MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — When Cincinnati began pursuing two players from Dodge City Community College in 1993, coach Brad Underwood was surprised to see Bob Huggins taking such a hands-on role.
“He was building a dynasty at Cincinnati at that time, but Huggs didn’t have assistant coaches recruiting them,” Underwood said Monday. “He was recruiting them.”
And recruiting with a sincerity that never felt hucksterish.
“Every time he came to town it was about a friendship,” Underwood said. “We’d always go to lunch and/or dinner. He’d come in a couple hours early, visit, and then he’d stay after.
“He was about having a relationship with Brad Underwood and not just about getting a player. It was easy to like Bob Huggins.”
The connection those coaches struck up in Dodge City has blossomed ever since. They coach against one another for the first time Friday night in the NCAA tournament. West Virginia’s Huggins at age 62 chasing career victory No. 787; the 52-year-old Underwood in only his third season as a Division I head coach.
Stephen F. Austin is glad it gave Underwood his chance.
Three successive NCAA tournament bids, three straight Southland Conference coach of the year awards, and that astonishing 88-13 record.
“He’s a really good guy and he’s done a phenomenal job,” said Huggins, who deserves a career assist. After all, he plucked Underwood from Daytona Beach (Fla.) Community College in 2006 to make him director of basketball operations at Kansas State, where Underwood play two decades earlier.
“He hired a junior college coach and brought me back to my alma mater. I’m very, very grateful for the opportunity,” Underwood said Monday while taking his daily walk around the SFA campus in Nacogdoches, Texas.
When Huggins left for West Virginia after one season, Underwood became a bench coach on Frank Martin’s staff. Four NCAA appearances followed over the next five years at K-State before Underwood joined Martin at South Carolina in 2012-13.
Finally, after a quarter-century of coaching came Underwood’s opportunity to lead a program. He won the job at SFA and began dominating the Southland to the tune of 53-1, a stretch that’s almost unimaginable, even to its orchestrator.
“You have confidence you can win, but this has just kind of fallen into the right places,” Underwood said. “Obviously the players made this happen. We’ve got a great situation and a great culture of winning here, which are some of the hardest things to obtain.”
After the 12th-seeded Lumberjacks upset VCU in the 2014 NCAAs, Stephen F. Austin gave Underwood an extension that nearly doubled his salary to $400,000. Last year’s team earned another 12 seed and fought Utah until the final minute, 57-50.
While this SFA team is seeded 14th, Underwood contends “it’s our best basketball team of the three years,” thanks to five seniors in the rotation and the nation’s longest active win streak at 20 games. This was not, however, the best Selection Sunday experience because of the brackets appearing online prematurely.
“It was unfortunate that somehow the thing got leaked,” Underwood said. “I’m an old-school guy, and one of the great feelings is seeing your name come up on the TV screen. That’s one of the cherishable moments as a player, sitting there with the anticipation.
“We were in a restaurant with 400 people, and by the time they announced we were playing West Virginia, most of them already knew.”
The opening-round game—which pairs aggressive defenses and teams that prefer to play fast—could be a treat for fans, though Underwood carries bittersweetness into facing a longtime friend.
“The thing that goes untalked about with Huggs is what a great, not good, but a great communicator he is. Those players go to the end of the earth for him. They love him,” Underwood said. “Does he coach them hard? Absolutely. So do I. But he’s very truthful, very honest and he’s very loyal.”