It’s hard to imagine a coach being more beloved by his school’s fans than WVU basketball coach Bob Huggins.
Which is not hard to understand. He’s been nominated for Hall of Fame induction. He relates well to the people of the Mountain State. Also, his teams win.
With, that is, a little help from his friends.
West Virginia fans know all about Ronnie Everhart, one of Huggins’ assistants. Those in the state watched him play basketball at Fairmont Senior, followed his college career at Virginia Tech and tracked his coaching career from Georgia Tech, VMI and Tulane to head coaching positions at McNeese State, Northeastern and Duquesne.
Yet understand, too, the roles being played by associate head coach Larry Harrison and assistant Erik Martin. Because Huggins not only understands but also appreciates what they bring.
“They’re terrific,” Huggins said. “Erik played for me and has an understanding of me. And Larry has been with me for a long, long time. Larry understands what I want done and how I think. Erik does because he played for me. I’m blessed, ya know?”
He’s certainly blessed with loyal assistants. But they are also effective assistants.
Consider for a moment WVU’s Sagaba Konate. He might be the Big 12’s most improved player. And when Huggins chose to bench Konate for most of a half against TCU? Maciej “Magic” Bender entered and showed more than a little improvement of his own.
Credit Martin, who is in charge of the pair. He played ball at TCU and later for Huggins at Cincinnati, where he helped the Bearcats to a combined 56-10 record and Final Four and Elite Eight appearances. He played professionally for nine years, many in the Continental Basketball Association.
Martin then started coaching junior high ball at Jacobs Center High in Cincinnati before moving to Cincinnati State and Technical College, where he was an assistant.
Until one fateful day when the phone rang.
“I was coaching at Cincinnati State and I got a call,” Martin said. “It was after our season was over. It was back before cell phones had caller ID. So I answered and said, ‘What’s up?’ He said, ‘This is Huggs.’ I said, ‘What’s up Coach?’ He said, ‘I want you to come work with me at Kansas State.’
“I took the phone and looked at it. I placed it back to my ear and said, ‘Man, stop playing. Who is this?’ He said, ‘This is Huggs. I want you to come and work with me.’ ”
He’s been doing so since 2006.
“Obviously, I’ve been blessed to get this opportunity,” Martin said. “But I’ve played for Huggs. I probably know Huggs better than anyone not named [wife] June or Larry Harrison.”
Yes, Harrison gets second billing only to Huggins’ wife. That’s because the North Carolina native is in his 19th season with the head coach. He was there for Huggins’ Cincinnati glory years, recruiting players like Nick Van Exel, Corie Blount, Dontonio Winfield, Danny Fortson, Ruben Patterson and Kenyon Martin.
“This came about because [former Indiana coach] Tom Crean and I have been really good friends,” Harrison said. “Tom and I used to go barnstorming in basketball camps. When Huggs got the Cincinnati job, Tommy was thinking about being a grad assistant. He asked if I knew Huggs and I said no. He said, ‘Well, I know him and I want you to meet him at the Final Four.’ ”
Huggins and Harrison — who was an assistant at American University — had lunch.
“After the meeting, he said, ‘I’m going to hire you,’ ” Harrison said.
Despite, that is, knowing Harrison had once attended Pitt, WVU’s hated rival.
“He’s not a Pitt guy; he’s a West Virginia guy,” Huggins said. “He just happened to make a bad choice.”
The head coach was deadpanning, yet then turned serious when talking about his longest-tenured assistants.
“What I try to explain to everyone is this [WVU] is a special place,” Huggins said. “Larry Harrison had other job opportunities. He chose to stay here. Erik is going to have other opportunities. But they like it here. They like the people and atmosphere. That’s true for others. Professors come here with the idea they’ll leave — and never leave.”
“I could have taken the Tennessee State job a couple years ago,” Harrison said. “I’ve been involved with schools like Bowling Green. I’ve had people call about interviewing, but it has to be the right place. … I just don’t want to take a job to take a job. And the good thing about here is [Huggins] allows you to coach. We know each other. He gives me a lot of responsibility. So I’m good. I like it here.”
Right beside and with his head coach.