Bob Huggins sounded tired, maybe even a little bit sick — he coughed occasionally as he spoke. He clearly was feeling some late-winter doldrums.
“I’ve had better years,” he said, forcing a laugh. “It hasn’t been easy trying to get this team going. Plus, I’ve had a cough and a cold for about three weeks now. Feel a little better today but hardly feel great.”
Huggins is in his 12th season coaching West Virginia. His return to his alma mater has been an almost unqualified success. The Mountaineers have been to nine NCAA tournaments, five Sweet 16s and, in 2010, the Final Four.
This year, barring a miracle run in the Big 12 tournament, there will be no NCAA appearance; there won’t even be an NIT bid. After Saturday’s 92-80 loss at Oklahoma, West Virginia is 11-18 overall, 3-13 in conference play.
Hardly Huggins-like numbers. In 36 previous seasons as a college coach, he had three losing seasons, one of them in his first season at Division II Walsh College. He has 855 career victories. He has coached two schools to the Final Four, the other being Cincinnati in 1992.
Losing is not something that comes easily to him.
“It’s no fun,” he said. “When we struggled [finishing 13-19] six years ago, we were playing with a lot of young kids who hadn’t figured out how hard you have to play for at least 40 minutes to win. There’s been some of that this season, but the losing has been tough to take.”
He paused. “They’re young. I’m not. Maybe that’s the problem.”
Huggins is 65 and a survivor of a massive heart attack in 2002, but he’s not close to retiring. He was on the road recruiting Wednesday, hours after a triple-overtime victory over TCU. He has told West Virginia he needs to be on a four-year contract so he can honestly tell recruits he plans to coach them throughout their college careers.
“I still love it,” he said. “Even in a year like this one, I still love it. As long as I love it, I’ll keep doing it.”
Huggins had an inkling this season might not be an easy one. He lost his starting backcourt, Jevon Carter and Daxter Miles Jr., off a team that went 26-11 and played Villanova tougher in the Sweet 16 than any other team the Wildcats faced during their run to the national title.
“I honestly thought if we hadn’t gotten into foul trouble we could win that game,” Huggins said. “They were very, very good, but so were we.”
Losing senior guards — especially Carter, who was generally considered the best defensive guard in the country — was bound to hurt. But things got worse quickly. Huggins suspended 6-foot-9 freshman Derek Culver in November because “he just wasn’t doing the things we expect our players to do. He had to learn that you go to class, you go to study halls and you show up when you’re supposed to show up.”
By the time Culver was allowed to return, the team’s best player, junior center Sagaba Konate, had gone down with a knee injury. Konate was averaging 13.6 points and 8.0 rebounds, and he gave the Wildcats a presence inside on defense. Initially, he was supposed to be out for a month. He hasn’t played since the eighth game of the season and isn’t expected back.
Then starting point guard James “Beetle” Bolden went down with an ankle injury, and last month, Huggins threw two starters, Esa Ahmad and Wes Harris, off the team.
“Four starters we’ve lost for different reasons,” he said. “There aren’t many teams that can handle losing that much during the course of a season. The kids who are playing are learning as they go. We probably should have won that TCU game a lot easier than we did. But at least we won it. I was glad for them because it’s been a tough winter for them, too.”
Huggins said he’s lucky to be surrounded by assistant coaches who played for him or, in the case of top assistant Larry Harrison, have worked with him for 20 years.
“I can vent to them,” he said. “I never take it home with me, but I have guys around me who understand when I get upset and, more important, understand why I get upset. That helps. It has certainly helped me this season.”
He’s as intense as ever, sitting on his stool next to the bench — it’s easier on his knees and ankles — letting officials know when they make a mistake and letting his players know what he expects.
“Funny thing is, I really like officials,” he said. “Sometimes I actually feel sorry for them because, the way the rules are now, it’s almost impossible for them to officiate the game the way the NCAA wants it officiated and still do a good job. My guess is during games they don’t understand that I actually feel for them. I suspect I don’t come across that way.”
Huggins’s career hasn’t been without controversy, but most of his issues pale next to those of some already in the Hall of Fame. He admits he would love to be enshrined — Eddie Sutton, a finalist this year, is the only coach with more Division I victories who has not been inducted — but Huggins doesn’t worry about it.
“Honestly the only time I think about it is when someone brings it up,” he said. “I try to only worry about things I can control, and that’s not one of them.” He paused again. “I’m a lot more worried about getting this basketball team back to where I think it should be — for the rest of this season and beyond.”
Huggins is convinced West Virginia will be back next winter. Konate might turn pro, or he might return. Culver is emerging as a star. And one of West Virginia’s two early signees is Oscar Tshiebwe, a 6-9 standout whom Huggins calls “the best high school rebounder in the country.”
“We’ll be as good as anyone in the Big 12 next season,” Huggins said. “I really believe that. We’ve had a lot of things go wrong this season, and I’d be lying to you if I told you it hasn’t been tough — very tough. It hasn’t been any fun to go through at all. But the experience the younger guys are getting combined with getting healthy and the new guys coming in are going to make us very good again next year.”
Huggins has no plans to walk away anytime soon.
“I’m a basketball coach,” he said. “It’s what I do, and, fortunately, it’s what I love to do. I’m not going to be one of those guys they have to carry out. I’ll know when it’s time. But it’s not time yet — not even close.”
For more by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/feinstein.