By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
To watch him operating on the sidelines, it is difficult to believe Bob Huggins possesses what is perhaps the most crucial personality trait that any coach can possess — patience.
Certainly, there are moments when it doesn’t show.
A player will take a stupid shot and before the ball hits the rim, Huggins has spun toward the bench and gotten someone up to replace him. An official makes a bad call and before the final echo of the whistle within the Coliseum fades away Huggins’ facial expression has changed to snarl and he’s voicing his opinion of that official’s eyesight.
This, though, is not the kind of patience we are talking about.
We’re talking about thinking how different history might have been had the Steelers had the patience to keep Johnny Unitas, whom they drafted in the ninth round out of Louisville and cut in training camp; or if the Green Bay Packers had been patient with Kurt Warner after signing him as a free agent rather than cutting him and sending him off in the Arena League.
Think how different that is from the way the Dodgers handled young bonus bay Sandy Koufax, who six years into what would become a Hall of Fame career possessed a record of 36 and 40.
To be a great coach, executive or, for that matter, player, one needs to be able to make a judgment then have enough belief in that judgment to stick with it. There is nothing worse than letting one get away because you couldn’t wait for it to develop or to be a player who knows he has ability but doesn’t have enough confidence in himself or patience to allow it to blossom.
Case in point: West Virginia freshman basketball player Keaton Miles.
Tell me, and be honest, there weren’t times through this first half of the season when you as a fan — and fans are not known for their patience — questioned Huggins’ sanity in keeping Miles in the starting lineup, insisting on playing him when he seemed so terribly lost on the basketball court.
It is difficult to imagine how difficult for some the jump from high school to college is, even those with extraordinary talent who have never met their match before and have to learn how to deal with failure as well as success.
Miles really struggled early. In fact, as he walked on the floor to face Rutgers on Saturday, he had played 233 minutes and had but eight baskets. Huggins, however, liked what he saw in the reed-thin freshman, maybe the way he also only had eight turnovers, maybe just the athleticism that he had to grow into.
Then, against Rutgers, there was a breakthrough and the patience of Huggins to stay with him and of Miles to not get flustered and give up was rewarded. He made four of five shots, he had four rebounds and far more important, he had seven assists without a turnover.
What had Huggins seen?
“He’s made shots in practice,” Huggins said. “We have tried to explain to him the importance of shot readiness and balance. Go back and look at tape of him, Aaron Brown, Gary Browne and Jabarie Hinds, when they make shots they are on balance.”
Eventually, the good ones get the instruction, but it doesn’t come like a bolt of lightning from above. The reason a coach like Huggins will remain patient is that he sees a player working hard to reach his potential. That is what Miles was doing, even at the toughest times.
“I was going through a slump and to break a slump you have to work hard and get in the gym and build your self-confidence,” Miles said. “Because when your confidence is down you don’t feel like believing in yourself and somebody else tells you that you can do it. The support system here has been supportive of me and I fed off them and fed off myself and said yes, I can do it.”
The driving force has to also be right for the player. If he wants to be a star because there may be a pro contract in it and all that goes with that, great, but that is too material a goal to really drive someone. Far better is the player who is looking to succeed so he can be part of a team, part of a successful team in a game he loves and respects.
Miles, it appears, is that kind of player, the kind of player that Da’Sean Butler was and Kevin Jones is now.
“I just want to contribute as much as possible,” Miles said. “If that is getting rebounds, boxing out or assisting, I just want to contribute as much as possible.”
Assisting? Seven of them against Rutgers speaks of an unselfishness that is inbred, not taught.
“I just hit the open guy,” Miles said. “Coach says pass, pass, pass and I was just trying to do what Coach Huggins instructs us to do.”
If this wasn’t a mirage, a one-day wonder, then a number of problems have been fixed for the Mountaineers, a team that was top-heavy in what Jones, Truck Bryant and Deniz Kilicli had to contribute in order for the team to win.
Now it seems, no longer do the Mountaineers have miles to go to be successful. They just have to get Miles to go be successful.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.