On Jan. 10, Bob Huggins' West Virginia Mountaineers were 17th in the country and staring down a tough week of conference games. Since then? They've downed the country's then-No. 1 team in a 74-63 win at home over Kansas and were an Oklahoma tip-in away from becoming the first team since 1990 to beat No. 1 and No. 2 in consecutive regular-season games. They've jumped to No. 6 in the AP poll and, in a conference that's already seen two No. 1s upset in league play, the Big 12 title is far from decided. The Mountaineers' coach spoke with Jeff Goodman the day before that Kansas win about this year's roster, those two tough first seasons in the conference -- and why people think he doesn't recruit any shooters.
Why do you have so much pride in this year's team?
They're fun to be around because they bring great enthusiasm. In any workplace, guys that are like, "Can we just get through this?" really aren't a lot of fun to be around. The guys that have enthusiasm for what they do -- which by and large our guys do just about every day -- they are fun to be around. Our guys like being in the gym. It's like people who like going to work. Our guys like going to work.
Your guys have won a lot of games so far but also made their share of bonehead plays. How have you dealt with that?
That's kind of part of it. When you try and get guys to play as fast as we try and get them to play, it's hard at times to slow down yourself.
Is the reason you play fast because you can't score?
Yeah. We've got to get more shots than our opposition. We've done it for years by rebounding the ball offensively and being able to turn people over, score in bunches. Scoring off our defense has helped us tremendously.
Why haven't you recruited more shooters?
The fallacy is that I haven't had guys who can shoot. One of our radio guys said to me, at Cincinnati, looking back, would you recruit more guys like Alex Ruoff -- who was a good shooter. I went back and looked, and we had seven guys make more 3s in their career than Alex did -- and Alex was a three-year starter. We got a lot of 3s because we were so good inside too.
When you play the way we play, people think you can't shoot. But we lead the country in 3-point field goal percentage defense. We lead the country because we take their legs. And to think it doesn't take our legs to a degree -- it does. So we probably shoot better than what people think, but at times we don't have legs because of the way we play.
Why do you wear a sweatsuit during games and how did it start?
At Cincinnati, I've got a coat and tie on -- and I sweat through my T-shirt, my shirt, my tie. In a half. I'm soaked. My sport coat is soaked. I go in, I say, "Give me something to wear," and they give me a T-shirt and a pullover. So I put the pullover on, I go out in the second half. I come in after the game and my AD at the time, Bob Goin, says, "You look great. I think that's what coaches should wear." He really thought that, until I got a new president who didn't appreciate the way I dressed -- and then, all of the sudden, he thought I should wear a coat and tie again.
I went to Kansas State and wore a coat, rarely a tie. When I first got here, I wore a coat and tie. But I'm not a banker. I'm not a politician. I'm a basketball coach. That's what basketball coaches wear. They all say to me, "I wish I could do that."
Once you even wore your credential across your neck during a game. What was the deal with that?
One time I was going into Madison Square Garden for the Big East tournament and a guy stops me from getting into the building. So that's the way we're going to do it? I just put it around my neck. Coached with it. I didn't want to get pulled off the sideline because I didn't have one on.
Do you have a bunch of the pullovers, or just a couple of them?
I've got hundreds of them. They aren't all lined up. Some are in a box. I've got a whole rack of them. People think I wear the same one all the time. I don't. Four different colors, but I like the black for some reason. Everyone says it makes you look thinner -- which I think I need at this point in my life. I guess I don't care enough to change.
What's the biggest change in the game over the past 10 or 20 years?
There's more bounce in the ball than there's ever been. Go back to Coach [Henry] Iba, Coach [Bob] Knight and his influences: There was motion -- a lot of passing, lot of cutting, lot of screening. Now you give one guy the ball, ball-screen for him, let him bounce, try to create, kick it to other people. But one guy dominates the ball. Before, it wasn't that way. Before it was more of an onus on recruiting guys that had skill level. Now there's not as much skill level in terms of passing, cutting, the fundamental things. Everything is created off the bounce.
What's the key reason for the parity this season in college basketball?
The so-called mid-major, they think it's because of the scholarship reduction from 15 to 13. I think it's because those places have a better chance to keep their players longer. A lot of instances, mid-majors have more mature people -- the high-level colleges have a tendency to lose guys early, so they don't have 21- or 22-year-old men. They have 18-year-old kids. Many times, you pit a bunch of 22-year-old men against 18-year-old kids, they're going to win. To me, that's what it is. They don't lose guys the way that we lose guys.
You really believe the college game is better than the NBA game. Why?
Because I think the normal people, Americans, have a hard time relating to guys making 10, 12, 14 million dollars a year. There's not the emotion there is in college basketball. I think you can more relate to kids out there. They say our numbers are down, the NBA is up. But the NBA never pits one game against another. Ever. On national TV, there's one game. At any point in time, you can get five or six college games on the regular networks. It's all about overexposure.
The perception of you, dating back to your days at Cincinnati, is that you're a tough guy, that you crush your kids, that you don't care about academics, that your kids are thugs. How much does that bother you?
We can only control what we control. I can't control what people think about me. I couldn't control what people thought about my kids. I know this -- I've never had more loyal guys. I've had loyal guys at Walsh, at Akron and at Cincinnati. One of our major publications went around trying to dig up stuff people would say, and none of our guys would say anything other than he's a good guy who cared about us.
On one hand, we're told to stay out of academics. On the other hand, we're told to graduate everybody. We've graduated everybody here at West Virginia except for one -- and he's six hours away. So 30 of my 31 guys have graduated. I had nothing to do with it. It's an institutional commitment. It's a commitment by our university that we're going to supply all the resources, everything it takes to be successful academically.
Did you embrace having the black hat after Jerry Tarkanian retired?
When it first happened, I thought it was a wonderful thing to be compared to Jerry Tarkanian, because his players loved him. I thought that was a wonderful thing. The truth of the matter is, if you turn on the Western channel, the guys in the black hats are always the bad guys and the guys in the white hats are always the good guys. For whatever reason, when this whole thing started, they put a black hat on me and it's hard to get it off. It's almost impossible to get it off until people take the time to know me, to know my players. I think when they do, they walk away with an entirely different opinion.
You went through a stretch a couple of years ago where you didn't go to the NCAA tournament two consecutive seasons. That hadn't happened since your first two years at Cincinnati. What was the issue?
I didn't have bad guys, I just had guys who had a lot of things that were of greater interest to them than winning basketball games. It doesn't make them bad people. It's not their fault. It's my fault -- 100 percent my fault. I wasn't able to do what I thought I could do. I thought I could change people. No, I knew better than that. I thought I could modify their behavior -- and I couldn't. So we were unsuccessful.
How did you get it back?
Fortunately, some of those guys decided this wasn't the right situation for them, and we were able to go out and get some guys who love to play. Here's what I would tell young coaches: Recruit guys who have great enthusiasm for our game. Not guys who love being on TV. Like, there's a bunch of coaches who think it would be wonderful to wear a real nice suit and be on TV, sit on the bench, keep a chart and clap. Make a lot of money. That's not why you should do what we do. Same thing for players. You should do it because you love the game, because you're committed to the game.
How much did family play into your leaving Kansas State after just one year to return here to West Virginia?
It was everything. I loved Kansas State, the people, the fans, the administration. I wouldn't have left for any other place. But it was the opportunity to come home, be close to my family. All of my brothers and sisters, and my dad, are within three hours. My dad's getting older, but he was here at every home game when I first came back. It's great to have him around; it's great to have my brothers around. We are a pretty close family. I went to school here. I know everybody. I know the people here, the culture, the fabric of the community.
How much was your first paycheck and where was it?
It was here -- I was a graduate assistant, but really a part-time assistant for Joedy Gardner, the guy I played for -- and I didn't make enough money to file an income tax. That's a fact. I don't remember how much it was, but it wasn't enough to survive. I lived in my grandfather's old house, so I didn't pay rent because I couldn't afford to. I had just gotten married, and my wife worked in the concessions stand in the Coliseum, so she brought home the hot dogs that were on the hot dog cooker. That's what I ate.
What was the low point of your career? When you were let go at Cincinnati?
For a while. You grow up in this business talking about loyalty, about loyalty to your players, to your school. Cincinnati gave me a great opportunity, and I was loyal. I turned down a whole bunch of money to go to NBA jobs. I turned down all sorts of other college jobs to stay, because I thought that's what you're supposed to do. Then you find out for all the talk about loyalty that other people aren't very loyal. I have a different perspective now.
I came back here because I love West Virginia and I love the people. People would be shocked to find out I've had five presidents and three ADs in nine years. Five! But this is a different place. This is a place where loyalty is important -- where people care that you do the right thing and treat people the right way. I grew up in this, I grew up with these people.
How much longer do you want to do this?
I don't know. I guess until I don't have any enthusiasm for it. When I say, "I really don't want to go in today," it's time to quit. As long as I have enthusiasm and I think I can give our guys everything I can give them, I'll probably continue to do it for a while.