MORGANTOWN — A college basketball coach is many things, not just an expert on the X’s and O’s of the game.
In fact, the good ones are as adept at handling the Xs and O’s of the game of life as they are at the game of basketball or football, as their responsibilities extend far beyond two or three hours on the sidelines.
They are recruiters and as such salespeople. Sometimes they seem like hell when they’re arguing with officials, but they turn into fundraisers when it comes to donors and alumni.
Their primary responsibility, however, is to their players as teachers and role models and parents-in-residence as their impressionable young players grow up four, five, or six years away from home to play college basketball.
It’s by no means an easy profession, because every player is a different person, everyone has their own strengths and weaknesses…sometimes competing for dominance within their own personalities.
Bob Huggins has been at it for more than 40 years, but unlike his parents, his “kids” never really grow up and move on in life, because as they leave, a new recruiting class comes along and he has to learn and beat them. finished, just as they have to learn it.
Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. There are successes and there are failures…. there is a Logan Routt or an Oscar Tshiebwe, a Mike Gansey or Jonathan Hargett.
And sometimes there’s Erik Stevenson.
There is a game played between those of us in the media, one that watches Huggins and Stevenson interact. He goes on the bench, in matches, in press conferences. I am a manager and a player, yes, but in many ways they are the same and this is not always a way to go on a long journey without conflict.
Huggins is a strong man, in his own way, an ardent competitor. Stevenson is much the same and, against Oklahoma State in a crucial game, for a moment on the bench, they went eye to eye.
He said a lot and actually said nothing.
There was a moment Stevenson did something that removed him from the game. Huggins tried to pick him up and it looked like he just wanted to pass. Both were trying to win but weren’t currently connecting.
“I guess he thought I was responding,” Stevenson said when asked about the incident in the postgame media session. “I will never win that fight. We replaced and it hit me a bit. I didn’t like it, but we have that relationship. Everyone in the program knows this. It was literally nothing, nothing at all.
It went on all season, pushing and shoving. Huggins has his way, Stevenson his way. Neither is a shrinking violet and will speak his mind… probably too publicly on both sides.
Stevenson, of course, moved to the WVU program his senior year after traveling to Washington, Wichita State and with Huggins’ close friend and former assistant Frank Martin in South Carolina.
“I would say Frank and Greg Marshall in Wichita and the coach I’m playing for now, they’re all cut from the same cloth. I’m cut from that cloth. I was raised that way,” Stevenson explained. “I have always developed relationships with coaches who are cut out that way, as fiery and competitive as I am.
“They know it comes from a good place. I make sure I play it right. We were on a different page for that short 15-20 second gap and everything was fine after that.
Huggins knew what he was getting with Stevenson, just like Stevenson knew what he was getting with Huggins.
“We talked about it when he was making his decision about where he was going to go to school. He jokingly said, ‘It’s great to play for a crazy guy like me,’” said Huggins.
But there were moments, the worst being when Stevenson committed a technical foul for obscene gestures to the crowd during Oklahoma State’s first game at Stillwater, a technical that ended up helping cost WVU a game that would have had to win.
“I think Erik needed to focus on basketball and not some of the other things,” Huggins said while discussing the relationship. “The deal that happened at Oklahoma State and some of those other things, those things don’t do anything for him. They hurt him. Such a case hurt him sharply.
Huggins had an idea of how to handle that situation. His former player, Mike Gansey, is the general manager of the Cleveland Cavaliers, and Huggins knew that Stevenson is trying to make his way into either the NBA or a professional basketball career at best.
“I got him on the phone with Mike Gansey and I said, ‘Tell him what he’s doing to himself, not what someone else is doing to him,'” Huggins explained. “Everyone wants to say, ‘That boy… No, no, no, you’re doing it to yourself, man.'”
There was a period early in the relationship where Stevenson was a challenge to what Huggins was trying to develop in the team, Stevenson saw himself as a player/coach but was not emotionally ready to handle a role like Jevon Carter or Da ‘Sean. Butler made it with the Mountaineers.
That’s changing, Huggins said.
“I think he has grown a lot. He is an emotional boy. All right. He has become a much better teammate. Before, he was quick to point out other people’s mistakes, but he wasn’t so quick to point out his own. I think a lot has changed. He’s a different teammate now and he’s much easier for me to coach.”
If WVU is to make the postseason and move forward, Stevenson is needed at his best, as he brings life, energy and points to the team, an offensive firecracker with an always lit fuse ready to go. He’s eager to get his first taste of NCAA Tournament play spurred by this, as is Huggins, who is also hungry for NCAA experience after a couple years without it.
Stevenson leads the Mountaineers with an average of 14.6 points, doubles anyone else in 3-pointers made with 62, hits 79.3 percent of his free throws on a team that can struggle there, and despite being a shooter, is selfless with the ball, and a good rebounder from the guard position.