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ALMOST HEAVEN? WEST VIRGINIA GOES EASY, SOMEHOW, ON HATER HUGGINS
A state and its university leaders are more backward than we thought, merely wrist-slapping the longtime basketball coach for homophobic and anti-Catholic slurs that should have led to his dismissal
Of the 48 contiguous American states, West Virginia always has been the least distinguished and most nondescript. Beyond Jennifer Garner and Nick Saban growing up there and Jerry (The Logo) West shooting his first jumpers there, I can’t tell you a twang about the place. Research informs that it’s the least educated U.S. state and predominantly white — 93 percent, according to the most recent census — and it’s also where I had my first illegal beer, having grown up in nearby western Pennsylvania.
Now, it’s known as the backward, socially disconnected outlier that must be stuck back in the 20th century. Why else would the state’s foremost link to the concept of higher education, West Virginia University, go easy on Bob Huggins for some of the more unforgivable comments spewed of late in the perpetually insensitive sound chamber that is sports in this country? Rather than fire him or at least issue a long-term suspension, the school merely paddled its native son on the butt, suspended him three games and reduced his $4.2 million salary next season to $3.2 million, which still goes a very long way in Morgantown.
What, no moonshine and beef jerky to occupy him while he suffers the pain of sitting out November home games against Missouri State, Monmouth and Jacksonville State? Don’t you worry, Mountaineer faithful, Huggy will be back on the sideline for a Florida holiday tournament that measures his top-25-type squad against better competition. This is WVU’s way of giving him a break for leading the program to 11 NCAA tournaments and the 2010 Final Four, the best thing that happened to the state since John Denver recorded “Country Roads.” If the singer were alive, he’d demand a rewrite. Almost heaven?
Outskirts of hell, it seems.
To recap, the school’s longtime basketball coach, 69 going on 19, jokingly dropped anti-gay, anti-Catholic slurs during an interview on a Cincinnati radio station. Recalling a furious crosstown rivalry with Xavier University when he worked at the University of Cincinnati, Huggins stooped to new, despicable lows in a college coaching profession that claims to teach life lessons on campuses. His lesson: How to be an ignorant, backwater, homophobic hater.
“Any school that can throw rubber penises on the floor and then say they didn't do it, my God, they can get away with anything,” he said of Xavier, where fans once threw such objects on the court.
“I think it was ‘transgender night,’ wasn't it?” said host Bill Cunningham, not exactly showering himself with glory on WLW radio.
“What it was, was all those fags, those Catholic fags, I think,” Huggins said of the Jesuit Catholic university, before adding about rubber penises, “They were envious they didn't have one.”
Immediately, Huggins downshifted into job preservation mode, knowing throughout his “apology” process that he runs the school and the state and just had to say something, whether he meant it or not. Only hours after his barrage of contempt, which had taken decades to hone, we were supposed to believe he’d suddenly seen the light? “I used a completely insensitive and abhorrent phrase that there is simply no excuse for — and I won't try to make one here,” he wrote in a statement, when he should have called a news conference and shown his face. “I deeply apologize to the individuals I have offended, as well as to the Xavier University community, the University of Cincinnati and West Virginia University. As I have shared with my players over my 40 years of coaching, there are consequences for our words and actions, and I will fully accept (anything) coming my way. I am ashamed and embarrassed and heartbroken for those I have hurt. I must do better, and I will.”
His bosses bought it. Of course, they did — Huggins makes a fortune for the school every season and brings athletic attention to an obscure slice of Americana. Besides, he grew up down the road from the WVU Coliseum and played point guard for the Mountaineers in the mid-1970s. He IS West Virginia. Unfortunately, he also forms our current perception of West Virginia.
School president Gordon Gee and athletic director Wren Baker tried to talk tough, saying “any incidents of similar derogatory and offensive language will result in immediate termination.” They said Huggins’ $1 million salary trim will support the university’s LGBTQ+ Center and other campus causes, while he undergoes sensitivity training. They’re also reserving the right to sever ties with him as soon as next April 30, removing contract language that previously allowed him the option of staying as long as June 2027. You know what this means. If his team happens to have a down season, they have an out to fire him. But if the Mountaineers reach the tournament and win a game or two, he’ll be back in good standing as the Basketball Hall of Famer — one of only six men’s coaches to win at least 900 games in Division I.
Said the school: “While the University has never and will never condone the language used on Monday, we will use this moment to educate how the casual use of inflammatory language and implicit bias affect our culture, our community and our health and well-being.”
A better cultural statement, for a university rarely heard from, would have been a dismissal. Huggins will make a personal donation to Xavier’s Center for Faith and Justice and its Center for Diversity and Inclusion. I speak for the masses in imploring him to stop hiding behind statements. “I have no excuse for the language I used, and I take full responsibility,” he said in his latest public-relations stab Wednesday. “I will abide with the actions outlined by the University and Athletics leadership to learn from this incident. I have had several conversations with colleagues and friends that I deeply respect and admire over the last 24 hours, and I’m keenly aware of the pain I have caused.”
He regrets “the embarrassment and disappointment it has caused our Athletics family, members of our campus community and the state of West Virginia. I am sorry for the hurt and distress I have caused our students and our student-athletes. I represent more than just our University and our basketball program, and it pains me to know that I have let so many people down. West Virginia and West Virginia University are my home. I love this University and know first-hand that the education and experiences students receive here make a difference. I am truly sorry for the damage I have done. And I am grateful for the chance to move forward in a way that positively represents this University and our state.”
The printed words don’t jibe with the smart-ass profile he has flaunted nationally since the early 1990s. He is being challenged by Fairness WV, a advocacy organization in the state. “Coach Bob Huggins embarrassed his team, his university and Mountaineers everywhere yesterday by casually using a homophobic slur and disparaging transgender people in a radio interview," the group said. "It's well known that this slur has been a tool to torment and harass our community. There is no excuse for using that kind of language in the year 2023. Coach Huggins' words are particularly painful because he is loved by thousands of West Virginians, including many LGBTQ people. Thousands of young Mountaineers look up to Coach Huggins, and this week they saw their role model using slurs and demeaning another team for their faith. His apology was a good first step, but now he needs to show us his words are not empty.”
More properly, he should have resigned on the spot and acknowledged that responsible life has passed him by. But Bob Huggins knew he’d be supported in the end because, hey, he wins basketball games. His bosses, it turns out, are as unenlightened as he is. Life is old there, according to the anthem, “older than the trees.”
Take Me Home? Please don’t.
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.