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SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- No one could have foreseen the love affair between Bob Huggins and Mountaineers fans being to this degree.
Huggins' transformation from a controversial figure at Cincinnati to the beloved West Virginian has been one of the most impressive turnarounds in college basketball.
Long gone are any of the problems he had at Cincinnati, including an embarrassing public video of a DUI arrest, a battle with then-president Nancy Zimpher and a hostile firing.
|West Virginia fans have embraced coach Bob Huggins and his team.|
The celebration of Huggins and West Virginia was hard to project. Even when Huggins was close to signing with the Mountaineers in 2002 (but couldn't leave the Bearcats at the time), there was no indication that he would be celebrated as much as he has been in the past three seasons.
North Carolina hired back alumnus Roy Williams, and he led the Tar Heels to national titles in 2005 and 2009.
Syracuse never really had to say goodbye to alumnus Jim Boeheim.
But there is a thread running quite deep with Huggins and the people of West Virginia, and it seems unrivaled by any other coach currently working at his alma mater. The Mountaineers fans milling about in Syracuse couldn't say enough about how much Huggins is theirs, a regular guy, a person whom they can relate to regardless of the situation.
Huggins' nonconformist attitude -- with his black windbreaker, the passion he exudes for the state, his tears when John Denver's "Take Me Home, Country Roads" was piped into Madison Square Garden upon winning the Big East tournament and then the Carrier Dome after winning the East Regional -- doesn't get lost among the faithful.
There have been other West Virginia natives or coaches who have strong ties to the state. They include John Beilein, Gale Catlett and Fred Schaus. But Huggs is so much more a regular guy, someone who doesn't hesitate to hoist a beer and chat up just about anyone. He has had his issues, from the DUI to a heart attack to being fired. He's experienced just about everything a traditional working man has dealt with in the highs and lows of a job. He may be paid more than most, but he has experienced similar workplace issues -- from making mistakes, stress from a boss, getting fired and hired again.
"He means a lot to a lot of people,'' said West Virginia sports information director Bryan Messerly, a native of the state as well. "It means a lot the way he talks about the coal miners like he has done. The day we had his press conference on the floor of the coliseum, there were thousands of people on a Good Friday during spring break [in 2007] to see him introduced.
"What he has said about growing up in the state of West Virginia and what it means to him is dead-on,'' Messerly said. "We don't have professional teams, and the state has embraced him and this team. It has been a tremendous feeling.''
Ed Pastilong is the athletic director who tried to hire Huggins in 2002 and then finally did so in 2007. He was also at West Virginia in 1975 when Huggins played.
|Huggins wants to let his players, and fans, bask in all of the Final Four glory this weekend.|
As the final 13 seconds ticked away during West Virginia's win over Kentucky on Saturday night, Pastilong thought back to his conversation with Huggins in 2007. "I never thought this would work out,'' Pastilong said. "I always thought he would stay at his previous institution [Cincinnati] for a long time. And then all of a sudden the stars lined up and the opening occurred, and I asked him if he wanted to come home.''
Huggins had just been given a second chance at Kansas State. One year wasn't enough for the Wildcats, but this was West Virginia. This was his last shot to coach the Mountaineers.
"I knew if we could bring him back that he would have so much pride, not just for the university but for the 1.8 million in West Virginia,'' Pastilong said. "Kentucky loves its team, but West Virginians love their team. They're in love with this basketball team. Bobby is a man of his word and an honorable person. I knew Bobby didn't want to be at Kansas State for just one year, but he knew that this was his last chance to come back to West Virginia.''
Pastilong said as soon as Huggins arrived in 2007, he knew a Final Four was possible. "He has a magic when he talks to basketball players,'' Pastilong said. "They respond to him. He works them hard, but they walk off that court and they love him.''
You can hear that in Joe Mazzulla's voice. He has been with Huggs for three years and calls him "Huggs," not "Coach." He is a classic Huggins player -- a hard-working overachiever with a skill set that needed to be developed.
Assistant Larry Harrison was with Huggins when the Bearcats went to the Final Four in 1992. When Huggins got the West Virginia job, he called Harrison and asked him if he thought they could win a national championship in Morgantown.
"I said you can do it,'' Harrison said. "West Virginia has always had a good influx of New York guys. We're in the Big East and [with] you as a coach, we can recruit players from anywhere. He said, 'Do you want to do it again?' I said, 'Let's go.'''
Huggins, who might be the lowest talker in the business and rarely changes his expression aside from when he barks at officials, hasn't mellowed much since his heart attack or from his time at Cincinnati in the '90s. "It's the same intensity and drive,'' Harrison said. "But let's say in a 40-minute game or a three-hour practice he's probably in the face of the players for 30 minutes instead of 38 and the same [percentage] is true in practice. I think a lot of things bounce off him now that maybe didn't before.''
He' the type of guy that made some mistakes in his life, but he doesn't look back on it. He's a regular guy. He's comfortable in this environment and this situation.” -- Assistant coach Larry Harrison on Bob Huggins
Huggins' college friends used to come up and hang out with him after Bearcats games. Now they're hanging around more often.
"He' the type of guy that made some mistakes in his life, but he doesn't look back on it,'' Harrison said. "He's around people who accept him for who he is, not just as a basketball coach, but as a person. He does a lot of charity work in the community. He goes out with his buddies. He's a regular guy. He's comfortable in this environment and this situation.''
Huggins deferred all enjoyment after the East Regional victory to his players and to the people of West Virginia. "I've been through this and I don't need all of this, I don't, I don't,'' Huggins said of all the attention. "I'd be very happy without it.''
There is internal pressure that he put on himself to win, but nothing has been hounding him from the exterior since he arrived at West Virginia. "I have no outside pressure whatsoever,'' Huggins said.
That's exactly why he's allowed to be comfortable in his clothing. Huggins said he once sweat through his suit so badly that he put on a windbreaker at Cincinnati. Then-AD Bob Goin was OK with the look, but new president Zimpher didn't appreciate it. "Whoever started saying coaches had to wear suits?'' Huggins said.
Huggins scoffs at the notion that the team and he are on a redemption tour, saying that is something the media have created. Huggins said injuries along the way prevented the Bearcats from getting back to the Final Four from 1992 to 2005.
So getting back for the first time in 18 years hasn't moved him much. Sitting in the locker room at Syracuse, I asked the glum-looking coach how excited he was. His response was "Can't you tell?'' "I'm happy for them,'' Huggins said of his players.
If the Mountaineers win the title, Huggins plans on taking the trophy around the state in a bus. He might try a pickup truck with no rearview mirror since he loves that story of being in a truck without one when he was a boy. The moral? Never look back.
"We'll pick some spots and we'll just drive around in the bus and take it to different places,'' Huggins said. "Understand they piped the games into the mines, piped into the work places. Everybody didn't want to go to work. They wanted to watch the game. That's how important it is to the state. It would be neat to go to them and reach out to them and let them touch the trophy.''
If his team does win the championship, don't doubt Huggins would do this. He is a man of the people now, a Mountaineer-bred man who loves representing them as their coach in every way possible.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.