It is hard to believe how much time has passed since the roughest moments, but it’s reflected in Bob Huggins’ burgeoning win total.
It has been just short of 20 years since Cincinnati Bearcats superstar Kenyon Martin set a simple down screen in a Conference USA Tournament game at the Pyramid in Memphis, got his legs tangled with an opponent and went down with a leg fracture that ended his season and Huggins’ best shot at an NCAA championship.
It has been more than 17 years since Huggins suffered a heart attack while traveling through the Pittsburgh airport on a recruiting mission, which led to him being treated in an ambulance by a cousin of his friend and rival John Calipari.
It has been just short of 15 years since Huggins’ awkward removal as Bearcats coach, which led to a full season out of the business — or he might have zoomed past this milestone a year ago.
Oh, yes, the milestone: On Saturday, with West Virginia’s 74-51 win over Missouri, Huggins tied the great Adolph Rupp in career coaching victories. This was No. 876 for Huggins, compiled during his career at WVU, Kansas State, Cincinnati, Akron and, indeed, Walsh College.
Huggins is tied for seventh among Division I coaches, just one more win from breaking the tie with Rupp and three more from catching up to — let’s take a breath here, because it’s kind of amazing — Dean Smith. Ahead are only Roy Williams, Jim Calhoun, Bob Knight, Jim Boeheim and Mike Krzyzewski.
The perception of Huggins has changed so much since his return to West Virginia, and his continued ascent through the career coaching victories list can only help in getting basketball fans to appreciate his greatness.
Huggins has shown the capacity to reinvent his teams, embracing the “Press Virginia” style in 2014-15 and now turning back to his love for severe halfcourt defense with a group of Mountaineers who were not expected to achieve a ton but now stand 16-3, ranked No. 14 in the AP poll and third in the Big 12 Conference behind Baylor and Kansas. West Virginia ranks third in Division I in defense, according to the efficiency stats at KenPom.com.
Huggins is the only one in this neighborhood without an NCAA championship. Of course, he spent the better part of his career coaching in off-Broadway conferences, rolling from the Metro to the Great Midwest to Conference USA during his time at Cincinnati. He helped get the Bearcats to the promised land, the Big East, but they went forward without him after he was removed from the position in the summer of 2005.
There had been a few too many recent episodes of off-court indiscipline, but it was clear the move to replace him was as much about reputation as any particular incident. Huggins had begun Cincinnati’s advance toward college basketball prominence by heavily recruiting junior college talent, a team loaded with such players reaching the Final Four in 1992, just three years after he arrived. Many in the media sneered at this, and at his demonstrative and sometimes confrontational sideline style, and Huggins chose not to make a sustained effort to change anyone’s perception.
That 2000 season might have done it. A championship can melt a lot of ice. That season’s Cincinnati roster was loaded with exceptional young men. Martin was the most obvious example, but also wing DerMarr Johnson; guards Kenny Satterfield, Steve Logan and Leonard Stokes; and forwards Pete Mickeal, Jermaine Tate and Ryan Fletcher. Winning a championship with this group was not a lock, because it never is, but the Bearcats would have gone into the tournament as clear favorites. A single instant changed that.
“My frustration is for the guys,” Huggins said that day in Memphis. “I think I’m going to be able to do this a lot longer and will have more good teams. This was their chance. I think in life you have very few chances to be special.”
He was exactly right about most of that. He has been able to coach many more years, and to compile a record that almost is staggering in its breadth. Huggins coached West Virginia to the 2010 Final Four, but the Mountaineers weren’t quite up to the challenge presented by the Duke Blue Devils and another devastating injury, this one to star forward Da’Sean Butler, wrecked any chance at a miraculous comeback.
So that championship season remains what separates Huggins from Rupp, Smith, Williams, Calhoun, Knight, Boeheim and Krzyzewski.
It’s about all there is now.