YOUNGSTOWN — Youngstown State head coach Jerrod Calhoun doesn’t mince words when speaking of his former boss and Wednesday’s opponent, West Virginia’s Bob Huggins.
“In my opinion, there’s not a better coach in the country,” he said.
Calhoun’s relationship with Huggins dates back to his time in college. YSU’s coach played two seasons at Cleveland State before transferring to the University of Cincinnati, where he served as a student assistant under Huggins, who was the Bearcats’ head coach at the time, during the 2003-04 season.
Then, when an assistant coaching job at Walsh University opened in 2004, Huggins put a word in for Calhoun.
“When the assistant job at Walsh opened up, I called and said, ‘You’ve got to get this guy. … He may be the next superstar to come out of Ohio as a coach,’” Huggins explained after the teams met at the Covelli Center in 2019.
Calhoun served in that role for three seasons before rejoining Huggins as the director of basketball operations at West Virginia when Huggins returned to his alma mater in 2007. Eventually, Calhoun was named an assistant coach for his final season in Morgantown, before serving as head coach at nearby Fairmont State, a Division II school, for four seasons and then at YSU in 2017.
“Working for him, you really learn how to run a program,” Calhoun said.
On the court, Calhoun described Huggins as a “tremendous” practice and defensive coach, and noted, “you really learn how to run a practice; you really learn how to manage players.”
Of defense, Calhoun added, “I think (Huggins) is one of the best defensive coaches in the country, so you learn so much from him.”
And defense is what Calhoun said has become the identity of this year’s Penguins. YSU is giving up just 65.6 points per game right now, the second-best mark in the Horizon League behind IUPUI.
The tutelage doesn’t end with on-court operations, either. Part of any head coach’s duties at the Division I level includes fundraising and being the CEO of a program, and Calhoun said Huggins helped prepare him in that aspect, too.
“He’s the best fundraiser I’ve ever seen. He literally led the charge for a ($24.1 million) practice facility (that opened in 2012), and I got to sit in on those meetings,” Calhoun said.
Now in his fifth season as the CEO and head coach of his own DI program, Calhoun and his Penguins are preparing for their final visit to Morgantown as part of the 2-for-1 deal the teams worked out. YSU played at WVU in 2018, a 106-72 loss, and returns this year. West Virginia made a rare trip to a mid-major when it came to the Covelli Center in 2019, a game YSU played well in but ultimately lost 75-64.
“It was really generous of him to do that,” Calhoun said of Huggins’ willingness to play a 2-for-1. Huggins, though, hasn’t been shy about facing former assistants. In addition to the agreement with YSU, the Mountaineers traveled to Birmingham, Alabama, over the weekend for a Saturday night game against UAB, who’s coached by Andy Kennedy. Kennedy served under Huggins at Cincy.
On Dec. 4, the Mountaineers hosted Radford, coached by former WVU guard Darris Nichols, who played under Huggins a year and then served as a graduate assistant in the 2010-2011 season.
Huggins was on the winning side of those matchups with UAB and Radford, and Calhoun admits he’s entered as a “major underdog” in each of his matchups with WVU, none of which he’s won.
“I think he knows something that we don’t,” Calhoun joked. “He’s obviously very successful against his former assistants, and we’re dumb enough to sign up for the challenge.”
But, Calhoun added, the opportunity to face — and in YSU’s case in 2019, host — a Power 5 team is beneficial.
“You owe it to your team as a coach to make sure you get a Power 5 on the schedule, because if you’re good enough to make the NCAA Tournament, you’re going to play a Power 5,” Calhoun said. “So we want to be battle tested.”
Tip-off is set for 6 p.m. Wednesday at the WVU Coliseum.