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College Basketball

It’s A Wrap On Bob Huggins

Bob Huggins on the sideline during West Virginia's NCAA Tournament game against Maryland in March of 2023.
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

There are kinder ways to sum up Bob Huggins' legendary and authentically game-changing college coaching career, but a less kind one is that very few coaches in the history of the sport could have weathered even the embarrassing and irresponsible act of idiocy that came before the one that finally led to his resignation. That happened just six weeks ago, when Huggins jumped on a Cincinnati sports radio station during the middle of the day and blearily dropped the f-slur a few times during a bleak n' soggy riff session with the host. A college coach would have to be pretty great, and pretty beloved, to get away with something that stupid.

Huggins was that great and that beloved at West Virginia University, and so he weathered it, albeit while giving back $1 million in salary for the 2023-24 season and leaving himself without a guaranteed deal beyond the end of the upcoming season. It might have been different if Huggins, who played at WVU and was born in Morgantown, was less of a hometown legend; it certainly would have been different if he wasn't Bob Huggins, who was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame last year and is by acclaim one of the best coaches of his era. But he is, and so Huggins was still West Virginia's coach when he was arrested on a DUI charge in Pittsburgh on Friday. As of Saturday night, he is no longer.

Huggins won 863 Division I games as a college coach, with 345 of those coming at his alma mater over the last 16 seasons; he helped perfect the five-out motion offense that revolutionized the sport, and wrote, without a ghost-writer, a series of books on coaching during his decade at Cincinnati between 1995 and 2005 that are still canonic among his fellow basketball coaches. ("He gets $250, $300 every six months from us," his publisher told The New York Times in 2018, "and has for 20 years." The publisher noted that the books sold better when Huggins was at Cincinnati, "because he actually tried to sell them.")

But being great at coaching basketball is not the only thing required of a college basketball coach, and what finally led Huggins to resign his position on Saturday was the same thing that led, less directly, to the end of his career-making tenure at Cincinnati. In June of 2004, Huggins was pulled over on a Tuesday night after a recruiting visit; the police report noted that there was vomit on the driver's side door, and also that Huggins said "don't do this to me" to the officer that pulled him over. He was drunk, although the Associated Press reported that he "could not complete" a breathalyzer test; Huggins would plead no contest on a DUI charge that led to a suspension and a $350 fine. He'd resign under pressure a year later.

On Friday, Huggins was arrested for a DUI again, this time in Pittsburgh. He had been at a basketball camp earlier that day; that camp, in Ohio, was about a 90-minute drive from where police found his SUV, rendered immobile by a shredded tire, obstructing traffic around 8:30 p.m. Huggins was unable to tell the police what city he was in or how he'd gotten there; the police say they asked Huggins ten times where he was, and while he said "Columbus" multiple times, he never answered Pittsburgh. They also reported finding white garbage bags full of empty beer cans on the passenger's side, and a cooler behind the center console. This time Huggins was able to complete a breathalyzer test, and his 0.21 BAC was nearly three times the state's legal limit.

Among all the other things that this incident also is, it is the type of thing that tends to move up the timetable on even the most legendary coach's departure. Huggins resigned on Saturday night, saying in a statement that he will "spend the next few months focused on my health and my family so that I can be the person they deserve."

Huggins is 69 years old, which is both a reasonable age to be retired and focus on one's health and family and not so old that his coaching career is necessarily over. Rick Pitino, to take another Hall of Fame college coach whose heedless and reliably poor decision-making briefly made him unemployable, just signed a multi-year contract with St. John's at the age of 70. Coaching basketball well at the college level is very difficult, and not something that very many people can do. The people that can do it tend to stick around, whether it's good for them or not.

The obsessives who can do this job as well as Huggins are very valuable, and their talent gets them chances that other people wouldn't get. The knowledge that those chances are there can create the possibility for new and terrible types of bad decisions. Even the bleary, humiliating public spiral of Huggins' last few months is not necessarily as disqualifying as it looks, or as it probably should be; boosters want to win more than they want anything else, and those demands drive everything and everyone involved in college sports much more than any other concern, in exactly the directions you might expect. Fishtailing through some slurs on the radio and driving around in a state of deepest blackout are decisions born of more than a sense of entitlement and professional invincibility, but while the towering cynicism of his industry and the grandees that run it doesn't excuse or explain the wild personal heedlessness Huggins has displayed, he also surely knew what a coach can get away with if his team continues to win. And his teams won, right up to the end.

In the qualified tributes to Huggins that have followed his resignation, he was credited with, as Stadium's Jeff Goodman put it, "the second-chances he often gave kids (and even adults)...[T]his guy with the tough exterior was incredibly selfless and again, helped a ton of people throughout his career." This is all probably true, although college sports' relationship to the concept of second (or third, or fourth) chances is not strictly selfless; who gets to extend those chances, and who receives them, mostly reflects how useful that generosity might be. We might as well hope that Huggins does the work on himself that he promises in his resignation, but when and whether he makes it back to the sidelines won't have anything to do with how well that work comes out.

In the Times story about his second career as a basketball book author, Huggins tells Marc Tracy that one of his favorite movies is Patton, which is a pretty chalk pick for a hardass leader-of-men type of Huggins' age. But the scene that Huggins tells Tracy about is not one of the ones that those types tend to talk about. "I like when he talks about reincarnation," Huggins said of Patton, who believed or anyway often said that he had fought in various ancient battles. "How he’s seen the battle before."

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