MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — It is the most famous line from one of the best movies Paul Newman ever made, and while that movie came out more than half a century ago, it fits better today than it did even then.
Newman’s titular character in Cool Hand Luke is a prisoner on a chain gang and has just been whipped for talking back to the man in charge of the prison at which he is incarcerated, whom they called “Captain.” Well, as Luke lay in a ditch, the “Captain” looked out at the other prisoners and proclaimed:
“What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.”
And so it is with the West Virginia men’s basketball program.
At the start of the last season, WVU fans were in love with their coach, Bob Huggins. a Morgantown native, a man who had ended the previous season with his 900th career victory, a man who had taken the school to the Final Four with his best team since returning to his alma mater.
He had given back to the community in so many ways outside of basketball that he had risen to legendary heights, and a 13-2 start created a fan frenzy as it became more and more apparent that this was the year he would finally be elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
Much of this good feeling would soon unravel with a pair of seven-game losing streaks around a one-game winning streak.
Social media changed its tune, wondering if Huggins was losing his grip on his team, a theme that would grow as Oscar Tshiebwe, who transferred out in mid-season the previous year, put together a season that would win him National Player of the Year honors.
When this season ended with a 16-17 record and no NCAA bid, followed by the transfers of shooting guard Sean McNeil, young forward Isaiah Cottrell and forward Jalen Bridges, who hailed from just down the road in Fairmont and opted to attend a conference rival, Baylor, the discussion reached a fever pitch.
People were questioning Huggins’ “failure to communicate” with today’s generation, as they saw it, a conversation that picked up more steam after Bridges went on a podcast this week and said:
“I’d rather be taught than just yelled at. I can take yelling if there’s teaching, too. I’m not saying there was no teaching, it was just they’d rather yell at you and put you on the treadmill rather than show you what to do and how to fix it and not make that same mistake again. It’s like a punishment over trying to get better.
“It’s like you’re so scared of messing up that it makes you want to learn on your own how to do the right thing.”
It is, of course, an inane discussion, for the Huggins method of tough love has survived for 40 years on the job in college basketball. If there is a generational gap, it is the younger generation that has to understand that maybe a generation that delivered Larry Bird and Jerry West and Michael Jordan and somany athletes from other sports who were pushed to the heights knows what it is doing.
We all know the world has changed, and you can’t make everyone have short hair and follow a curfew any longer. As salaries in professional sports inflated, so did ego, and now the same thing is following in collegiate sports … and dripping down into high school sports, where character is being built at its foundation.
This is not to say that coach has to be like Cool Hand Luke’s “Captain,” but he does have to be the voice at the top. You don’t take a vote on the starting lineup or whether to play man or zone. You have to make it team first, player second.
Anyone who knows Huggins understands you do not listen to how he says things, but to what he says. He does and always has put his players first.
Just the other day, his former player at Cincinnati, Kenyon Martin, the best player he ever coached, appeared on a cable talk show. He was a long-time NBA player. He was asked who was the best coach he ever played for.
He answered quickly … “Bob Huggins.”
“How he is with his guys,” Martin said. “He cares about his guys. How he gets his guys to buy in. The thing that he says to us behind the scenes to get you to believe that you can accomplish greatness. What he got out of me, how he pushed me to be who I am.
“You know, so I think that makes a great coach. He made me be a better me. I came to Cincinnati — I had certain attributes, but he made me fine-tune those things and work on things that he saw I needed to work on. And he told me what those things were. He didn’t hold back and he pushed me. One thing you’re gonna do — you’re going to play hard when you play for Bob Huggins.”
Was he yelled at by Huggins? You bet. Was he scared sometimes?
“It was a good fear,” he said.
Now, that process, in whatever form, has to begin again as WVU tries to build a team from a number of new and different parts.