Column - Huggins happy to see friend win first title
Published: Tuesday, April 10, 2012
Updated: Tuesday, April 10, 2012 02:04
Over the course of his career, Bob Huggins has made a lot of friends, but not many of those relationships go back as far as the one West Virginia’s head coach has with Kentucky head coach John Calipari.
The two got to know each other through Huggins’ teammate at WVU, Joe Fryz – who played high school basketball with Calipari. The two stayed friends during Calipari’s time as an assistant at Kansas and Pittsburgh.
Once Calipari took his first head-coaching job at Massachusetts, a unique rivalry was born.
They’ve competed head-to-head for 20 years now as head coaches, chasing the ultimate goal of getting to cut down the nets at the end of the season. Huggins has made it to two Final Fours – including one in 2010 to which he had to beat one of Cal’s best teams to get – but hasn’t been able to make it to the title game yet.
Calipari, on the other hand, has made four trips to the Final Four with three different teams during that time. His fourth trip ended with the Kentucky coach holding that coveted national championship trophy after a 67-59 win over Kansas.
You better believe Huggins was watching his friend.
"I enjoyed it very much," Huggins said.
"(Kansas head coach) Bill Self’s a friend too, but Bill and I don’t go back nearly as far as Cal and I."
The two might seem different on the surface.
Most think of Calipari in one of his finest suits on the sidelines, while Huggins dons his finest sweat suit.
When they speak, Huggins is much more subdued than Calipari.
But they aren’t that different at all.
They both grew up with a rich background in basketball. They’re gym rats and, because of that, have been able to become two of the most successful coaches in college basketball.
"Cal and I both have strong ties with the past," Huggins said. "We went to dinner with (former UNLV head coach Jerry Tarkanian) last summer in Vegas. We both appreciate, and kind of relish, being able to spend time with guys like Larry Brown, Tark and the late Charlie Spoonhour.
"We appreciate the past and what the people before us did."
They’re both misunderstood.
Huggins is often criticized for hid DUI received in 2004 and for not graduating players at Cincinnati, which has changed a lot during his time at West Virginia.
Calipari has gained a negative reputation because of the violations his programs at Massachusetts and Memphis received that resulted in his first two Final Four appearances being vacated – although he was never implicated by the NCAA in the incidents.
Always one of the most tireless recruiters in the nation, Calipari has routinely brought in some of the nation’s best recruiting classes during his time at Memphis and Kentucky. For that, people have discredited his coaching ability – saying it’s the talented players, not the coach, who is leading the teams to victory.
"The people who say that have a very poor sense of history and obviously have never tried to coach," Huggins said. "When Cal went to UMass, they were just absolutely miserable. What he did there was incredible. Then he went to Memphis and did an unbelievable job there.
"And he coached his butt off at both of those places."
This year’s Kentucky team could easily lose its top six players to the NBA draft, including five that are either freshmen or sophomores.
While a lot of coaches would shudder at the thought of losing that much talent at the same time, Calipari embraces it.
"What I’m hoping is there’s six first-rounders on this team," he said after the national championship game. "We were the first program to have five (in 2010), let’s have six. That’s why I’ve got to go recruiting on Friday."
The unique thing, Huggins said, about all the talent that Cal has been able to assemble in his short time at Kentucky is that he’s finding a way to get them to play together.
"He’s gone to Kentucky and is getting guys that pretty much all think they’re one-and-done. And they legitimately are," Huggins said. "To get those guys to play together, to play unselfish, to care about each other, to actually guard. It’s remarkable."
The two friends talked the day before Kentucky won its eighth championship.
While Huggins admitted that it’s hard to treat a game on the big stage such as the Final Four like any other in which you’ve played, he said Calipari wasn’t nervous.
"Honestly, it’s not any different once you get into that tournament. It’s one loss and you’re done. You really shouldn’t change from the first game to the last," Huggins said.
"He wasn’t nervous ... I don’t think he’s ever like that."