By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
There is a side to Bob Huggins that the public seldom sees, for their vision of him is snarling on the West Virginia University sidelines of a basketball game, be it at an official or one of his own players.
But the other side is as warm and cuddly as … well, yes, a Huggy bear … a man with a heart, one he discovered one dark afternoon in the Greater Pittsburgh International Airport when he was stricken with a heart attack that did everything but take his life away.
The flirtation with death took nothing away from Huggins’ competitive nature, changed not a bit about the way he lived his life, but it did bubble to the top a charitable, caring side, one that fills what once was vacant corner of his life.
And so it was, in the aftermath of beating DePaul on Tuesday night in the Coliseum in as important a game as his struggling team had played all season, he took time at the start of his meeting with the media to talk about an off-court victory that he found to be every bit as important as the game had just won.
As impossible as it may sound, Huggins was offering his thanks to the media, mostly the online group who became involved in his latest charity endeavor — the Infiniti Coaches’ Charity Challenge.
This challenge, conduct via an online vote, will bring $100,000 to the winning coach, and Huggins had just advanced to the Final Four, having pulled off what Drew Franklin of Kentucky Sports Radio termed “the biggest upset in the history of the Internet.”
All Huggins had done was defeat John Calipari of Kentucky to move into the Final Four.
Not that that’s such an upset considering their basketball wars, Huggins having won all but two of them including one two years ago that advanced his team to the “real” Final Four in the NCAA Tournament.
That one gratified the ego.
This one gratified the soul.
“To think, we beat the Big Blue Nation in Kentucky … it was really back and forth in the final days and now we’re in the Final Four,” he said.
Back and forth doesn’t describe the regional final, for when the final votes were counted, Huggins had collected 38,275 votes to 37,921 for Calipari, as close as aDa’Sean Butler buzzer beater.
It took all the Mountaineer nation to push Huggins to the top, with a little help from their friends in Louisville. Apparently, the good West Virginia folks went onto Louisville message boards and urged Kentucky’s greatest rivals to vote for Huggins and against Calipari.
Nick Lachey, the singer, songwriter, entertainer, television personality and former husband of Jessica Simpson, to say nothing of being a big-time Huggins’ booster during his Cincinnati days (ASIDE TO HUGGINS, WHO CHALLENGED YOURS TRULY BY SAYING THIS OLD FOGEY HAD NO IDEA WHO NICK LACHEY WAS — See, I really do … now), also tweeted his fans to vote for Huggins.
Either way, Huggins moves forward.
“You get $5,000 for being in the Final Four. When I read that I thought five grand for charity, that’s a helluva deal,” Huggins said. “Then you get into it and you get a little more competitive. I mean, you get $100,000 for your charity. A hundred thousand dollars is a lot of money for a charity.”
And Huggins charity is one that is near and dear to his heart, the Norma Rae Huggins Cancer Research Endowment at the Mary Babb Randolph Cancer Center here in Morgantown. It is named in honor of Huggins’ mother, whom he lost to cancer.
“All of you have been affected by cancer in one form or another and lost loved ones to the terrible disease,” Huggins said, less than four month after my son, Rob, succumbed to the disease in Cincinnati, where he had become … a Kentucky fan. “Our cancer center is doing wonderful things. They received another grant a short time ago. We just need people to vote.”
The Final Four is composed of Huggins, Missouri Coach Frank Haith, Brigham Young coach Dave Rose and Ohio State coach Thad Motta.
“We were third the last time I looked,” Huggins said. “Third gets you five grand; second gets you five grand. So why would we be second or third? We might as well win and get the hundred grand.”
The voting goes on for the next two weeks and you can vote daily on www.ESPN.com/ Infiniti. The winning coach will be announced March 9.
So go to it, and remember, use the motto they use in a Chicago election … “Vote early, vote often.”
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/bhertzel.