By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
You keep hearing about the greatness of this conference that is the Big East, but as close as you are to it with a team in your town, to say nothing of the championship trophy from last year’s Big East Tournament, you sometimes lose sight of just what this talk is all about.
Because of that we offer here a sample of the kind of thing that goes on regularly within this conference. As the final week of the regular season unfolded, Mountaineer Coach Bob Huggins sat at 98 victories as West Virginia University’s coach.
With two games this week, he had a chance to reach the 100 milestone by winning both games.
We all know that could be a difficult chore, but do we really realize just how difficult?
To reach 100 victories all Huggins had to do is beat Jim Calhoun of Connecticut, a coach who has already been fit with his Hall of Fame ring, and Rick Pitino of Louisville, who surely will be fit for his ring in the not-so-distant future.
Let’s put it another way. Huggins was facing a pair of coaches who had combined for 1,431 career victories – Calhoun’s career record standing at 841-364, a .698 percentage, and Pitino at 591-216 (this does not count his NBA record) for a .732 percentage.
Where else does any coach have to face that in consecutive games?
There is another aspect to add to that, too, and that is what you, the fan get, seeing two games involving three coaches who will have combined for – now you might want to sit down for this – 2,121 career victories when the weekend is over.
Huggins owned 688 of them and with a career winning percentage of .759, which was actually a good bit better than both Calhoun and Pitino.
With this in mind, we approached Huggins to get an idea of what factor or factors might be a constant between the great coaches, the thread that holds them together in a fraternity that requires nothing but greatness to enter.
“Most people think we’re crazy,” Huggins began, only half joking considering the threesome that will grace the Coliseum court this week.
The answer, however, was to buy a moment to consider the question, which did come out of left field in the midst of what was supposed to be a rather ordinary pre-game briefing.
“I think there’s so much single-mindedness of purpose,” Huggins finally decided upon. “You read about Coach (Bob) Knight going down and spending time with Clair Bee and the older innovators. He was very close with Pete Newell. I think if you really know the guys we’re talking about, every one of us has had the opportunity to spend time with people who did what we do very well before us.”
This is not just name dropping by Huggins. These were two of the greatest coaches ever, Bee (a native of Grafton) having won two NIT titles at Long Island University when the NIT was far bigger than the NCAA, and Newell being the man who coached Cal to the 1959 NCAA championship over a WVU team that featured a player named Jerry West.
Huggins, of course, has his own mentors.
“I’ve been very fortunate to spend time around Coach Knight, Louie Carnesseca, Abe Lemons, Al McGuire. Al kind of put his arm around me and took me in. I got to spend a lot of time with Al and talk to him about a lot of things,” Huggins said.
Knowing Huggins and the gregarious McGuire, one would have liked to have been part of those conversations, although he probably would have to stay up far beyond his bedtime to partake in them.
This endless search for knowledge about the game and coaching it can help a determined coach down the path to greatness.
“Those things are valuable. Guys who have that opportunity have a better understanding of history, a better understanding of how the game has evolved, why the game has evolved,” Huggins said.
Huggins got his Xs and Os, however, from his father, Charlie, a legendary high school coach in Ohio.
“Ninety percent of what we do I learned from my dad,” he said, “but it’s not the same game my dad coached. It’s not the game those other guys coached. It’s a different game.”
Because of that you have to take the lessons you learn from the past and adapt it to the modern times, both in the Xs and Os and the psychology of the game. Of course, every now and then you might have to go back to the past, as Huggins did at Rutgers this week, pulling out the 1-3-1 zone.
Do you know how invented that? Clair Bee, in the 1930s or 1940s.
“I think to be able to get to where the guys you’re talking about have been you have an understanding of not just what’s going on now but why it’s going on and you’re able to convey that (to your players).
“It’s amazing, I’ll say something about Al McGuire to our guys and they’ll look like, ‘Who?’ I think that’s a shame.”
E-mail Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org.