Hickey: In the end, Bob Huggins and Bob Knight became the same guy
Back when Bob Huggins and Bob Knight crossed paths at the 1992 Final Four, there was a perception that a pair of coaches couldn’t be more different.
Knight, the stern taskmaster and coaching veteran, was obsessed with doing things the right way off the court. There was an expectation that if you came to Indiana, you’d be leaving with a degree — and that’s exactly what happened for all but 2 of Knight’s 4-year players at IU.
Huggins, the fun-loving up-and-comer, was a bit faster and looser when it came to graduating players. Cincinnati’s graduation rate during his tenure was 28%, including 4 years with a Bluto Blutarsky-like 0.0% on the charts.
That dichotomy would have been played up even more had their teams met in the national championship game. But Duke edged Indiana by 3 and Michigan’s Fab Five snuck past Cincinnati by 4, denying Huggins and Knight the chance to share the same stage.
More than 30 years later, they finally have it. No pair of coaches has ever been more similar. The Bobs are forever linked in history now.
Unfortunately, it’s not for a good reason.
They are the Hall of Fame coaches who had their entire state eating from the palm of their hand — and foolishly threw it all away.
Bob and Bob: More similar than most realized
One of if not the greatest coach of all time. Proud to call him a friend! https://t.co/PTQJH1yFij
— Bob Huggins (@CoachHuggs) January 3, 2017
Huggins and Knight have always been more alike than many may have realized, separated more by age than anything else.
Both are sons of Ohio, raised in towns only an hour apart — Knight in Orrville and Huggins in Port Washington. Knight’s playing career took him to Ohio State. Huggins began his college career at Ohio University before transferring to West Virginia, his birthplace and the home of his parents.
Knight was only 23 when he was hired for his first head coaching position at Army in 1963. The 27-year-old Huggins began his head coaching career at Division II Walsh University in 1980.
It’s pretty unusual to find a college head coach barely older than his players, but not many coaches have ever been true basketball savants to the degree of Knight and Huggins. Their methods might not have been the same, but they shared a true genius about the game.
They showed off that acumen by reviving long-dormant programs.
Indiana, a national champion in 1940 and 1953, went through a long drought before Knight was hired away from Army. He then lifted the program to an even higher level of success than it had known in those previous decades with 3 national titles in the 1970s and ’80s.
Cincinnati, a championship program in the days of Oscar Robertson, had fallen off a cliff until Huggins brought the Bearcats back to the ’92 Final Four. Huggins reprised the miracle at West Virginia, taking the Mountaineers back to the Final Four in 2010 for the first time since Jerry West played in the late ’50s.
There are some more amusing minor details that connected the duo over the years.
Chairs, for instance.
Knight’s chair at Assembly Hall was infamously chained to the floor after his 1985 chair-tossing incident against Purdue.
Huggs’ preferred seat, on the other hand, went everywhere he did.
Seeking the happy medium between sitting on the bench and pacing the sidelines, Huggins had a customized West Virginia stool that joined the Mountaineers on road trips. He could plop down right there on the sidelines, then quickly bounce up to berate a ref.
The stool became so ubiquitous that it even ended up with its own Twitter account.
Knight and Huggins also shared an obvious commitment to being comfortable on the sidelines.
And by the end of his Indiana tenure, Knight pulled a Huggs and traded in his sweater for a red windbreaker.
But the greatest similarity between Knight and Huggins is that both reached a level of power in their respective states that even elected officials could not attain.
By the 1990s, there was no one with more clout in Indiana than Knight. That’s what happens when you’re the king of basketball in basketball’s king state.
And by the mid-2010s, nobody had more power in West Virginia than Huggins. In a state continually hemorrhaging population for 5 decades, Huggs came back home and built a winner. He was more than a coach; he was a symbol of something bigger.
Unfortunately for both, power is the greatest enabler. Bad behavior goes unchecked, because there is nobody with the muscle to check it.
And eventually that behavior begat their ignominious exits from the institutions they became synonymous with.
Second chances granted
The finish lines for Knight and Huggins are eerily similar.
Both coaches earned high-profile second chances from their schools when anyone else would have been fired immediately. And both screwed up a second time before even coaching another game with that second chance.
Knight’s volcanic temper was never a mystery. It was always on full display. But he won, so fans accepted, “Oh, that’s just Bobby” as a valid excuse.
With actual anger management, though, there’s no telling how much longer Knight’s Indiana career could have lasted. Or if a refreshed outlook might have allowed the Hoosiers to actually experience NCAA Tournament success later in his career.
Instead, Knight was aided and abetted when it was obvious to anyone that his temper would cross a line at some point. And when he put his hands around Neil Reed’s throat in 1997, that moment finally seemed to arrive.
But amazingly, it took 3 full years for the story to even break. And even then, CNN/Sports Illustrated’s thorough report was met with skepticism in Indiana until the smoking gun of a practice video was produced.
But Knight’s power in the state was so overwhelming that not even that was enough. IU President Myles Brand, only nominally in charge of Knight, didn’t fire him.
Brand slapped Knight on the wrist with a “zero-tolerance” policy. Knight was fined $30,000 and suspended for the first 3 games of the 2000-01 season.
A punishment that literally brings us straight to Huggins.
Last month, Huggins appeared on a Cincinnati radio show, yukking it up with host Bill Cunningham and talking about the good old days.
In his attempt to rib Cunningham, a Xavier grad, Huggins used an anti-gay slur when referring to Musketeers fans. Twice, just in case anyone might have thought they misheard it the first time.
It certainly didn’t take 3 years for the story to percolate. There was an immediate firestorm, and it appeared Huggins had foolishly thrown away his Hall of Fame career.
Had it been any other coach, that would have been it in this day and age.
But because of the sway Huggs holds over West Virginia, a reprieve was granted.
You guessed it — a 3-game suspension to open the 2023-24 season. And inflation being what it is, a $1 million reduction in salary to go with that suspension.
Oh, and a zero-tolerance policy issued by the university president.
“We have made it explicitly clear to Coach Huggins that any incidents of similar derogatory and offensive language will result in immediate termination,” WVU president E. Gordon Gee stated in May.
But just like Knight before him, Huggins will end up losing a whole lot more than he was initially docked.
Second chances squandered
Knight only made it through the first week of Indiana’s fall semester in 2000.
It wasn’t an interaction with a player, assistant coach, referee or police officer that led to Knight’s fall. Just an ordinary freshman student who flippantly referred to him as “Knight” in passing.
Knight grabbed the student and gave him a lecture about respecting his elders. The right lesson, perhaps, but given the circumstances, the absolute worst way to deliver it.
By the end of the day, Knight — the active wins leader in Division I college basketball — was out of the job he had held for 29 years.
At least Knight made it to the school year.
Huggins could only make it a month after his near career-ending mistake before careening into his next one.
Huggins was pulled over Friday night in Pittsburgh, evidently not knowing why he was there. Or, according to official police reports, that he was there.
Huggins reportedly stated his location as Columbus, Ohio and then blew a blood-alcohol level of .210 — almost thrice the legal limit. (Pittsburgh may well be the most distinct city east of San Fransico in terms of landscape and architecture, making the confusion all the more unsettling. There’s no way of mixing up Pittsburgh for any place else in this country.)
By the end of the weekend, Huggins — the active wins leader in Division I college basketball — was out of the job he had held for 16 years.
Much like Knight, the reason for Huggins’ demise didn’t necessarily come as a surprise.
Knight’s demon was anger, and this was the second time in Huggins’ career that alcohol factored into a dismissal. Huggins’ successful Cincinnati career ended a year after he was arrested for DUI there. It wasn’t immediate, but it was a definitive tipping point against him.
If anyone should recognize the career risks of drinking and driving, it would be Huggins. Yet he still placed himself in position to get dismissed from a second job for what ultimately boiled down to similar reasons.
Knight was 60 at the time of his firing, so he was able to get 7 more seasons at Texas Tech added to his legacy. That’s where the stories diverge.
Huggins is 69 now, and he’s done. His departure is officially being called a resignation/retirement. But make no mistake, his only choice in the matter was the form of his termination.
Knight’s animosity towards Indiana lasted 2 full decades before the bridges were finally mended and there could be a deserved victory lap at Assembly Hall. The emotions won’t be the same for Huggins toward West Virginia — he knows he’s in the wrong — but there is the same hollow feeling at the end.
Knight and Huggins both should have been able to say goodbye to thousands of adoring fans after coaching their final game at their home arena.
Instead, both blew that chance. And ultimately, they have nobody but themselves to blame.