KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — Just over 20 years ago while on a recruiting trip to Pittsburgh, Bob Huggins collapsed at the airport while catching a flight home, awaking to find himself surrounded by strangers who were lifting him into an ambulance.
Then the coach at Cincinnati, Huggins drifted in and out of consciousness on the ride to the hospital, where doctors told the future Hall of Fame coach that he’d suffered a massive heart attack. Huggins wound up having a device implanted to help normalize his heartbeat, and he was told to make some lifestyle changes — exercise more, watch what he was eating, lose some weight and try to lower his stress level.
That last one? That might have been the toughest one.
Long days and longer nights, coupled with the increasingly high stakes of major college basketball, naturally put the health of coaches in peril. Huggins is just one of many who have dealt with issues over the years.
So when Huggins, now the coach at West Virginia, learned Thursday that longtime friend and Kansas counterpart Bill Self had gone to the emergency room ahead of the Big 12 Tournament — and subsequently admitted to the hospital for an undisclosed illness — he could relate in a way that struck him close to home.
“It comes to there are times when you don’t have any choice (but to slow down). And I went through that. I had no choice,” Huggins said, shortly after his Mountaineers were beaten by Kansas in the Big 12 Tournament quarterfinals.
“I was in the hospital with a whole bunch of tubes and somebody coming in, seeming like every 15 minutes, and sticking me with something,” he recalled. “You know, I want Bill to get well — I want to say as soon as he can, but really, I think what I need to say or mean to say is, I want him to come out of there the way he’s always been.”
Officials from Kansas have been short on details of what led Self to be admitted to the hospital late Wednesday. Dr. Steve Stites, the chief medical officer at the University of Kansas Health System, said in a statement that Self did not suffer a heart attack, which some outlets had reported, but that he had a procedure done.
The school initially said Self would miss the Jayhawks’ postseason opener with an illness, then announced Thursday night that he would miss the remainder of the Big 12 Tournament as well. The defending champion Jayhawks were due to play Iowa State on Friday night for a spot in the championship game.
Longtime assistant Norm Roberts intends to lead Kansas for as long as Self is out. Whether that will include the NCAA Tournament, where the Jayhawks are a likely No. 1 seed and also the defending champions, is entirely unknown.
“Coach is doing good,” Roberts said Thursday night. “I talked to him on the phone (after beating West Virginia). He’s doing well. He already wants to watch film and all of that. He’s doing well. He’s doing better.”
Whether the stress of the season — and playing in arguably the toughest league in college basketball — contributed to Self’s health problems is purely conjecture. But there have been plenty of examples that drive home the point that the profession, by its very nature, puts at risk those that demand the most from it.
Huggins is one of them. So is Skip Prosser. The Wake Forest coach suffered his own heart attack after taking a midday run in 2007, and was found slumped on his office couch and unresponsive; he was pronounced dead at the hospital.
The stressful lifestyle isn’t exclusive to basketball, either. Football coach Urban Meyer has said on several occasions that the strain of the job has contributed to his health issues and accompanying leaves of absences and retirements.
“It brings to reality how short life is,” Baylor coach Scott Drew said.
Self is expected to make a full recovery, his doctors said, and the 60-year-old Hall of Fame coach could be in charge of the Jayhawks for years to come. His rolling contract basically gives him the freedom to decide when he hangs it up.
Only he knows when that will be. And what factors he will take into consideration.
“I’m sure at some point in time we’ll talk,” Huggins said. “He and I talk. I’ve been through those things and it’s not any fun. Especially, I think it would be really hard for Bill this time of year, because of them trying to make another run at a national championship, and him being in the state he’s in now. I think that would be very difficult for him.
“He’s a great competitor,” Huggins said. “A tremendous competitor.”