MANHATTAN, Kan. — The April night in 2007 remains fresh for Garth Gardiner, who drove four hours from his quarter-horse farm in Ashland, Kan., to find himself prowling around Bob Huggins’ house near the K-State campus.
Gardiner’s mission? Convince his friend Huggins to remain the Wildcats’ basketball coach.
“I looked sort of like a burglar, because all the house lights were turned off and there I was peeking into windows.” Gardiner eventually spotted the coach’s wife, June, seated in a darkened living room and talking into the phone. He tapped on the window to gain her attention, and once she recognized the face of the man who had spent countless nights drinking and gabbing in the coach’s man-cave basement, June motioned him toward the front door.
“As soon as I walked in she just hugged me and said ‘I don’t want to leave here,’” Gardiner said. “And I told her, ‘We don’t want you to leave either.’”
The coach was asleep at the moment, having driven the couple back from their Ohio cabin, a 12-hour roadtrip made so Huggins could speak with K-State administrators about the pending offer from West Virginia. “I’m supposed to get him up at 10:30,” June said, “so you should wait.” Gardiner sat with June in the den, recounting the memories from the previous year until it came time for the coach’s late-night wake-up call.
“He looked like absolute crap, the worst I’d ever seen him,” Gardiner said. “And that’s really saying something because I’ve seen Huggs after some late-night drinking with the guys. But this time he just looked really stressed out.
“We just kind of embraced and he said ‘What the hell are you doing here?’ and I said I’m trying to keep you in Manhattan. And Huggs told me, ‘Man, I’m not going anywhere.’”
Yet Gardiner sensed differently. He saw a coach torn between two places he loved and thought the lure of returning home to West Virginia would be stronger than the lure of his new home.
“He looked like absolute crap, the worst I’d ever seen him. And that’s really saying something because I’ve seen Huggs after some late-night drinking with the guys. But this time he just looked really stressed out. — K-State booster Garth Gardiner recalling the eve of Huggins’ departure in 2007
Within 24 hours, two WVU boosters dispatched a plane to bring Huggins to Morgantown, effectively ending his one-year rebuilding project at K-State, where the team’s 23 wins were the most in 19 seasons.
“It was tough to see him leave K-State because we really had just got the ball rolling,” Gardiner said. “I saw what he did for K-State basketball — he made them matter again — and I knew what was coming if he stayed.”
(Huggins, speaking after WVU’s Monday morning shootaround at K-State, recalled how the folks in Manhattan “are wonderful — they’re a lot like West Virginia people. And I’ve said a thousand times I would have never left K-State for any place else but West Virginia.”)
The breakup stung Gardiner, for years a courtside season-ticketholder, who grew up idolizing Jack Hartman’s Big Eight title teams of the ’70s and was a K-State student in the late ’80s when Lon Kruger steered the Wildcats to four consecutive NCAA tournament berths. Hiring Huggins, Gardiner thought, signaled that K-State “would no longer accept mediocrity” that permeated the 16 years in between.
Gardiner’s first introduction to the coach only intensified his optimism.
“He didn’t know me from Adam until the day (athletics director) Tim Weiser walked me into his office,” Gardiner said. “I had a lump in my throat. It was almost like going and meeting the Godfather, because Huggs has such a presence about him.”
But the godfather was so personable, so accepting, so full of marvelous coaching stories, that Gardiner was magnetized. (“Huggs was real,” he said several times during last week’s phone interview.)
Gardiner felt so comfortable around the coach that he begged him to stop wearing the white rattlesnake-skin boots. “They had pointed toes, and I think they even had gold tips. It was like a bad dream from a 1980s discotheque. I was embarrassed for him, so I bought him a nice pair of dress boots.”
Gardiner would join Huggins and the staff for the “really good steaks, the really greasy fries and the really good cocktails” at Doe’s Eat Place, where the owner welcomed the crew to stay late after games.
“He didn’t know me from Adam until the day (athletics director) Tim Weiser walked me into his office. … It was almost like going and meeting the Godfather, because Huggs has such a presence about him.”
Recalling one Big Monday hangout, Gardiner said a midnight dinner at Doe’s bled into “us having breakfast there as well. My wife, who had tapped out hours earlier, just picked me up at the restaurant on her way back out of town.
“That’s the thing about Huggs: Once you go out with him, you don’t tell Huggs goodbye. He was always like, ‘C’mon, Garth, one more.’ And me being competitive, I wasn’t going to give in, so I would stay until the end.
Huggins made it more difficult for buddies to escape his basement “because he kind of guarded the stairwell,” said Gardiner, who said there was only one benefit to Huggins’ departure. “My liver’s much healthier now that he’s gone.”
Nearly six years have elapsed since Gardiner prowled around Huggins’ house. He remained friends with assistant-turned-head coach Frank Martin, who actually implored the booster to visit Huggins that fateful night, saying “he’ll talk to you.” (Gardiner no longer has season tickets, however. He declined to renew them last spring when he felt K-State didn’t make a strong enough push to retain Martin.)
“You really miss that kind of comradery,” said Gardiner, emphasizing that Huggins and Martin remain misunderstood from a national perspective.
“All people see are these guys on ESPN with the veins popping out of their necks, and they just think they’re mad men,” he said. “They don’t see the guys who love their players and family and friends behind closed doors. But on the court, those guys are driven competitors who don’t like to lose. That’s why they’ve been successful.”
And that’s why Huggins was successful, albeit it for only a one-year stop, in the Little Apple — where Huggins returns tonight with his West Virginia squad.
“When he walks through that tunnel at Bramlage Coliseum on Monday night, I just hope he gets the respect and the thanks that he deserves,” Gardiner said. “I hope the fans of K-State basketball realize what he did — he brought it back from the dead.”