Everyone knows Bob Huggins as the irascible, but lovable, beefy coach who stalks the sideline in a pullover and an updated pompadour.
Fewer know that he is the basketball version of John McPhee, the prolific writer known for deeply technical explorations of topics that range from oranges to the geology of California (to, in his first book, basketball).
Huggins, 64, is a very good coach. He has the 14th most wins in Division I men’s basketball, with a career record of 771-315. He has never won a national championship, but he has led West Virginia to its ninth N.C.A.A. tournament in his 11 seasons there, including the 2010 Final Four. This year, the Mountaineers are a fifth seed, and will play 12th-seeded Murray State in an East Region first-round game on Friday afternoon in San Diego.
But the most unlikely part of Huggins’s legacy may turn out to be the nine instructional books he wrote while working as head coach at the University of Cincinnati in the 1990s and early 2000s.
“We got a bunch of calls from people wanting to know about, for instance, motion offense, or wanting to know about our press,” Huggins said in a phone interview last month. “You sit down and you write a bunch of stuff up and you send it to them.”
The Huggins oeuvre is the essence of the man himself: brief; to the point; technical; adaptable; unfussy; and, beneath it all, quite generous.
While serving as an undergraduate manager for Fordham’s basketball team, Zak Boisvert discovered Huggins’s literary output. He immediately ordered a four-pack.
“When I was first getting into coaching, they were absolute gold,” said Boisvert, who is now an assistant coach at Army.
One book explained to Boisvert a crucial defensive principle: that if a defense forced the ballhandler to one side of the floor and then rotated to deny passes back to the top of half-court, the court essentially shrank, giving the defenders a huge advantage, since they had less open space to cover.
The standard coach’s book is co-written or ghostwritten and covers an abstract and more broadly applicable concept such as leadership. There are Tony Dungy’s “Principles, Practices and Priorities of a Winning Life” and Urban Meyer’s “Lessons in Leadership and Life From a Championship Program,” for instance.
Huggins has produced his obligatory coaching memoir (1995’s “Pressed for Success”), but his other books have titles like “Set Plays to Score,” “Press Breakers” and “Motion Offense: The Principles of the Five-Man Open Post.”
If other coaches’ books are the equivalent of slick pinstripe suits, Huggins’s are like those plain pullovers he famously wears to games. “As far as I’m aware, there aren’t any coaches who have produced the same amount of books,” emailed Trevor McLean, a former youth coach in Australia who now runs the Basketball for Coaches website.
Huggins wrote the books himself, often while flying Comair, a now-defunct Midwest regional airline, to and from games and recruiting visits while at Cincinnati. His style is spare and technical. There are diagrams and occasional flourishes of whimsy that reveal Huggins’s roots in the Ohio River Valley and his identity as a true basketball nerd.
From “Fast Break”:
Ed McClusky (who I feel may be the greatest coach of all time) told me many years ago that every time the ball was passed he was looking for a mismatch or an advantage for the offense.
From “Coaching the Matchup Press”:
If our opponent has a distinct size advantage, we may adjust our press so that once the ball is entering the offensive half-court area of the floor, it is necessary for them to flash their big people up to the top of the circle or high on the wings to relieve the pressure we are applying to the guards. Again, this strategy will make them play to their weakness and away from their strength.
From “Special Situations”:
In the last five years at the University of Cincinnati, we have played 88 games decided by 10 points or less. We have averaged six games a year that have come down to a single possession of the basketball! How many of your games next year will be decided by a few possessions? Will you have prepared your team to play with relaxed confidence when those opportunities arise?
Their overarching philosophy, which can be seen in West Virginia’s aggressive full-court defenses (which have earned the program the nickname Press Virginia) as well as their acuity at offensive rebounding, is deceptively simple: Give your team as many chances to score as possible, and your opponent as few.
Huggins traces most of his basketball philosophy to his father, Charlie, a longtime Ohio high school basketball coach, and his father’s mentor, the aforementioned western Pennsylvania high school coach named Ed McClusky.
Huggins’s father and McClusky both ran what was then a rare form of the motion offense — in basketball terms a 1-1-3. “I’m not saying they invented it, but they were one of the few doing it,” Huggins said.
At first, Huggins self-published the books, but soon he connected with Coaches Choice, a house in Monterey, Calif., that specializes in such books. It is run by Jim Peterson, who helped write the former San Francisco 49ers coach Bill Walsh’s celebrated book, “Finding the Winning Edge,” a favorite of football coaching geeks.
Technical football books are more popular than technical basketball ones, Peterson said. “Basketball coaches, they want you to write a book on how to recruit another seven-footer,” he said. Coaches Choice sells a few hundred copies of Huggins’s books every year, primarily through Amazon.
“They sold better at Cincinnati,” Peterson added, “because he actually tried to sell them.”
Jerry Krause, Gonzaga’s director of men’s basketball operations (and a fellow Coaches Choice author), praised the Huggins collection for its emphasis on motivation.
“Everybody that writes has some tactics and strategy,” Krause said. “I don’t think his are better than any other coach’s. But the thing that he is the best at is getting players to play hard and getting them to play hard on defense, and second, getting them to play unselfishly together. It’s laced through his books that if you can get kids to play hard and play together, the X’s and O’s will take care of themselves.”
Similarly, Army’s Boisvert said that for all the technical acumen Huggins delivers, the larger theme is adaptability.
“He has one about the press he ran at Cincinnati,” Boisvert said. “But the one he does at West Virginia is so different. And that speaks to: The great ones, they change.”
There is an obvious risk to Huggins’s writing down all his basketball thoughts: giving the opposition your game plan. There is a famous scene in one of Huggins’s favorite movies, “Patton,” in which Gen. George S. Patton Jr. sniffs out his foe Erwin Rommel’s battle plan by poring over one of his books. “Rommel, you magnificent bastard, I read your book!” Patton declaims as his tanks decimate the German army. Huggins said he rewatches “Patton” about once every three months.
Huggins’s father used to fear demonstrating his plays in front of coaches whom he would later play, Huggins said.
“That was a different era,” Huggins said. “In my era, we were on television more than Homer Simpson. People saw it. It wasn’t some secret.”
The “Patton” scene that sticks with him, he added, is when Patton, who believed people came back to life in new bodies, visits the site of an ancient battle and tells an aide that he was there.
“I like when he talks about reincarnation,” Huggins said. “How he’s seen the battle before.”