WEST VIRGINIA basketball coach Bob Huggins tries to publicly shrug off Thursday's visit to Wichita, Kan.He's taking his 4-2 Mountaineer team to play his former team, 5-0 Kansas State, in a 9 p.m. matchup in the Wildcat Classic at Intrust Bank Arena."Business, man," Huggins said on Tuesday. "You do things like this hoping it helps your NCAA tournament resume. Of course, if we play as poorly as we did the other night it doesn't help."The "other night" WVU fell 75-62 to now-No. 17 Mississippi State.
Thursday's game, however, won't be just another night. Huggins is headed close to Manhattan, Kan., where he jump-started a Wildcats program that's won 100 games in the four years since his departure to his alma mater. K-State has advanced to the postseason each year since he left, three times to the NCAA event.So, even though Huggins left after just one season (2006-07), the foundation he laid is expected to translate into a warm reception."I think our fans will be thrilled to have him here," said K-State coach Frank Martin in a phone interview. "I think they'll show him how thankful they are for what he did here."I normally wouldn't play a game against a good friend. We could have had another home game. But [Huggins] deserves the right to be here and feel [the warmth]."Charleston is expected to receive benefits from this WVU visit next season when Kansas State hits the Civic Center. ("I'd like to give the people of Charleston a big-time game once in a while," explained Huggins. "The people there have been very good to us.")There are two stories, however, to Thursday's game. There's the return of Huggins to Kansas."Wonderful people," Huggins said of his brief stay in the state. "Great people. To that point, they were the best people I'd ever worked for. There wasn't one day that somebody didn't walk into my office and say, 'Coach, what can we do to help you?' From the [athletic director] and school president on down, they tried to help."The first day our season tickets went on sale, we were sold out. And it's like here [in West Virginia], where people have to drive to get to games. I asked for floor seating and they did that. I asked for suites, loge seating, and they put them in, although it wasn't finished until I left. Great people."The better story of this game, however, might take place behind the scenes. It might center on a pseudo-family gathering.
Consider your best friends. Then consider taking a team and trying to whip one of those best friends before a crowd of 15,000 and an ESPN2 audience. That's the backdrop of this game."There's no one better," Martin said of Huggins. "I'd take a bullet for him right now if that's what needed to be done.
"He's as good and honest of a human being as has ever come into my life.""Frank," Huggins said, "is one of my very best friends."The relationship goes back further than Huggins remembers. Martin said the WVU coach was giving a coaching clinic many years ago when the Wildcats' coach, then a high school coach, was so affected he went up and introduced himself.Martin, by the way, is quite a success story. A son of Cuban immigrants, he grew up in Miami and worked two jobs to attend Florida International. One of those jobs was as a bouncer, where he encountered gunfire after tossing patrons out for fighting. He decided then and there to go into coaching full-time and worked his way up to coach first at North Miami [Fla.] High, then Miami Senior High."I have great respect for what he did there," Huggins said. "He'd have five or six Division I players on a team and got them to play together, play as a team.
"In a way, it's harder to do that than what we do here. All were competing against each other for D-I scholarships. But he had absolute control. They played as a team. They played the right way. And they had a great time."
"Hugs never got one of my players, even though he tried," Martin recalled. "Yet he gave me my break in this business."Huggins actually helped Martin twice. Back in 2000, Martin was on the Northeastern staff under Rudy Keeling, who was subsequently dismissed. Now-Duquesne coach Ronnie Everhart the took over the Huskies in 2002."When Ronnie got that job, I told him he should hang on to Frank," Huggins said."He went to bat for me," Martin said. "He tried to convince Ronnie to keep me."Everhart did and the pair had success, recruiting and coaching the likes of Dallas Maverick world champ J.J. Barea before Huggins broke up the band by calling Martin to work for him at Cincinnati. After Huggins was dismissed at UC, Martin stayed to work for Andy Kennedy - until Huggins landed the gig at K-State and called again in 2006.The rest is Wildcat history. Huggins provided the spark before leaving for Morgantown. Martin landed his current job and the team flourished."[Huggins] fought like heck to get the [K-State] administration to hire me," Martin said. "Then, knowing we had [Michael] Beasley, [Bill] Walker and [Jacob] Pullen, he could have said, 'Hey, let's all go together to West Virginia.' That's what 99 percent of the coaches out there today would have done."But that's not what he did. He made sure all of our staff stayed in place. He didn't try to take the players."That's what people don't understand. That's what people don't know. He doesn't fit the persona the media tries to paint. He's the best human being in this business."And, without question, Huggins is Martin's mentor."He's my sounding board," Martin said. "He's my voice I go to when I need to make a decision. I'm grateful the Good Man upstairs put him in my life."Martin says he considers Huggins family, along with Everhart and Kennedy. "That's our little nucleus," said the K-State coach."We became friends through basketball," Martin said, "and because of basketball, we became family."So, yes, Thursday's game will be an important non-conference matchup for the teams. It will be a return to Kansas for Huggins.But understand this one also has family ties.Reach Mitch Vingle at 304-348-4827, email@example.com
or follow him at twitter.com/MitchVingle.