By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
It was only a year, which in a life that has included 718 college basketball victories is not really all that long a time, but it was a key year, a crucial year in the life of Bob Huggins.
As most people look at it, and they were paying quite a bit of attention on Monday as he returned to Manhattan, Kan., and Kansas State University for the first time since leaving to coach at his alma mater in West Virginia, it was Huggins who had revitalized Wildcat basketball.
In truth, when they gambled on him after his incident in Cincinnati and then a year away from the game, they were taking a gamble; they were hoping it would pay off in long-term success.
This school that had not won 20 games in a basketball season in seven years has not won less than 20 games since Huggins went there in 2006-07 and went 23-12.
But who really benefited most from Huggins’ turn at K-State, the school or the coach himself?
Certainly the Wildcats, which awarded the job to the assistant Huggins brought with him, Frank Martin, inherited a powerful new head coach when he departed and then had a strong enough basketball reputation to replace him with Bruce Weber, another solid veteran coach.
They certainly got what they wanted, but so did Huggins — and more.
When he took the job at K-State he was a polarizing figure, a controversial coach in Cincinnati who was often a target for the academics and behavior of his players, a coach who had survived a heart attack and suffered through a DUI.
He was a Cincinnati folk hero, but under a new administration he became a whipping boy who eventually was run out of town in a power struggle he could not win.
A year away from the game helped clear his head, but that first year back in the game turned him back into an enthusiastic, eager coach looking to regain his place at the top of the profession.
“What it did was give me faith and trust in people,” Huggins said on Monday’s Big 12 basketball coaches conference call when asked what the K-State experience had mean to him. “I had a little different perspective from what I had when I left Cincinnati.”
He talked about working for a good president (Jon Wefald) and a good athletic director (Tim Weiser). They were people who were different from what he had experienced in the past, especially at Cincinnati, something that seemed to come through on the day he was announced as the new K-State coach.
“I found him to be very impressive and very candid. And I just thought, ‘Well, K-State’s not Cincinnati,’” Wefald says. “We’re going to provide a tremendous academic advising operation here ... and our compliance people know all the rules and regulations of the NCAA. And Tim Weiser operates from the moral high ground. So we aren’t going to have any NCAA violations.”
Huggins understood he would be under scrutiny following the Cincinnati departure, but the way he was treated at K-State and the people who were doing the treating lifted him to heights he had forgotten existed.
“We all go through ups and downs, different cycles,” he said. “The biggest thing it did was to get me to trust and believe in people trying to do things the right way.”
In the end, sports even at the highest collegiate level is a people business and it is built on trust.
A coach trusts his superiors to provide him with what he needs. He trusts his assistants to do things within the rules and regulations. The players trust the coaches to provide them with the tools necessary to succeed both in sports and life.
Too often there are breakdowns, and certainly that had occurred under Huggins at times in Cincinnati, but moving into a different atmosphere in Kansas changed it all for him.
“The people were wonderful. From the minute I got there they embraced me. They are like West Virginia people. I said a thousand times I never would have left for anywhere other than to come home to West Virginia,” he said.
He did leave, however, yet there was that trust factor that Frank Martin could do the job.
“Obviously, I take a lot of pride in what Frank did and what he built,” Huggins said. “When you build a program it is built to last. That was done, not because of me or Frank Martin or anyone else, but because they were committed to winning.
“At the end of the day, I walked out saying, ‘Wow, these are guys who understand, guys committed the right way.’ Dr. Wesfall did not just turn basketball around, but the university.”
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.