Saturday, March 23, 2002

Huggins' choices: Go home, stay home

        MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Mac Warner's workmen were at it early Thursday morning. They hung one bedsheet banner from a second-story railing on University Avenue and another near Jerry West Boulevard.

        “Hurry Home Huggins,” read one.

        “Bobby Come Home,” said the other.

        “I was just hoping if he was in town one of them might have gotten his attention and made him feel welcome,” Mr. Warner said of the University of Cincinnati's basketball coach. “I hope it wasn't a day late.”

Diehard West Virginia basketball fans Mac Warner and his son Steve, 16, both of Morgantown, WV put signs up for Bob Huggins.
(Jeff Swinger photo)
| ZOOM |
        Bob Huggins' whereabouts were unknown Thursday afternoon, but his general position is plain. He can continue his remarkable career at UC or he can return home to resurrect the basketball program at his alma mater.

        Mr. Huggins was back in Cincinnati Thursday night, still undecided, according to his lawyer.

        “We need a new coach and Huggins is right up there at the top of the list as far as desirability,” said Mr. Warner, a real estate executive whose office is decorated in early Mountaineer. “West Virginia's tight-knit. We're not trying to steal Cincinnati's coach. We're just trying to bring home a homeboy.”

        Bob Huggins was born in Morgantown, earned his bachelor's and master's degrees from West Virginia University, and is immortalized at its campus Coliseum as a 2000 inductee in the school's Physical Education Hall of Fame. He is the consensus choice to succeed the retired Gale Catlett, who himself left UC to return to his West Virginia roots in 1978, and is the only candidate many fans deem worth mentioning.

        “If this were an election, there would be 99 percent who wanted to get him,” said Greg Hunter, a multimedia authority on things Mountaineer. “If he turns it down, unless it was (Duke coach) Mike Krzyzewski behind him, it would be a major disappointment.”

        Mr. Hunter edits Blue & Gold News, is a radio regular on the Metronews Statewide Sportsline, and is a keen observer of the telling detail. Last Thursday, at a state tournament game, Mr. Hunter spotted Bob Huggins' father, Charlie, taking notes on one Kevin Pittsnogle, a 6-foot-10 center from Martinsburg. Mr. Pittsnogle has signed a letter of intent to play basketball at West Virginia next season, one of two high school players committed to WVU.

        “But neither one has made their (standardized) test score (requirement) at this point,” Mr. Hunter said. “There's one scholarship still open and there were also two underclassmen suspended at the end of last year. If Huggins comes in, he could have his full complement of five scholarships.”

        Only four years after reaching the NCAA Tournament's Sweet 16 on Jarrod West's banked-in, buzzer-beating shot against Huggins' Bearcats, the Mountaineers are again in search of a savior. This year's West Virginia team was Mr. Catlett's worst in 24 seasons, 8-20 overall, losers of 18 of its last 19 games. Average home attendance, which crested at 11,384 in 1982, has since dwindled to 6,491.

        “I'm not saying the program is at rock bottom,” said Gary McPherson, “but if what Bobby wants is to win the national championship, Cincinnati might have more people in place. I don't know where he's at in his life as far as challenges are concerned, but this could be a challenge.”

        Mr. McPherson, who assisted Mr. Catlett in both Cincinnati and Morgantown, once tried to recruit Mr. Huggins for West Virginia (he started, instead, at Ohio University) and is presently positioned to exploit his comeback. Mr. McPherson is the university's senior director for athletic development, a position that puts him in regular contact with the athletic program's largest donors, generally with his hand out.

        “People want to believe,” Mr. McPherson said. “And there's no doubt that the buzz in the state has been for Bobby Huggins. I have to believe he knows there's great potential here. I remember when we had 17,000 for Pitt and UNLV, and the place only holds 13,000. They'd open the gates for the students at 5 o'clock and it sounded like a herd of cattle.”

        On campus Thursday, the Bob Huggins buzz was intense, but conflicting. Freshman Nick Moats, on his way through the Mountain Lair student union, sensed Mr. Huggins' arrival was imminent.

        “I heard somebody say he had his stuff packed up and his trophy case cleaned out,” Mr. Moats said.

        Freshman Barbara Radebaugh, formerly of Mason (Ohio) High School, was decidedly less optimistic. While selling raffle tickets to help underwrite a planned trip by the school softball team, Ms. Radebaugh said her sources indicated Mr. Huggins was staying put in Cincinnati.

        “I think it would be a good opportunity for West Virginia's program,” she said. “They have a good team. They just need some refining. And he's a good coach. But I don't think he's coming.

        Wednesday night, an Internet poll showed 81 percent of respondents believed Mr. Huggins was bound for Morgantown. By Thursday morning, that majority had declined to 72 percent.

        “If you asked me over the weekend, I would have said, "Yes, he's coming,'” Gary McPherson said. “But it hasn't happened. As a coach, you tend to think that the longer it goes, the less likely it will work out.”

        When it was reported Wednesday that Mr. Huggins had appeared on the Morgantown campus, Mac Warner and family resolved to aid in his recruitment. The bedsheet banners were designed and drawn by Mr. Warner's 16-year-old son, Steve, and his 15-year-old daughter, Krista. They were put in place early enough and noisily enough Thursday morning to disrupt the sleep of some of Mr. Warner's tenants.

        “We're searching for something new,” Mr. Warner said. “I think Gale (Catlett) did a tremendous job with recruiting this year, but I've never seen a team so talented do so poorly. We had a coach who knew talent and could bring it in. Now let's get a coach who can direct it.”


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