Someone who worked with Bob Huggins for many years told me that they feared Huggins would die on the basketball court — that a man who could neither give up the game he loved nor his infamous lifestyle would eventually succumb to both.
The apparent end to Huggins’ decorated college coaching career wasn’t so tragic, thankfully, but it was still pretty sad. The head coach of West Virginia men’s basketball, 69, resigned on Saturday, a day after he was arrested and charged with drink driving. The incident came just over a month after Huggins’ job was jeopardized when he twice used homophobic slurs in a live interview with a Cincinnati radio station, and nearly two decades after the 2004 DUI precipitated Huggins’ ignominious ouster as coach. From the Cincinnati Bearcats.
A penchant for alcohol and foul language has long been a part of Huggins’ folklore. The guy hasn’t coached in Cincinnati since 2005, but every Bearcats fan has a random Huggins story from his time in the city, often about the off-color joke they heard him tell at a club or banquet or the night they witnessed him close the bar. In retellings of charity, it’s been a likable part of everyone’s personality. In light of recent developments, it seemed like an ominous harbinger of what was to come.
Regardless, this final misstep isn’t a plot twist. As in Morgantown, Huggins is still respected by many in Cincinnati for a 14-game winning streak in the NCAA Tournament, including the 1992 final, and putting a deserted program back on the map over the next 16 seasons. But it’s hard to think of Huggins and the Bearcats without thinking about how that ended: a series of out-of-court embarrassments, including a 2004 DUI, and eventually banishment by then-president Nancy Zimpher, who made no attempts to hide her disdain.
O’Neill: Just room for sadness in the latest issue of Bob Huggins
Huggins rebounded. He was too good a coach to get another chance, first for one season at Kansas State and then 16 more at West Virginia, the native son and favorite back at his alma mater. Buoyed by his continued success on the court — another 11 NCAA Tournament spots and another Final Four appearance in 2010 — this homecoming provided Huggins with some cover and safety. The weary mix of Huggins’ profession and his vices was self-evident. He suffered a heart attack in 2002 on a recruiting trip and collapsed on the field during a game in 2017. Still, he hasn’t slowed down. As many sports columnists have noted in recent days, he had a bar installed in his office at WVU. His reputation preceded him, but over time became part of his charming legacy, the hard-living, hard-earned trainer – Huggy Bear. Right up to the final Shakespeare chapter inevitably.
First, there was the ridiculous and homophobic interview in May. What seemed like an inexpressible insult to many was so shamefully on the nose to be the last straw for Huggins, as he randomly and incomprehensibly chatted with a controversial daytime talk show host about former rival Xavier and the Crosstown Shootout, at Old Town Sports. Where Huggins hasn’t worked for 18 years but still looms disconcertingly. All those familiar circles coalesced into a weird Venn-shame scheme, but Huggins survived, slapped on the wrist with a three-game suspension, a $1 million pay cut, and training sessions with WVU’s LGBTQ+ center.
The doomed retinue came less than six weeks later. Another DUI, this one just before 8:30 p.m. Friday night in Pittsburgh courtesy of an SUV blocking traffic with a flat tire and Huggins unable to maneuver safely off the road. According to the police report, Huggins was tested on a breathalyzer and blew 0.210, more than double the legal limit in Pennsylvania.
“My recent actions do not represent the university’s values or the leadership expected in this role,” Huggins said in a statement announcing his resignation. “While I’ve always tried to honorably represent our university, it’s all – and I – let me down.”
West Virginia Coaching Candidates: Could John Beilin Return to Morgantown?
Public figures tend to be defined by their worst moments, but like most of us, they are usually made up of much more than that. The mistakes Huggins made don’t undo all the good he’s accomplished, both professionally and personally. 934 coaching wins and a career Hall of Fame. The civic pride he stirred and the lifelong fans that begot him, many of whom still line the seats of Cincinnati’s Fifth Arena and WVU Coliseum. All the millions of dollars and awareness Huggins has helped raise for cancer treatment and research in honor of his late mother, Norma Mae. The lives of countless coaches, players, and men are all grown up and still growing, he has been positively affected and changed for the better.
This effect is real. Nor does he excuse his wrongdoings—hurtful comments, selfish and potentially harmful actions—or the demons Huggins wrestles with. to echo othersIt’s possible to hope someone gets the help they need while also holding them accountable for bad decisions. It all becomes a real legacy for Huggins: a pair of DUIs 20 years apart, resulting in lashings of homophobic and anti-Catholic comments on the radio, and many additional stories to reaffirm these instances have been dismissed as mishaps or coincidences.
At some point, it became unlikely that Huggins would ever come out on his own terms. That’s how it would have ended, a man fueled by his constant drive for results on the court that was blighted by off-field flaws that kept catching up to him time and time again. Sad, yes, but also self-inflicted. And it can be prevented. It can be predicted.
Huggins could walk away with one of the most successful and famous coaching careers in college basketball history. Instead, he will be remembered for all the things that came with him.
(Photo: John E. Moore III/Getty Images)
“Alcohol enthusiast. Twitter ninja. Tv lover. Falls down a lot. Hipster-friendly coffee geek.”