I didn't meet Bob Huggins until I was an adult. But I feel like I've known him my whole life. And I used to hate him. Man, I used to hate Bob Huggins so much.
I grew up just outside of Memphis, you see?
This was back before the Grizzlies moved to town, when the most significant sports franchise in the city, by a wide margin, was the Memphis Tigers basketball team. My parents loved the Tigers. Seemed like everybody loved the Tigers. So I also loved the Tigers -- first when Keith Lee was the star, then Elliot Perry, then Penny Hardaway.
I wanted Memphis to win big every season.
And the person most responsible for preventing that from happening, year after year after year, was then-Cincinnati coach Bob Huggins -- most memorably during the 1991-92 season when his Bearcats beat my Tigers twice in the regular season, then again in the Great Midwest Conference Tournament title game, then one last time for good measure in the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament in Kansas City ... by 31 freakin' points!
I despised Bob Huggins that season.
He ruined my year.
I told him as much the other day.
"And I loved every minute of it," Huggins said with a laugh.
I was 14 years old when that 1991-92 season began. Huggs was 38. So we've both aged 25 years and been through a lot since then, not all of it good -- though I suppose that's true of any human who was alive in 1991 and is still breathing today. Either way, the profession I chose created a world in which our paths have, for more than a decade now, crossed often. We've watched stupid AAU games in gyms together. We've ordered strong tall drinks in bars together. We've laughed and traded stories, texted and talked. And I say all that only so that I can say this: I now know Bob Huggins fairly well and I really like him a lot.
He's one of my favorite college basketball coaches.
If you knew him, you'd feel the same.
And I can't wait to watch him win his 800th game this weekend.
West Virginia will play UMKC Saturday afternoon, at which point a capacity crowd is expected to fill WVU Coliseum and witness history. Because when the final buzzer sounds, barring a massive upset, Bob Huggins will become just the 10th person ever to spend at least 10 years as a Division I men's coach and win 800 games at the four-year college level. The other men on the list are mostly giants: Mike Krzyzewski, Bob Knight, Jim Boeheim, Dean Smith, Adolph Rupp, Jim Calhoun, Jim Phelan, Eddie Sutton and, most recently, Rollie Massimino.
Next up: Bob Huggins.
And I've apparently thought about it more than he's thought about it.
"I haven't thought about it other than when people ask me about it," Huggins said. "I just don't live my life that way. I live in the present."
But you'll appreciate it someday, right?
"I'm sure I will when I'm done," Huggins answered. "But I don't think about it now."
But I've been thinking about it a lot. And it really is something to be celebrated because it's an awesome achievement by a mostly misunderstood man who's been one of college basketball's most consistent winners for more than three decades despite having never worked at a Blue Blood program.
Bob Huggins was never supposed to be here.
And that sentence has multiple meanings.
First and foremost, a coach who has only worked at Walsh, Akron, Cincinnati, Kansas State and West Virginia isn't supposed to surpass the 800-win mark under any circumstances. Or average 23.3 victories per season. Or coach 12 All-Americans and 18 NBA Draft picks. Or win 13 regular-season league titles. Or earn National Coach of the Year honors six different times. Or make two Final Fours.
Those jobs aren't built for those things.
But Huggins has achieved them all anyway.
But it's not even the most remarkable thing about Huggins being on the verge of making history in December 2016. Because the most remarkable thing about Huggins being on the verge of making history in December 2016 is that a massive heart attack nearly killed him in September 2002.
"I died twice," Huggins said. "They shocked me back to life twice."
Which is true, by the way.
Scary and true.
Somehow, Huggins survived that and recovered quickly. He was coaching again within weeks and back to being his old self not too long afterward.
"When I'm around him in the summer, he's the same Bob Huggins," said Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy, who worked for Huggins at Cincinnati. "My father has been through a heart attack. My father-in-law just went through one. It shocks you in those first few days because your own mortality flashes before your eyes. But I think, as time went on, Huggs got back to being who he is."
At this, Kennedy chuckled.
"For better or for worse," he added. "As you know well."
Make that as everybody knows well. And that's the other thing I wanted to highlight about Huggins -- how he's the son of a coach, a coach's coach, a man who enjoys few things more than sitting at a table with people who love basketball, sipping drinks and telling stories. He's earned legend status in the coaching fraternity, proof being that when we polled coaches this summer and asked which other coach they'd most like to have a beer with, the overwhelming winner was Bob Huggins.
"I've seen a lot of, I'll call them victims, who want to have a beer with Huggs but don't understand that's just the beginning," Kennedy said with a laugh. "It does not end there. You have to put your big-boy pants on if you're going to sit at our table."
Added Oklahoma State coach Brad Underwood, also a former Huggins assistant: "People don't actually go to drink with Huggs. They go to laugh with him. The guy's hilarious. He makes you laugh. And he likes people who make him laugh."
This is what I meant when I mentioned Huggins is mostly misunderstood. If all you've done is watch him coach, you might think he's a rough-and-gruff maniac. "But he's only that way when he's coaching because his will is driving that team," Kennedy said. "Off the court, he's laid back, soft-spoken. You have to really pay attention when he speaks or you won't even hear him. He's a completely different guy off the court."
"And most people don't know how smart he is," Underwood added. "Huggs' intelligence is under-appreciated. ... And he's so falsely perceived by most. He became the black hat [of college basketball] because, early on at Cincinnati, he did things differently; he won with junior college players when junior college players were taboo. So he became the black hat. But that's not right. That's not him. Anybody who has been around Huggs and who has gotten to know Huggs, or worked for him or played for him, knows that he'd give them the shirt off his back. He's so loyal. I know very few people who are as loyal as Huggs."
I asked Huggins about the so-called black hat assigned to him.
"You know this better than anybody, man," he said. "I came in at Cincinnati, and because I had all those junior college guys, I was UNLV of the East. They put a black hat on me. Was it fair? No. Did the people saying that know me? No."
And did it bother you?
"You just get used to it," Huggins answered. "After a while, you just get numb."
The one obvious thing that separates Bob Huggins from the other 800-game winners -- besides the fact that most of them have coached at Blue Blood programs, and he hasn't -- is that most of them have won national championships, and he hasn't. Which brings me to the 1999-2000 season. Huggins had the best team in the country that year, everybody agreed. And then, randomly and cruelly, Wooden Award winner Kenyon Martin suffered a broken leg in the Conference USA Tournament.
I've often wondered what would've happened if that never happened.
I asked Huggins if he's ever wondered.
"I don't have to wonder," he said. "I know what would've happened. Big fella wasn't gonna let us lose. ... And, yeah, the Kenyon thing still bothers me."
From there, Huggins told a story about how Martin came to him after his junior season and was considering entering the NBA Draft. Huggins did the homework and ultimately told his star player that he'd likely be selected around 20th.
"So Kenyon said to me, 'What do you think?' And I said, 'Honestly, I think if you come back you could be the first pick in next year's draft. Or at least top five. But that's up to you. That's not my decision. What do you want to do?'" Huggins recalled. "And Kenyon looked at me and said, 'Coach, I want to win a national championship.' That's why he came back. And when I went out on that floor, after he got hurt, what I never heard come out of his mouth was 'What about my career? What have I done? Should I have left last year?' There was none of that. When I went out on that floor, all Kenyon said was, "Why, Huggs? Why? All I wanted to do is win a national championship for you.' And that bothers you now. That gets you."
Martin, by the way, still became the No. 1 pick of the 2000 NBA Draft.
He spent 15 years in the NBA.
"I was doing a thing at the Final Four years ago with [ex-Louisville coach] Denny Crum, and a guy asked, 'What's it take to win a national title?'" Huggins recalled. "Denny said, 'You have to be lucky. And you can't be unlucky.' And then he turned to me and said, 'And this guy right here's been the unluckiest coach in our era.'"
Bob Huggins doesn't view himself that way, though.
That's important to note.
Does he think he'd have one or maybe even two national titles if not for unfortunate and ill-timed injuries to key players? Yes, absolutely he does. But how could a man who is coaching at his alma mater, in his hometown, in front of siblings and friends from elementary school, consider himself unlucky? How could a man still operating at the highest level of the sport -- West Virginia is 8-1 and ranked 12th in the AP poll -- consider himself unlucky? How could a man who lived after being shocked back to life twice 14 years ago consider himself unlucky?
Answer: He can't.
So Bob Huggins doesn't.
He just wakes up every day, heads to work and prepares to win the next game.
And he's damn good at it.
That's the point.
Yeah, he might've ruined my childhood by using Nick Van Exel and a bunch of tough dudes just like Nick Van Exel to beat my favorite team over and over and over again. But I'm over that. So when I look at Bob Huggins now, I don't see a man dealing demoralizing losses to my hometown school. When I look at Bob Huggins now, what I see is one of the best to ever do it. I see a future Hall of Famer. I see a smart and funny guy who is widely respected within his profession.
Mostly, I see a coach worth toasting.
First round's on him.