A friend offered me a challenge last week — find a photo of Bob Huggins smiling.
I knew they existed. I found one of them that we ran, one of him grinning on his bench, for the preview of last year’s Marshall-West Virginia second-round NCAA Tournament game. But as I started scanning the wire archives, I realized pictures of a smiling WVU men’s basketball coach were in short supply.
I found plenty of them where, according to the photo captions, he “yells,” “screams,” “yelps,” “argues” and “objects.” Not a ton where he “smiles.” And while he does smile on the sideline, he does a whole lot of that other stuff, too.
And that other stuff helps drive a narrative that, this past week, put Huggins atop a dubious list.
The Athletic polled 110 college basketball players on various subjects. One of them was “Which coach would you least like to play for?” At the head of the list, with 9.1 percent of the vote, was Bob Huggins.
“Just too aggressive for me,” an anonymous player said. “That’s not my style. I need to be able to talk to my guy.”
Huggins’ aggressiveness and temper has started to wear on some corners of the fan base as well. I’ve gotten calls and emails saying the coach’s sideline demeanor has become too much. I’m sure players get fatigued when, after being lectured by Huggins following a bad game in the locker room, that lecture continues in front of cameras and microphones in the interview room.
And those pictures of the yelling and screaming and arguing don’t help. No one will ever accuse Huggins, at least the on-court version of him, of being cuddly.
But does everybody remember one of the most famous images of Huggins?
The one where he’s on his knees on the court, cradling Da’Sean Butler’s head and consoling him after Butler blew out his knee versus Duke in the Final Four?
How many photos can you find of a college basketball coach doing that?
There was another one in that game, of Huggins bear-hugging Kevin Jones and Wellington Smith after the final horn. And another one of Huggins embracing Devin Williams at the interview table following an NCAA Tournament lost to Kentucky. And another one of Huggins hugging Jevon Carter on his senior night.
There are times his voice will crack and his eyes will well up when he talks about his alma mater, its fans and the people of West Virginia. You could hear the break in his voice when, after winning the 2010 Big East tournament, he said, “This is very special for me, because it’s West Virginia.”
His players’ voices will quiver when they talk about him. Following their 2018 Sweet Sixteen loss, you could hear the emotion in Carter when he said Huggins “saw something in me that a lot of people didn’t.” The same for Daxter Miles when he called Huggins “a great coach, man, a great person off the court.”
Do you think Carter or Miles, even when Huggins praised them for never being a problem, were immune to a Huggins tongue-lashing after a mistake?
Huggins’ annual fish fry benefits the Norma Mae Huggins Cancer Research Endowment Fund, named after his late mother, the WVU Cancer Institute and the Remember the Miners Scholars Program, which provides scholarships to miners, dependents of miners and students pursuing higher education in the mining industry.
There’s more to Bob Huggins than the yelling and the screaming. There’s an obvious love for the state and a devotion to keeping the WVU basketball program at an elite level, correcting the problems that cause the program to tumble.
That’s not to say those red-faced, open-mouthed photos of Huggins don’t paint part of his picture. They absolutely do, and it’s not always a good look. And he’s not the only college basketball coach catching heat for a hair-trigger temper these days.
Michigan State coach Tom Izzo was criticized for his over-the-top reaction to an Aaron Henry mistake in the Spartans’ NCAA Tournament win over Bradley. It actually made him one of the runners-up, along with Kentucky’s John Calipari and South Carolina’s Frank Martin, in the “coach you’d least like to play for” poll.
But Izzo has his team back in the Final Four. And both Izzo and Calipari were runners-up in “coach you’d most like to play for” poll.
What some players avoid is what others embrace. While Huggins’ coaching style hasn’t worked for plenty of players, it did work for players like Miles, Carter, Butler, Nate Adrian and more. They see more than the flailing arms and booming brow-beatings. They see the smiles and hugs, too.
That’s the full picture of Bob Huggins, even if that picture isn’t always easy to find.