Sorry to derail our football momentum, but today we thought we'd revisit one of our favorite bold basketball moves. Or rather, rumored moves.
One of the topics posed to us in this campaign was, "How big of a risk was hiring/firing someone?" Well, since we've already written at length about the whole Jim Leavitt situation, we're going to tweak that ever so slightly and ask a different question.
How big of a risk would it have been for USF to hire Bob Huggins in 2006?
This is one of the most controversial what-ifs in USF history. While there's no real proof that anyone at USF was actually considering making this move (and we can't stress that enough), it was so polarizing that someone wandered into The Bulls Pen message board and started a "We could have had Bob Huggins?" thread FOUR YEARS after the fact, and everyone got out their claws and went after each other all over again. Things got really heated.
When the rumor bubbled up in late February 2006, Huggins was on the market after being fired by Cincinnati the previous summer. Meanwhile in their first season in the Big East, Robert McCullum's Bulls were still winless and threatening to become the second team since round-robin scheduling began in 1981 to go 0-fer in Big East play. Only a win over Georgetown in their last conference game saved them from 0-16 ignominy.
Once the story by Guess Who? in the Tribune was published about unnamed boosters basically trying to make the coaching change themselves*, it was picked up by Seth Davis of Sports Illustrated. It went national and viral at the same time, and Bulls fans started immediately taking one of two sides.
1. It's Bob Huggins, and you're USF. When is this ever going to happen again? Don't ask questions, just get it done.
2. Huggins is more trouble than he's worth. His players at Cincinnati were not model citizens, a fair number of them didn't graduate, he's a bit of a loose cannon himself, we don't have the money to buy out McCullum, and you know Huggins is going to jump at the first big-time offer he gets as soon as things begin to turn around.
* - This article was so bad that Greg Auman wouldn't even refer to it in his own stories about the situation. He alluded to the SI story instead.It was the age-old question: Do you care how you win, or is winning all that matters to you? This was the most intense debate (other than what to do about Leavitt) that I can ever remember between USF fans. Doug Woolard has a policy of not talking about coaches while they're still in their team's season, and Huggins supporters took his silence as a sign that he was going to pull the trigger. Auman filed a report with the St. Petersburg Times that cast doubt on whether the boosters were really in favor of replacing McCullum with Huggins. Finally a couple of days later after Woolard had been forced off his no-comment policy because the rumor wouldn't go away, he announced in a clearly annoyed press release that McCullum would return in 2006-07.
Huggins spent exactly one season at Kansas State. He got the Wildcats going in the right direction and then jumped to his alma mater when John Beilein left West Virginia for Michigan. Huggins has been in Morgantown ever since, and he's reached the NCAA Tourmament four straight years with a team that's rarely had any off-the-court incidents. McCullum's Bulls improved some in 2006-07, but not enough for him to stay on as coach. He was replaced with Stan Heath, who is still at USF.
Fittingly for such a controversial decision, even looking at it in hindsight doesn't give a clear-cut answer. Let's assume that Woolard could have actually afforded to hire Huggins in the first place. Could Huggins have put a dent in USF's miserable basketball history before leaving? Maybe, but Kansas State was in a lot better shape than USF was at the time. Even though the Wildcats hadn't been to the NCAAs since 1996, they had (and still have) more money, a bigger profile, and a better recruiting base. Their facilities at the time blew USF's out of the water. And remember, Huggins only turned them into an NIT team before leaving.
Not only would it have been no guarantee that Huggins could have made any headway in Tampa, but his leaving after one year would have added more fuel to the idea that USF is a stepping-stone job that no one will ever want to take or keep if they have other options. Let's say that Huggins barely got the Bulls into the NIT, they lost early, and then he left for West Virginia and whatever recruits he was going to bring in for 2007-08 split with him**. It would have been like he never even showed up.
On the other hand, it does seem like Huggins has turned over a new leaf ever since he got back into coaching. West Virginia's team is no different off the court than 300-plus other teams in Division I, and even Huggins has calmed down some as a coach. The volatility from his days at Cincinnati is almost completely gone, and it's probable that none of it would have surfaced for however long he was in Tampa. And if that was the case, how bad would it have been if he one-and-doned USF? Stan Heath still would have been available if that's the path Woolard wanted to go in 2007, and maybe Muma gets off the ground sooner because of the extra interest Huggins would have injected into the program.
Now then, go forth and fight this battle all over again in the comments. I personally fell into the "more trouble than it's worth" camp, but when you take away all the vitriol, both sides had their good points.
** - Which may or may not have included Dominique Jones.