I love Bob Huggins. I really do.
I covered his Bearcats as a sports writer for my college newspaper, the University of Cincinnati's The News Record. Thanks to him, I earned a free trip to exotic Minneapolis around this time of year in 1992, detailing UC's first Final Four appearance in 30 years.
Those were splendid days indeed. Back around then, Huggins' first-ever return call to my desk phone was intercepted by some other eager colleague at a nearby extension. She gave me the phone, and when I tried to transfer him to my desk, guess who accidentally hung up on whom?
And a few years later, after my undergraduate days left me still wanting some sort of connection to the hottest beat in otherwise sleepy-old Cincinnati, I was working on a Huggins feature for some weekly Bearcats' rag. Huggs interrupted my Friday morning with a 2 p.m. return call from Chicago -- as we had arranged -- that woke me from a nice couch slumber and sent me scrambling under a living room's floor worth of pizza boxes and empty 12-pack cartons in order to ask just a couple questions a few hours before his men took on Conference USA rival DePaul.
"What are you doing?" I asked him slowly to give myself time to find a working pen and some real paper, not the kind with a takeout receipt or a "Rene" scrawled in lipstick on it. Not surprisingly, his reply was all Huggins.
"I'm workin'," declared the surly coach around 1997. "What are you doin'?"
And many years later, after a hugely hyped Cincinnati-Louisville game around 2003 or 2004, a January matchup that pitted Top 6 teams with a combined 31-1 record, a game to which Louisville claimed ownership about three minutes in, a game the Cards eventually won by about 30, I wrote a harsh column for Cincinnati's NBC television station Web site. It described how Huggins' teams can't win the big games and how his players were more interested in their cornrows and headbands and their tattoos than they were with figuring out how to win high-stakes ballgames.
I caught a lot of heat for that piece, almost got fired in fact. Viewer mail after viewer mail suggested I was at least a hack if not a racist entirely. I was lumped in with all the other Huggins Haters, of whom there were very few around the Queen City. Huggins owned that town in the 1990s the way Pete Rose once did. But because of that piece, I'd earned a place in "The Drawer," according to my sources. Huggins kept a place in his desk where he stored columns and articles that reflected negatively on the coach and his program.
Savvy Cincinnati readers familiar with my work thought I had lost it. How dare you say that about our Huggy Bear? They got personal because they thought I got personal.
But I didn't get personal at all. I was merely making a point about the team's inability to win key games, not unlike what many, many college scribes have written many times in recent years about a nearby powerhouse called Ohio State football.
For that very same Cincinnati TV station Web site, I also wrote a column about how loved Huggins was, how much I knew he'd be missed after his heart attack in 2003. It wasn't just a collection of facts I published. I didn't interview anyone for it. I wrote that piece straight from the heart. Though I wrote a time or two critically of his basketball team, I always liked the kind of guy he was to those who mattered; he satisfied his superiors by winning many basketball games and he took in players of questionable character because he believed in second chances and knew he was good at being a father figure.
And speaking of the heart, that's a part of Huggins the viewing public doesn't often see. But just because he's not Dick Vermeil doesn't mean he's not a sensitive coach who cares dearly for his players. And in perhaps the most touching gesture I've ever seen on a basketball court, it was a compassionate Huggy Bear being, well, a teddy bear Saturday night while comforting injured star Da'Sean Butler. It may have been the first time you saw such tenderness from Huggins, but he doesn't care about you. He cares about Da'Sean Butler and the guys who go to battle for him. And in return, he teaches them, he coaches them and he treats them like he's their father.
Who knows if a slice of that sweet embrace will make its way into Monday's popular "One Shining Moment," but I certainly won't need a video montage to remember it forever. I loved every second of it, and I hope you did too.