|West Virginia's unexpected success sweet for hometown fans|
|Written by Admin|
|Monday, 24 March 2008 09:48|
But for hometown fans of homegrown coach Bob Huggins, the unlikely odds make West Virginia's early victories in the NCAA tournament that much sweeter.
``Everything from here on is a bonus,'' said Mountaineer fan Ed Garner, bowling Monday afternoon with friends at Suburban Lanes.
Across town, graduate student Jason Gross was waiting for wings - and Thursday's unexpected matchup with Xavier.
``There's no name for making it to the top 32,'' he said, ``but that would have been good enough.''
It's been a tough 12 months for West Virginia fans.
First, John Beilein left West Virginia to lead the basketball team at Michigan. Then in December, native son Rich Rodriguez abandoned the football team for Michigan just weeks after his team blew a chance to play for the national championship.
While Beilein is generally regarded to have left with grace, or what Garner calls ``the right way,'' Rodriguez's abrupt departure touched off a bitter and public dispute, and an ongoing lawsuit over his $4 million buyout clause.
John Zuercher, a 2004 graduate now working for a downtown engineering firm, said Huggins has given fans something else to focus on - temporarily laying aside their bitterness toward Rodriguez.
``I don't think they're really ever going to let go of it,'' he said.
Gigi Lee, regional manager for the Boston Beanery restaurants, admits to a little satisfaction in knowing that while West Virginia is now among the Sweet 16, Beilein's team is sitting at home.
The Wolverines lost a record 22 games in Beilein's first year. By contrast, Huggin's team is 26-10 heading into Thursday's game.
Lee's wrinkled bracket sheet showed the Mountaineers falling in the first round, not beating Arizona 75-65. She never imagined Huggins would lead the team over second-seeded Duke, 73-67.
``We're all counting on him to lead us all the way through,'' she said in the bar where cocktail napkins still dangled from the lamps long after Saturday's victory.
The emotional significance of his team's victories is not lost on Huggins or his players.
``Having guys like this represent them means a lot to our state,'' Huggins said. ``We don't have professional franchises. We have West Virginia University.''
``The one thing about the West Virginia community is they've obviously been through a lot,'' agreed sophomore guard Joe Mazzulla. ``And when a team's doing well, they do a great job of rallying behind their team and showing great pride, great passion for that team.
``When I'm out there, I look in the stands and I see, like, 5,000 gold jerseys. It's just a great feeling to know we can make the West Virginia community happy.''
Even as Huggins rebuilds his own reputation, he is restoring faith.
Huggins was fired from Cincinnati, a school he led to the 1992 Final Four, after a drunken driving arrest, then sat out a season before surfacing at Kansas State in 2007. He took that team to the NIT, losing in the second round, then returned to his native state.
``WVU made a great choice bringing Huggins to town,'' said fan Chris Mahoney. ``Anytime you bring a hometown boy back and he has great success, it's a tribute to the program as a whole.''
But Mahoney, who expected this to be ``an adjustment period'' for the basketball team said the unexpected success also gives fans hope that perhaps another sport won't need long to rebuild.
``When a brand-new coach has a lot of success, it gives fans hope that football will bounce back, too,'' she said. ``There is life without Rodriguez.''
Associated Press sports writer Howard Fendrich contributed to this report from Washington, D.C.