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In Defense of Huggy Bear

Bobby Huggins better represents college basketball than Coach K.

Mike Krzyzewski likes to boast that he’s “a leader who happens to coach basketball.” But it may be more accurate to say that he’s a corporate pitchman who happens to be a leader who happens to coach basketball. Turn on your television, especially in March, and there’s a good chance you’ll see Coach K hawking everything from State Farm insurance polices to Chevrolet cars to the Guitar Hero videogame to DePuy artificial hips  (of which he has two). Even his little homily about leadership has been repurposed into a commercial for American Express.

In tomorrow night’s Final Four, Krzyzewski’s Duke team will play West Virginia, which is coached by Bob Huggins, who, it’s safe to say, will never appear in an AmEx ad. With his slicked-back-yet-somehow-still-feathered hair, boxer’s nose, hulking physique, and penchant for wearing sweatsuits during games, Huggins is the rare college coach these days who doesn’t look like he belongs on Wall Street. Rather than Gordon Gekko, he brings to mind Biff from Back to the Future—or a loan shark. His personality, which has earned him the sarcastic nickname “Huggy Bear,” matches his appearance. During games he spews profanity at his players (“A fucking midget is whipping your ass!”), which, admittedly, doesn’t make him that different from lots of coaches. But then, after the games, when most coaches go out of their way to charm reporters, Huggins stays his prickly self, answering their questions in a begrudging monotone (Q: “Are you excited?” A: “Can’t you tell?”) or cursing them out like they were his players. And then there’s Huggins’s controversial reputation, created not only by his players’ low graduation rates (zero percent some years) and lengthy rap sheets (back in the ’90s one was charged with punching a police horse ), but his own brush with the law: In 2004, he pled no contest to DUI charges. In other words, Huggins is not the kind of guy Fortune 500 companies want pitching their products during commercial breaks. Indeed, the only time I can recall seeing Huggins on TV outside the context of a basketball game was when the dashboard-cam footage of him failing a field sobriety test was getting heavy play on ESPN.

And yet, despite all of this—or, rather, because of it—Huggins is a surprisingly refreshing figure* in the world of big-time college basketball, which is currently filled with coaches who are constantly pretending to be so much more than just coaches. Krzyzewski, of course, is the most egregious example of this—with his whole “leader of men” schtick that, in addition to his lucrative endorsement career, has led to the creation of an actual Coach K Center on Leadership and Ethics at Duke’s business school. But pretty much every successful college coach these days now considers himself a guru who has valuable lessons to impart about not just how to beat a 2-3 zone but how to have a successful business and successful life. To pull a couple titles from the ever growing bookshelf of coach lit, consider Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun’s A Passion to Lead: Seven Leadership Secrets for Success in Business, Sports, and Life, which, presumably, offers a slightly quicker path to success than Louisville coach Rick Pitino’s Lead to Succeed: Ten Traits of Great Leadership in Business and Life. Even a rogue like Kentucky’s John Calipari—the only coach in college basketball history to have Final Fours vacated at two different schools due to rules violations—has recast himself as a philanthropist , starting his own charitable foundation for children and organizing a “Hoops for Haiti” telethon that earned him a congratulatory call from President Obama.

But Huggins is a coach with absolutely no pretenses. His father was a high school coach in Ohio and after Huggins finished playing college basketball at West Virginia—where he was a two-time Academic All-American and from which he graduated magna cum laude—he went into the coaching business himself, taking a job at tiny Walsh College. Being a coach was all he ever wanted to be. And, even now, three decades later and at the top of his profession—when sanding off his rough edges could bring him lucrative endorsement deals and greater acclaim—that remains the case. The 13 books Huggins has written have titles like Building a Man-to-Man Defense and Motion Offense: The Principles of the Five Man Open Post. If he ever held a telethon, it would probably be to raise money to pay for his players’ bail—unless he embezzled the proceeds to buy himself more sweatsuits first.

Of course, that brings us to the question of Huggins’s ethics. In 2005, he was fired from the University of Cincinnati, where he rebuilt the school’s basketball program and took it to 14 straight NCAA appearances, because the school’s new president was embarrassed by his—and his team’s—off-the-court problems. But a year later, Kansas State gave him a 5-year, $4.4 million contract to turn its program around, and after he did that in one season, West Virginia hired him for even more money to coach its team. Which just goes to show that, no matter how much Huggins’s colleagues like to pretend that their jobs are about more important things than winning and losing, they’re not. The other day, the New York Times' Pete Thamel recalled Royce Waltman's comments upon being removed as Indiana State’s basketball coach three seasons ago for lack of on-court success: “If you get fired for cheating you can get rehired, but if you get fired for losing it’s like you have leprosy. Young coaches need to bear that in mind. Cheating and not graduating players won’t get you in trouble, but that damn losing will.”

Huggins’s career is living proof of that. And that’s why he is a much more accurate reflection of the state of big-time college basketball than his colleagues who claim to be leaders of men and business gurus and philanthropists. Unlike the corporate pitchman he’ll be coaching against tomorrow night, Huggins really is about truth in advertising.

* -- I do acknowledge the slight possibility that my warm feelings toward Huggins may just be a little warmer than usual due to the identity of his team’s next opponent. But I swear I feel this way about him even when he’s not playing Duke.

Jason Zengerle is a senior editor of The New Republic.

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