When Bob Huggins joined West Virginia as the head coach in 2007, his starting point guard was a junior named Darris Nichols.
Nichols was a bit of a gift for Huggins — he was already experienced and well-coached having played two seasons under John Beilein. Over the next two seasons, he gave Huggins more than 10 points per game and helped mold some of WVU’s stars that eventually took the program to a Final Four.
Saturday, Huggins will go through a first. For the first time in his career, WVU’s legendary coach will square off against one of his former players, as Nichols recently took the head job at Radford.
Country roads have led Nichols home in two ways. WVU fans will relish the opportunity to see one of their stars on the opposing sideline of a building in which he played 144 games, of course, but on a bigger scale, Nichols took his first coaching job in his home town of Radford.
This will be a unique case in which Huggins, who coaches in his hometown of Morgantown, will square off against a former player, who also represents his own hometown.
Nichols has already made the rounds in the college basketball world since ending his playing career. As an assistant, he spent time at West Virginia, Northern Kentucky, Wofford, Louisiana Tech and Florida before getting his first head coaching job. He even faced Huggins and WVU three times while at Florida, visiting the Coliseum last year as his Gators defeated the Mountaineers in the Big 12/SEC Challenge.
Admittedly, Radford is a much different program in size and scope from Florida — but Huggins, who began his career at Walsh, says he is happy for his former player.
“I’m happy for Darris,” Huggins said. “It’s a great opportunity for him, and particularly to be able to do it in his hometown. We all start somewhere and hopefully have success, and hopefully that success is continued other places.”
College basketball is a much different sport from what it was during Huggins’s days at Walsh, however. He says it’s tougher to build relationships with players and other coaches, something that Huggins prides himself on — and for that reason, he wouldn’t want to be an upstart coach like Nichols in this day and age.
Still, Huggins is confident in Nichols, and says he knows what he’s doing.
“Everybody thought I was crazy when I left Ohio State to go to Walsh, which maybe I was. Everybody said, why do you do it? And I said because I believe in myself,” Huggins said. “I’m betting on me. And I think that’s what Darris has done, and you know I think that you’ve gotta have a strong belief in yourself and a belief in what you do…and I think Darris possesses those qualities.”
Nichols’s tenure hasn’t gotten off to a strong start as his team sits 4-4 at the beginning of December. Huggins says this is normal, though, and it’s his job as a coach to figure out how to fix it — whether it’s making subtle adjustments or big changes.
“I think Darris has done that,” Huggins said. “He went from them struggling to winning three in a row and playing really well. I mean if you watch those three games, they’re playing really well.”
One of those wins, in fact, came against Eastern Kentucky — a squad that gave WVU trouble.