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Originally published March 23, 2010 at 1:56 PM | Page modified March 23, 2010 at 8:19 PM

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West Virginia coach Bob Huggins is older, wiser — but don't mistake that for softer

West Virginia coach Bob Huggins might do things differently than he did at Cincinnati, but all his teams share one characteristic: toughness.

Seattle Times college basketball reporter

For those who contend Bob Huggins has gone soft, we give you the treadmill.

The word brings immediate recognition around the basketball program at West Virginia, which meets Washington on Thursday night in the Sweet 16 in Syracuse.

Mess up in practice, and Huggins sentences you to the treadmill, and this isn't like getting on the one in your hotel fitness room.

"Fifteen miles an hour for 44 seconds," said guard Joe Mazzulla. "That's awful. You can't hold, either, to the treadmill."

But indeed, there is evidence Huggins has mellowed — or at least undergone some seasoning — since his early years in coaching.

"He tells us that all the time," laughed forward Cam Thoroughman. "I'd be horrified if I'd had to play for him at Cincinnati. (But) you learn what he wants."

Don't be fooled; Huggins isn't operating a resort in Morgantown. While the Mountaineers don't run away from a lot of teams, they just grind on you. The biggest challenge to the Huskies might be West Virginia's toughness.

Asked to describe Huggins' predominant message, Thoroughman did it neatly.

"No fear," he said.

That part isn't likely to change, no matter how long Huggins, 56, coaches.

Ah, Huggins. His is the most oxymoronic name in college basketball. Cuddly, he isn't.

You wouldn't know it by his news conferences. He strolled into them last week in Buffalo, attired in his ever-present warm-up suits — his game outfit, too — and he was the picture of evenness and calm.

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Huggins knows the deal; he's known it since he began. You get players, you drive them mercilessly, you win. If you take character risks, well, there was a chance at reclaiming them.

In the early days, he was a wild man. At his first college job at NAIA Walsh University in Ohio, he once amassed 17 technical fouls in a season. It was at Walsh that he became so infuriated with his team that during a timeout, he fired a clipboard to the floor and it stuck, wedged between the grooves.

When I talked back in the '90s to one of his former Walsh players about Huggins, Dave Potopsky said the team got two days off during the season — Thanksgiving and Christmas. Huggins welcomed them back the day after Thanksgiving with seven hours of practice, split between morning and night.

He went on to Akron and then to Cincinnati, where he made his name, both for his hard-edge teams and a renegade reputation that pervaded the program.

Supporters always said he brought discipline to people who had had little in their lives. That's the story of Eric Martin, a forward at Cincy in the early '90s and now an assistant coach under Huggins.

"I hated him," said Martin. "I was immature back then. I had habits that needed to be broken, and who likes getting habits broken?"

It was Martin whom Huggins engaged in perhaps his most infamous brouhaha. At a 1993 game against DePaul, Huggins became so incensed with Martin's effort that he pointed toward the locker room, running him out of the arena.

Martin stalked down a runway, yanked off his jersey, flung it and flounced into the locker room.

"I said, 'I'm going home, I'm done for today,' " recalls Martin. "One of the coaches came in and said, 'Don't go nowhere, just talk to him at halftime.' "

Martin did. Huggins took him into an adjoining training room, closed the door and said, "I know that sometimes we get into it. But I'm here to make you a better man, not a better basketball player. You and I will never mention this situation again after today."

"And," said Martin, "he started me in the second half."

But then there was the flaming Sports Illustrated story at the start of the 1996-97 season that questioned the fabric of the Cincinnati program, the legal indiscretions of some of the players, whether they remotely fit the ideal of the student-athlete. Among those who had run afoul of the law were former Sonics Ruben Patterson, Danny Fortson and Dontonio Wingfield.

No doubt, Huggins ruled over some dubious characters. In 1995, Fortson and Art Long were accused by police (and later acquitted) of punching out a cop's horse, a la Mongo in "Blazing Saddles."

Later, there was center Donald Little, who got into a beef with a roommate over some missing money. Little was charged with taping the roommate to a lawn chair and burning him with a cigarette and a heated coat hanger, for which he spent 29 days in jail and was booted from the team.

In 2004, Huggins himself was nabbed for drunken driving, bringing to a head a feud with Cincinnati president Nancy Zimpher. He was ousted in 2005.

It was three years before that when Huggins had a serious heart attack at the airport in Pittsburgh, which seems to have brought him to a more measured pace today.

Says Martin, "Now, I think, maybe because of the heart attack ... as he says, 'I've gotten older; I've figured out different ways to skin a cat.' "

After Cincinnati, Kansas State rescued him, and he spent a year there. His alma mater, West Virginia, came calling in 2007, and he bit. He is 78-29 in three seasons.

Saturday, all five Mountaineers starters took the podium and made a pleasant impression at a news briefing. But the program hasn't been without some off-court issues. Guards Mazzulla and Darryl Bryant each have served suspensions for two incidents apiece related to alcohol and hit-and-run, respectively.

There has been so much sideshow in Huggins' past as to almost obscure the fact he has 668 career victories, behind only Mike Krzyzewski, Jim Calhoun and Jim Boeheim among active Division I coaches. Someday, he figures to stir interesting debate as a Naismith Hall of Fame candidate.

For now, Huggins isn't terribly expansive talking about himself or his maturation.

"You get older, you know?" he says. "I think I was 30 when I got the Akron job. I was 35 when I got the Cincinnati job. You're a little more excitable."

Stylistically, Huggins has changed. His Cincinnati teams pressed full-court, in the belief that his 10 were better than your 10. Now West Virginia plays a grinding, half-court style founded on defense and rebounding and the clutch ability of its best player, forward Da'Sean Butler.

Fundamental to that system is a drill they call "four on four plus 1." The offense gets to have five players, the defense only four.

"You've got to get two stops to get out," said Thoroughman. "It can be hard sometimes. It can take 15 minutes. But (Huggins) says, when shots are not falling, you can play defense and rebound every day."

What matters now to West Virginia is that it retains the unyielding side of Huggins that Martin remembers.

"When I played for Hugs," he says, "he was the most driven, mean, passionate, only-wanting-to-win guy I've ever been around."

As long as there's that treadmill, at least some of that is still true.

Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or bwithers@seattletimes.com

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