,” Huggins reflected. “I didn't know what else I wanted to do. I thought about being a lawyer, but I wanted to play basketball. I started out in pre-med, but that was way to much time in the library. I couldn't get into the gym.”
See a pattern here? There's no doubt that basketball had a grip on Huggins tighter than one of his prized big guys clutching a rebound. Yet, alternatives to playing the game didn't occur to him.
“I went into education, and then John Spiker talked me into physical therapy. I was accepted at Penn, but that was during Vietnam, and people were coming back with stubs. That wasn't what I wanted to do.”
Huggins continued to chase his dream of playing, but a knee injury and a loaded Philadelphia 76ers roster kept him from earning an NBA spot. He actually fared pretty well, outlasting some draft picks (he was a free agent) before getting cut. Still, the hoop and hardwood held on.
“My whole life, I wanted to play basketball. I woke up wanting to play basketball and went to bed thinking about playing basketball.”
Back in those days, opportunities to play overseas weren't as plentiful or easy to obtain as they are today, and there was no subsidized Developmental League to join. Somewhat adrift, Huggins accepted an offer from then- WVU coach Joedy Gardner to be a graduate assistant in 1977. Accepting it, he still didn't see coaching as his life's work, admitting that he thought it would be a good way to get to his master's degree. He earned that, but somewhere along the way in that season he started to see the possibilities in basketball that didn't require wearing a uniform. He took an assistant's spot at Ohio State for two years, and then the hook was set when he was hired as the head coach at Walsh College in 1980.
While Huggins still dislikes, or at least professes to, looking back, he did pull back the curtain just a bit this week. Mixed in with self-deprecating comments like “I'm old,” Huggins has shared at least a peek into some of the journey that has led him to the brink of a milestone win. Despite 11 pages in West Virginia's basketball media guide, it's still difficult to quantify and comprehend how someone who had no clear target of being a coach got here. Thousands of others, with much clearer goals at the outset, haven't achieved anything near what Huggins has. Obviously he has a monster mind for the game, knows how to motivate players and cares for them greatly. He has teaching skills, without question. All of that traces back to his father, Charlie, who coached him in high school, and, oh by the way, is a member of the Ohio Basketball Hall of Fame by dint of his 20-year career, which included three state championships and a 398-74 record. Look at Charlie's career, and approach, and you see about 95% of son Bob reflected there. Maybe, buried there, are the roots of his life's work, even though he didn't realize it.
Still, all those achievements didn't necessarily play into Bob Huggins' thinking about coaching. Perhaps it was there subliminally, but it was, at least on the surface, something of youthful rebellion – once he realized that hoops had sunk its hooks into his soul.
“I think to a large degree [I got into coaching] because my dad said, 'You don't want to do that,” the son explained. “I have never listened too much to my Dad, obviously.”
From college basketball's perspective, thank goodness he didn't.