Saturday, September 27, 2003

Coach aims for biggest rebound

Huggins: A year after the heart attack

By Bill Koch
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Bob Huggins is too busy to sit around musing about the heart attack that nearly claimed his life a year ago.

There's recruiting to do and a new season to get ready for as the University of Cincinnati basketball coach attempts to wipe away the bitter taste of last year's 17-12 record.

"I just wake up and do what I'm supposed to do," Huggins says. "I don't go out and look at the sunset now. I just don't do that. I don't have time to do that."

But when he's asked about the life-threatening heart attack he suffered last Sept. 28 at the Pittsburgh International Airport, about whether he considers himself lucky to be alive, Huggins reveals a philosophical and religious side that seems out of character for the hard-driving coach who's known for pushing his players to their limits and cavorting wildly on the sideline.

"I don't think I was lucky," says Huggins, who turned 50 on Sept. 21. "I think God had a bigger plan for me. I honestly believe that. I think if God had wanted me to die, I would have died. I believe God had other things for me to do.

"God puts you on earth. You're supposed to serve him and you're supposed to help other people. I don't know why I didn't die. I could have died other times. I'll find out one day."

One year after the heart attack, Huggins' cardiologist, Dr. Dean Kereiakes, says Huggins has made a "truly remarkable recovery in heart muscle function."

"That was a function of two things," Kereiakes says. "No. 1, he was opened up fairly quickly and No. 2, he actually had some collateral, natural little blood vessels around the blockage. During the acute heart attack, there was some, albeit low, level of flow that kept some of that muscle functioning."

In some ways, the Bob Huggins who will begin his 15th season at UC on Oct. 18 is different from the one who began his 14th season a year ago.

He has cut back on his speaking engagements, which he says he planned to do before the heart attack. Upon the advice of his doctor, he no longer smokes cigars. Red wine, which he adopted as his drink of choice after the heart attack in lieu of beer, is still his preferred drink, but he acknowledges that he drinks a beer now and again.

He's still working out, but not as regularly as he did immediately after the heart attack. And he has regained some of the weight he lost last year.

"I do what I can," Huggins says of his exercise regimen. "It's hard when you have to get up at 4:30 (a.m.) and go catch a flight. Then you don't get back to the hotel until 11 o'clock (at night). One, they won't let you in (the exercise room) and two, you don't feel like it.

"I try to get three or four days a week in when I can. I use the treadmill. Sometimes I walk, sometimes I do a bike. It depends on where I am and what they've got."

But at his core, Huggins hasn't changed.

"Everybody says slow down," Huggins says. "You can't slow down. I could slow down and then we'd be 17-12 for the rest of the time I'm here and I don't want to do that. If that's the case, then I need to quit.

"I believe if you've got a job, then you're supposed to go to work. There's a lot of people who have heart attacks and they still go back to work and they're expected to do what they were doing before in the mine or the mill or the factory or whatever. They may not go back quite as fast, but my job's not as physically taxing."

Huggins never seriously considered taking the season off after the heart attack, even though athletic director Bob Goin gave him that option. With Kereiakes' approval, he was back on his feet in time for the first practice on Oct. 12, just 14 days after the heart attack.

"I asked him what he wanted," Kereiakes says. "I told him it was my job to put him back in the game within reason. We specially constructed a plan and with a little luck and the will of God, he was able to do that. He was on six or seven different medicines all designed to protect the heart muscle and help it recover. He has made a dramatic comeback." Not only did Huggins not want to walk out on players like senior Leonard Stokes and the UC assistant coaches, he says he wouldn't have known how to go about sitting at home not working.

So he returned with the same determination to succeed, if not the same stamina, that he has always displayed.

There were days when he simply couldn't coach the way he was accustomed to coaching. On those days he would still show up for practice but would turn much of the actual coaching over to his staff.

"We try to make sure he gets as much rest as possible," says assistant coach Andy Kennedy. "And he tries to make sure he's taking better care of himself physically through diet, exercise and sleep. But Huggs is still Huggs. He's still very intense and still a tireless worker."

Kereiakes says Huggins has sustained some permanent, but limited, damage to his heart. Had Huggins not been a former athlete, Kereiakes says, the damage might have been more extensive.

"I think that helped him recover," he says. "Even though he was, in his own words, in bad shape compared to what he used to be, he still has the remnants of being a superior athlete. He's a formidable character physically."

Four weeks after the heart attack, Huggins was fitted with a defibrillator similar to the one that Vice President Dick Cheney wears, although Kereiakes says, "Cheney has a model that's relatively primitive compared to Huggins'."

The defibrillator is designed to provide an electrical shock to Huggins' heart if it fails again.

In March, six months after the heart attack, Kereiakes performed an angiogram on Huggins and cleared him to return to his regular regimen with no restrictions.

Huggins also underwent a stress test as the one-year anniversary approached, Kereiakes said, and "passed it with flying colors."

Huggins says he has been diligent about following his doctor's advice. He has learned to listen to his body. Before the heart attack, fatigue was just one more obstacle to overcome. Now it's a signal to slow down.

"I go to bed when I can," Huggins says. "In this job, you can't go to bed (early) every night. I mean, you can, but you're not going to win. I'm never going to be fully recovered. I'm never going to be what I was. I'm doing the best I can under the circumstances, but I can't go for the duration like I used to."

With an infusion of talent that has the potential to return UC to national prominence, Huggins says he's looking forward to this season, but he says he always looks forward to the start of a new season.

Goin, though, sees a difference this year.

"He's back to a relaxed mission of coaching," Goin says. "He is focused on his players and on his coaches. I think he is really energized. If there's anything I want for him, it's just to enjoy his profession. He's earned that right.

"I believe he was left on this earth for a purpose. I have no idea what it is, but he could have been taken and he wasn't. I hope that purpose crystallizes for him."

The Huggins file: vital statistics

Born: Sept. 21, 1953, in Morgantown, W. Va.

High school: Gnadenhutten (Ohio) Indian Valley South

College: West Virginia

Years as head coach: 22

Record as head coach: 517-184

Years at UC: 14

Record at UC: 349-112

Conference championships: 9

Conference tournament championships: 7

NCAA Tournament appearances at UC: 12

Elite Eight appearances: 3 (1992, 1993, 1996)

Final Four appearances: 1 (1992)

A year of loss and tragedy

Bob Huggins' heart attack on Sept. 28 was just the start of a difficult 12-month period for the University of Cincinnati basketball coach:

Sept. 28 - Suffers a massive heart attack at the Pittsburgh International Airport.

Nov. 30 - UC loses to neighborhood rival Dayton, ending an 11-game UC winning streak over the Flyers.

Dec. 22 - After an impressive upset win over Oregon in the Jimmy V Classic, UC loses to Clemson to fall to 5-3. Dec. 25 - Freshman forward Eric Hicks does not return when the team reassembles after Christmas break. He returns on Dec. 27 but does not play against Miami on Dec. 28.

Jan. 22 - Huggins learns that his mother, Norma Mae, has colon cancer.

Feb. 9 - Robert Whaley, UC's prize recruit from Barton County (Kan.) Community College, is arrested in connection with what police describe as "a brawl" after a basketball game.

March 5 - Forward Eugene Land abruptly leaves the team and does not return. March 12 - UC is eliminated in the first round of the C-USA Tournament by Southern Miss.

March 20 - UC loses to Gonzaga in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Huggins is ejected from the game after arguing with officials early in the second half. May 17 - Hicks is charged with aggravated assault after he's accused of hitting a woman with a beer bottle. The charge is later reduced from a felony to a misdemeanor. He awaits an Oct. 8 trial.

May 24 - Huggins' mother dies with the UC coach at her side. June 5 - Whaley pleads no contest to two counts of misdemeanor assault and is placed on one year's probation and is cleared by UC athletic director Bob Goin to play at UC.

Aug. 2 - Armein Kirkland is charged with domestic violence and assault. The misdemeanor charges are later dismissed.

Aug. 5 - Lima Shawnee guard Jamar Butler reneges on his oral commitment to attend UC and chooses instead to go to Ohio State.



Coach aims for biggest rebound
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