Commentary

Mazzulla reveals a huggable Huggins

Updated: March 30, 2010, 6:32 PM ET
By Rick Reilly | ESPN.com

Huggins/MazzullaJim McIsaac/Getty ImagesWest Virginia coach Bob Huggins' faith in Joe Mazzulla is not enough to impress Rick Reilly.

I don't like Bob Huggins. Don't like his zero-point-zero graduation rates. Don't like his three-hour practices. Don't like the Vegas sweatsuit top. The artless, sledgehammer style of his teams that sucks all the air out of the gym. Not to mention the joy. Still, Huggins is brutally effective, kind of like a Russian gulag, only with slightly less charm. If his West Virginia Mountaineers win this Final Four, I'd hate to be a CBS tape editor. There may not be One Shining Moment.

Don't get him. Don't admire him. Don't understand his nickname -- Huggy Bear. The man is about as huggy as an ulcerous porcupine. It's like calling Dick Cheney "Smiley."

But I do get that a whole lot of people love him and one of them, Joe Mazzulla, has a story that makes me wonder if I'm wrong.

Mazzulla is Huggins' little point guard, a kid who anybody else but Huggins would've left on the bench all season. The Mountaineers are in this Final Four because he didn't.

Get this: Huggins stuck with Mazzulla when his shoulder was so useless that he was shooting free throws with the wrong hand. Huggins stuck with Mazzulla even though the kid hadn't made a 3-pointer all season (until the Elite Eight). Huggins stuck with Mazzulla through thin and thin.

Mazzulla is Huggins' little point guard, a kid who anybody else but Huggins would've left on the bench all season. The Mountaineers are in this Final Four because he didn't.

This is a kid who, last February, thought his basketball days were over. He was about to have radical shoulder surgery that doctors said no hoops career had ever survived.

Mazzulla came to him on that day with tears in his eyes. "Coach, you think I'll ever play again?" And Huggins took him by the shoulders, looked him in the eyes and said, "Well, you're always talking about you being the best soccer player in the state of Rhode Island; you can always go play soccer. You don't need arms for that."

See? Lovable!

But Huggins brought back Mazzulla as soon as he could dribble, even though Mazzulla couldn't even shoot a jumper.

He even put Mazzulla and his 6-foot-2 frame under the basket in his 1-3-1 zone D. Put a shrimp under the basket when he could raise only one arm!

Sticking with Mazzulla against all sanity proved even smarter when WVU's best guard, Darryl "Truck" Bryant, broke a bone in his foot last week and couldn't play in the Sweet 16 weekend.

So, as reward, Mazzulla went out and beat Kentucky for Huggins on Saturday night in Syracuse. And when he was done making his first 3 of the year and scoring a season-high 17 points and pestering Kentucky's big men the way mice pester elephants (at one point, Kentucky's huge center, DeMarcus Cousins, looked down at Mazzulla and said, "Are you being serious right now?") and becoming the East Region MVP in a 73-66 win, he went looking to hug one man -- Huggins.

"I had to find him," Mazzulla says, "I never want him to forget that I love him. What he did for me, how he stuck with me, nobody else would've done it."

And he's not the only one on the team. They all talk about "Huggs" like he's their favorite IRS auditor. "We all have one thing in common," says Mazzulla. "We're all trying not to get yelled at by Huggs."

Same goes for the parents, sort of. "I like him," says Karen West, mother of shooting guard Jonnie West and wife of West Virginia and Los Angeles Lakers legend Jerry West, "but I just wish he could coach without all the swearing."

There's no point in going over all the reasons Huggins is bad for basketball. That's just kicking a man when he's up. And boy, is Huggs up. Eighteen years after his last Final Four, eight years after his heart attack in the Pittsburgh airport, six years after his DUI, five years after choosing to "resign" over "be fired" at Cincinnati (where he had four years of 0.0 graduation rate), three years after pulling a one-and-done at Kansas State and leaving them with a crazy-eyed, death-staring Huggins wannabe named Frank Martin, the world is cuddling The Huggy Bear again.

"The first time I heard he was coming," remembers West Virginia's best player, Da'Sean Butler, "I was like, 'I'm getting ready to go to Michigan.' But I'm glad I didn't leave. It's been great. I'd be doing all kind of nothing right now."

Instead, Butler has known the joy of playing for a team where the endless practices leave the players "bleeding [with] swollen lips, and black eyes," says WVU forward Wellington Smith. And that doesn't even count their ears. Says Mazzulla, "He yells at us so much that he doesn't give us enough time and energy to not get along with each other."

Ahh, togetherness.

West Virginians and Bob Huggins are the perfect fit. They're both gritty and loyal and not particularly interested in what people think of them. Do you realize that they pipe the play-by-play of West Virginia games down into the coal mines now?

Otherwise, according to the state's governor, too many workers try to get out of working their shifts. Come to think of it, Huggins would've made a good mine worker. He's hard-working, a little dirty, and happiest in places where the light doesn't shine too brightly.

I get why some people love Huggy Bear, but I'm just never going to be one of them.

And when they put him in the Hall of Fame, I think I'm going to hurl.

Rick Reilly | email

Columnist, ESPN.com