Only two days after he put a job he loves in jeopardy by using a anti-gay slur during an appearance on a Cincinnati radio station, Bob Huggins learned his punishment.
West Virginia announced Wednesday that it has suspended Huggins for the first three games of the 2023-24 season, reduced his salary by $1 million annually and required him to undergo sensitivity training.
That decision by West Virginia president Gordon Gee and athletic director Wren Baker allows college basketball's only active coach with more than 900 victories to remain on the sidelines. However, Gee and Baker said in a joint statement that they made it clear to Huggins "that any incidents of similar derogatory and offensive language will result in immediate termination."
In a statement of his own, Huggins pledged to "abide with the actions outlined by the University and Athletics leadership to learn from this incident." He said he has "no excuse" for the language he used and pledged again to "do better."
The exchange occurred on 700 WLW on Monday afternoon after longtime Cincinnati radio host Bill Cunningham and former Huggins assistant coach Steve Moeller got Huggins on the phone. Huggins responded to a question about Xavier University, his hated rival when he was the head coach at Cincinnati from 1989-2005.
Huggins described Xavier fans throwing “rubber penises on the floor” long ago during a Crosstown Shootout game against Cincinnati. Cunningham then doubled down on the perilous direction that the conversation was headed and asked if that happened on “transgender night?”
“What it was was all those f**s – those Catholic f**s, I think is what it was,” Huggins responded. “They were envious they didn’t have one.”
The radio hosts didn’t seem to grasp that Huggins was risking his career with those unconscionable remarks, nor did they appear to care about anyone he had offended.
“Steve, your comments about Bob Huggins?” Cunningham said. “Is he the best?”
“He’s the best,” Moeller responded.
In an attempt at damage control later Monday, Huggins released an apology statement about four hours after his remarks aired. He admitted using “a completely insensitive and abhorrent phrase” and described himself as “ashamed and embarrassed and heartbroken.”
West Virginia’s athletic department then released a statement of its own describing Huggins’ remarks as “insensitive” and “offensive” and saying the matter was “under review.” That bought Gee and Baker a little time to decide how to proceed.
Did they want to protect a beloved basketball coach with decades of clout and cachet? Or did they want to take a stand on behalf of those Huggins marginalized with his damaging words?
In the end, they did a little of both while also trying to turn the incident into an opportunity for learning. Huggins will be required to meet with LGBTQ+ leaders from across West Virginia. He will also work with the Carruth Center and the university to to raise awareness on how to best support students facing mental health issues.
"We will never truly know the damage that has been done by the words said in those 90 seconds," the joint statement from Gee and Baker said. "Words matter and they can leave scars that can never be seen. But words can also heal. And by taking this moment to learn more about another's perspective, speak respectfully and lead with understanding, perhaps the words "do better" will lead to meaningful change for all."
Huggins’ animosity toward Xavier dates back to some hard-fought losses to the Musketeers at the height of his Cincinnati tenure. Twice Xavier toppled No. 1-ranked Cincinnati teams. Another narrow Bearcats loss ended with the always animated Huggins chasing the referees off the floor. And then there’s the infamous 1994 Crosstown Shootout still known around Cincinnati as the Handshake Game.
When Xavier finished off an 82-76 overtime victory, coach Pete Gillen walked toward the Cincinnati bench for the perfunctory postgame handshake but found Huggins in no mood to reciprocate. Huggins instead launched into a blistering tirade, later explaining that he was angry about remarks members of the Xavier staff allegedly made late in the game.
“I'm not phony," Huggins told reporters after the game. "If their bench is going to yell things at me during the game, that's their business. I'm not going to shake hands and pretend everything is alright."
In 2005, Cincinnati president Nancy L. Zimpher forced Huggins to resign as Bearcats coach. While Huggins’ teams had reached 14 straight NCAA tournaments and won at least a share of 10 conference titles, Zimpher felt his program’s reputation for arrests and academic issues cast the university in a negative light.
And yet even after Huggins became the head coach at his alma mater West Virginia in 2007, his distaste for Xavier didn’t fade. When asked about his old rival before a 2022 Big East-Big 12 Battle game at Xavier, Huggins told reporters, “I don't have any good thoughts of Xavier whatsoever. None. Absolutely none.”
Whereas Huggins was widely perceived as a villain during his Cincinnati tenure, he repaired his reputation at West Virginia by displaying his tender side more frequently while also putting in 16 more years of excellent work as a coach.
Huggins’ signature moment at West Virginia came near the end of a blowout loss to Duke in the 2010 Final Four. When star forward Da’Sean Butler tore his ACL, Huggins demonstrated the bond he has with his players by tearfully embracing and comforting him while he lay prone on the floor.
That 2010 team rode its smothering 1-3-1 defense and dominance on the offensive glass to 31 wins, but that formula stopped working when Mountaineers moved to the Big 12. Undaunted, Huggins reinvented himself four years later, installing full-court pressure to accentuate West Virginia’s depth and athleticism and to hide its limited outside shooting.
“The overriding thing is we want to make you really uncomfortable,” Huggins told Yahoo Sports in 2016. “Where we set our traps is the most important. We want to force you into an area that puts you in a bad position.”
West Virginia made four straight NCAA tournaments as a No. 5 seed or better and advanced to a trio of Sweet 16s. Then just as suddenly it appeared, it vanished. Huggins again adapted to the personnel he had and returned to a more traditional style of play.
As recently as a few days ago, Huggins was in the news for positive reasons. He was adapting to college basketball’s shifting landscape far better than other Hall of Fame coaches who have been chased from the sport by athletes profiting off their Name, Image and Likeness and by relaxed transfer rules.
After losing three starters from last season’s NCAA tournament team, Huggins went shopping in the transfer portal this spring and restocked West Virginia’s roster on the fly. The 69-year-old added an array of intriguing talent, including a point guard who started the last two seasons at Arizona, a center who averaged a double-double at Syracuse and an all-Big Sky wing who hung 27 points on Kansas State in the NCAA tournament.
The team that Huggins has assembled is top-25 caliber. Now the Mountaineers will have to begin their upcoming season without their head coach.
"I am truly sorry for the damage I have done," Huggins said. "And I am grateful for the chance to move forward in a way that positively represents this University and our state."