MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — During a head coaching career that has spanned more than four decades, Bob Huggins has influenced quite a few others who are pursuing coaching themselves.
Notably, former Cincinnati assistant Mick Cronin, who coached alongside Huggins from 1996-2001, led UCLA on an improbable run from the First Four to the Final Four in the 2021 NCAA Tournament. Mountaineer fans will also remember Jerrod Calhoun, a former Huggins assistant on WVU’s Final Four team in 2010 who went on to reach the national championship game with Division II Fairmont State in 2017 and is now the head coach at Youngstown State. Calhoun has guided the Penguins to back-to-back winning seasons, the first time they’ve accomplished the feat in nearly a decade.
Now, a new pair of Huggins-influenced coaches is emerging, and both of them are former Mountaineer players. James Long is entering his third season as the head coach at WVU Tech, while Mountaineer immortal Da’Sean Butler joined the staff at Division II Wheeling University last fall as an assistant.
There’s something about Huggins’ philosophy, Long said, that allows both talented athletes and basketball minds to flourish in his program. What’s more, he also continues to encourage former players after they move on.
“I think Huggs does a great job of giving you autonomy, letting you work and letting you figure out who you are as a coach,” Long said. “He wants us to go take chances.”
Long became WVU’s video coordinator after his playing career ended, and he parlayed that experience into his current head coaching role. His tenure at WVU never overlapped with Butler’s, but the two joined forces during the TBT with Best Virginia. Long became the head coach of the alumni team, while Butler and Morgantown High coach Dave Tallman served assistants.
After two seasons coaching NAIA athletes, Long was presented with an opportunity to coach pro basketball players who all share a common background in a tournament with $1 million at stake. That’s an opportunity that might sound daunting, but instead, Long relished the challenge, and in return, his players boosted his confidence.
“This helped me take my preparation to the next level, and then also my confidence as a coach — how you’re portraying things and how you’re seeing things is really important. I think when you’re a coach, and you know you’ve worked hard, you just have to go own it. When you’re talking to your team, be sure, but be willing to change if change is necessary.”
During the West Virginia Regional of the TBT, Best Virginia won a pair of thrilling games to reach the round of 16, but fell a victory short of Championship Week in Dayton, losing to Team 23 Wednesday night. The result was disappointing, but after the game, Long encouraged his players to keep perspective of the “special” nature of their experience.
“You’re lucky a lot of times if you see one or two teammates in the summer,” Long said after Wednesday’s defeat. “We got to see each other all again and compete together in Charleston.”
Does that line sound familiar at all?
Huggins’ program is like brotherhood. Long calls it “a family.” The head coach has always welcomed alumni back in the offseason, even carving out a designated locker room for them at the team’s practice facility. Even his current players made the trip to Charleston to watch Best Virginia compete.
That culture is something that has inspired Long to continue his journey in basketball.
“That feeling that you get when you’re done playing, you almost want to go replicate that moving forward in coaching,” Long said. “He’s just an example of setting a standard and sticking to it, all the way through, for all of his players as well. I think he’s done a great job of showing what it’s supposed to look like, and giving you the autonomy to find out who you are and what you want to be as a coach.”