The first hint Bob Huggins was preparing to do something extraordinary came last fall, when the just-dismissed basketball coach strolled...
The first hint Bob Huggins was preparing to do something extraordinary came last fall, when the just-dismissed basketball coach strolled confidently through the front door of a Cincinnati sports bar.
It was Nov. 13, less than three months after Huggins had been forced out as Cincinnati’s coach. At 52, with a gleaming scalp of slicked-back hair and penetrating blue-gray eyes, Huggins seemed to those who saw him that night his old self again — bright, funny, irascible, dry and utterly competitive. A born winner.
In about an hour, Huggins would tell 250 fans during a Q&A that he was doing well, that he wanted to coach again, that the future looked bright.
“He was as relaxed, as confident, as open and as honest as he’d ever been in the times I’d talked with him,” said Lance McAlister, a Cincinnati sports radio-show host who asked the questions that night. “It was a different side of Huggins.”
Huggins was about to turn his dismissal into a rare opportunity to recruit players and build his next basketball program without the burden of NCAA rules — becoming, in effect, a free-agent coach able to deliver a ready-to-order team to whatever school hired him. In interviews with The Kansas City Star, dozens of people — players, former players, parents, scouts, coaches and friends — said Huggins, now coach at Kansas State, spent the next four months recruiting talent with two glaring differences from the coaches he would be competing against.
He would recruit players to play for him, not a particular school. And because Huggins was not affiliated with any school, the rules that govern coaches’ interactions with players would not apply to him. The advantage was ingenious.
“He knew he was going to get a job,” said Alex Meacham, a former Cincinnati player and a friend of Huggins’. “So he was out there doing what he could do within the rules. And he didn’t have a school, so he didn’t have any rules.”
Laying the foundation
Bob Huggins never left success to chance.
In his 16 years as head coach, Cincinnati won 10 conference titles and earned two Elite Eight appearances and a berth in the Final Four. He was a three-time Conference USA coach of the year.
Though often criticized for recruiting kids with problematic pasts and running a program with one of the country’s lowest graduation rates, Huggins produced winning teams. Many saw him as a coach willing to give troubled young people a second chance.
But by August 2005, university president Nancy Zimpher was winning an internal power struggle. Huggins would be gone by month’s end.
Before he stepped down on Aug. 23, Huggins had already begun assembling the team he would eventually bring to Kansas State.
For most of his coaching career, Huggins — the son of a basketball coach — had built his own fiefdoms, first in Akron and later in Cincinnati, around relationships with talented high-school players and the coaches, parents, friends, father-figures and scouts on whom they relied to make decisions or get discovered.
That would remain true as Huggins began the process of transplanting his own cabal of Cincinnati recruits.
As the pressure mounted at Cincinnati, Huggins picked up the phone to call a trusted contact, old friend and high-school basketball coach Rex Morgan. At the time, Morgan was coaching Jason Bennett, a 7-foot-3 top prospect at center whom Huggins hoped would follow him.
“Before he resigned, he called me and said, ‘Look, this thing has turned a different way, and I’m not going to be coaching here,’ ” Morgan said. ” ‘I understand if Jason in the meantime wants the second- and third-choice [school], but I’m going to get a job, and I’d like Jason to come with me.’ “
The phone call underscored Huggins’ recruiting life over the next several months. Huggins would employ at least two recruiting techniques, according to those interviewed by The Star. One was face-to-face contact, from dinners at recruits’ homes to trips to see them play to regular calls on their cellphones. The other approach was passing messages to players — through their coaches — that Huggins wanted them to wait and see where he landed before they committed.
“People have a tendency to blow things out of proportion,” Huggins said when asked about it. “Did I talk to some kids? Yeah. Did I try to go out and recruit kids that I didn’t know? No. These are guys I’ve been to camps with, that I’ve known for a long time.”
Some of those players, like Bennett, would follow Huggins to K-State. Others, like highly touted forward Bill Walker, appear headed to Manhattan. Some decided to go elsewhere.
The sum of Huggins’ efforts could transform K-State into one of the country’s best basketball teams within a few years.
News that Huggins was driving a freight train through an NCAA loophole made its way to athletic directors looking for coaches, as well as competing schools, scouts and the NCAA offices in Indianapolis.
Huggins’ approach also made its way around coaching circles.
“If there were rules in place to prevent something like that from happening, then it would be a different story,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “But that isn’t the case. There aren’t any guidelines.”
None of what Huggins was doing was or is against the rules. NCAA spokeswoman Stacey Osburn said any member school can ask for a review of the rules, but there are no plans to address the issue of “retired” coaches recruiting players.
Huggins is no stranger to the NCAA rule book, having faced probation and loss of scholarships at Cincinnati in 1998. He was summoned to Indianapolis after getting hired at K-State. School officials said the visit was a “refresher course” for a coach who had been away for only a matter of months.
Asked whether he thinks this recruiting loophole should be closed, Huggins said: “How do you do that? What are they going to tell me, when I retire and I want to go see friends of mine play? What are they going to do, put me on probation?