Mountaineers nearing the summit
SYRACUSE, N.Y. – On his first day as coach of the West Virginia Mountaineers in 2007, Bob Huggins told his team he was here to deliver a national championship to the school and the state he loves so dear.
That was it. That was the goal. All or nothing; a standard that clashed with history (no Final Four appearances since 1959), logic (no in-state recruiting base) and geography (West Virginia is one of our smallest, poorest states).
“Why can other people say it and we can’t,” Huggins argued.
So there was Huggs up on a make-shift, mid-court NCAA stage Saturday night. The NCAA East Regional trophy was in one hand, mighty Kentucky was in its locker room weeping from a 73-66 defeat and the stands were full of West Virginians singing, “Country Roads.”
It was a heck of a moment, perhaps the greatest in the program’s history. Yet he wasn’t about to get all sentimental or satisfied at making some measly Final Four. After thanking the people of West Virginia he got right to it.
“I talk to these guys about being special,” Huggins said. “Two more would really be special.”
The crowd at the Carrier Dome went nuts. The players nodded their heads. Huggins handed off the microphone. That was about it for his Final Four celebration.
West Virginia is in it to win it. And here, in perhaps the craziest NCAA tournament of all time, why not West Virginia, why not these Mountaineers?
You come from a place like West Virginia and you’re always being told what you can’t do. It’s too rural, too poor, too, well, too just West Virginian. If you’re going to succeed you have to leave, go off to somewhere bigger and fancier. It’s how it’s worked for generations. The possibilities are limited at home, limitless away. So off they go – many of the best and brightest seeking success elsewhere even as they carry their home state pride with them forever.
It’s not coal that is West Virginia’s greatest export. It’s people.
So now comes Huggins, son of West Virginians, born in West Virginia, a graduate of West Virginia and he’s puffing out his chest and saying the exact opposite.
There isn’t anything West Virginia can’t do, he says. And we’re going to do it from right here at home.
“If I don’t believe it, how will they believe it?” he said.
He was speaking specifically about his players, although he could’ve been talking about his entire state. There is something more at work here than just basketball. This isn’t a team trying to lift a region while times are tough. Times are always tough in West Virginia.
No, this is about a new attitude; Huggins steadfastly refusing to accept any excuses for why they can’t be the very best in the nation. At this point, with Kentucky now vanquished, who wants to argue?
Among the Mountaineers, this game was seen as the national title game, Kentucky the biggest bully on the block. “We have a chance at this,” said Wellington Smith. “We could win going away.”
He’s got a tenacious group that keeps blazing trails and humiliating pundits. They won the Big East tournament. They blitzed their way to a regional final. They dominated the heavily-favored Wildcats, a stocky guard from Rhode Island named Joe Mazzulla repeatedly smoking the presumptuous No. 1 pick in the NBA draft, John Wall.
“Forty-nine states picked us to lose,” noted Da’Sean Butler, who pours over the internet each day looking for slights about his team and adopted state. Perhaps never before has a guy from Newark cared so much about the self-esteem of New Martinsville.
Butler concedes West Virginia isn’t the coolest place in the country and the Mountaineers aren’t exactly a flashy program. He says he cringes when watching the team play on tape, “This is how it looks? It’s terrible.”
It is what it is. Most of the team wasn’t all that heavily recruited. They’re playing for a coach who proudly wears a black pullover, not a suit and tie. Kentucky is the one with the history and persona and famous fan base.
“I looked at Ashley Judd and Drake sitting there in the crowd,” Butler said. “We’ve got a couple of war veterans and a couple old guys who played in the NBA in the ’50s. We don’t have the hippest people in the crowd.”
Butler laughed, which he does a lot these days. Being uncool has never been so much fun.
“I like that blue-collar crowd.”
One of the beauties of West Virginia is how they take pride in their modesty. You don’t put on airs or try to act better than you are. Even the big-money seats behind the WVU bench were filled with men wearing blue jeans and raccoon caps and T-shirts. Then they sing that John Denver song with gusto.
“They pipe the broadcasts of the games into the mines, pipe it into the work places,” said Huggins, claiming if they didn’t, no one would show up for work.
He’s humbled by it all. There isn’t a coach in America who feels a stronger connection with his state than Huggins. If anything, the weight of what he’s trying to do, the history he’s trying to make, the message he’s trying to send, holds his joy in check. There’s always more work to do. The pressure is palpable.
“Are you excited?” he was asked in the locker room.
“Can’t you tell,” he said in a monotone.
Three years ago, when his country road took him home, he came up with his dream and it didn’t involve just reaching a Final Four. He wants to win the national championship, load the trophy and the team into a school bus and tour around the state.
He wants to bring that symbol of excellence out to the people in the hollows and coal towns and river bends, show them what’s possible for West Virginia when it stops saying it isn’t good enough and starts saying why not us, why not now?
“I think it would be neat if we could bring [the trophy] to them and let them touch it,” Huggins said.
Two more wins for West Virginia. Almost Heaven.