MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - Jerrod Calhoun’s journey as a basketball coach began in 2003 when Bob Huggins gave him a shot as a student assistant at Cincinnati.
Fifteen years later, the two coaches are preparing to go head-to-head.
Huggins’ Mountaineers will host Calhoun and Youngstown State Saturday at the WVU Coliseum in a matchup that will pit one of college basketball’s winningest coaches against a former star pupil.
“I wouldn’t be here today without him, so I owe a ton to him,” said Calhoun, who has begun his second year as the head coach of the Penguins.
Calhoun was a part of Huggins’ staff from 2007-2012, an era that included West Virginia’s run the Final Four and Big East tournament title in 2009-10. He spent the final season of that span as an assistant coach before taking his first head coaching position at Fairmont State in 2012.
A run to the pinnacle of Division II basketball was in the cards for him there: Calhoun led the Falcons to the national championship game in 2017 after winning an NCAA regional title.
Now as a Division I head coach, Calhoun has started over again, relying on what he learned from Huggins to stay on the right track.
“All those guys that worked under him have been really successful, so you just try to listen to him and take things that you learned from him to implement on a daily basis with your program,” said Calhoun. “There’s probably not a day that goes by that, if you’re doing a practice plan or you’re doing a shoot around or you’re doing a scout or you’re talking to a player, that there’s not a story that you constantly think in your head: ‘What would Coach Huggins do?’”
Calhoun admits his latest endeavor hasn’t been easy: the Penguins are currently 3-5 after finishing 8-24 in his first season at the helm. With 10 freshmen and sophomores on a 17-man roster, the Penguins are also one of the youngest teams in college basketball.
There are signs of improvement this year, though: The Penguins have led or tied the score in the second half of all five of their losses.
“Sometimes we look really good, sometimes we look like we’re very, very young, which we are,” said Calhoun. “We’ve battled in a lot of games, we’ve played Pitt already. At our level, scheduling is really hard, so when we get a chance to play a high-major within a couple of hours [like West Virginia], it’s a really good experience for our guys.”
Huggins said Calhoun’s experience at Youngstown State, a school known for its strong FCS football program, is similar to what he experienced when he coached at Akron in the 1980s.
“Basketball was kind of an afterthought,” said Huggins. “That’s kind of what Jerrod is facing at Youngstown. Jerrod’s not afraid to get in the community. I think he proved that at Fairmont.”
At Fairmont State, Calhoun helped return the program to heights it hadn’t seen since the Joe Retton era. He also played a hand in a $1.2 million renovation to the team’s facility.
But success didn’t occur instantly: It took five seasons for the Falcons to become one of the toughest teams in Division II during the 2016-17 season – playing a brand of basketball that looked similar to something fans might see from one of Huggins’ teams at the Coliseum.
“We couldn’t ever really get over the hump [at Fairmont],” said Calhoun. “We just kept caring about one another, kept working with them, and it eventually led to  wins and a chance to play for a national championship.”
Huggins called Calhoun’s success at Fairmont “unbelievable,” and believes he can turn the program at Youngstown into a winner over time.
“He’s not afraid to work, and he’s obviously very good with people,” said Huggins.
Calhoun said there’s a parallel between Fairmont’s run to the national championship in 2017 and West Virginia’s Final Four run seven years prior: Both teams had the right players, and those players believed in their systems. His goal now is to create that same type of belief at Youngstown, something he thinks Huggins cultivates better than any other coach.
“Huggs’ teams, they just embrace him,” said Calhoun. “They are a reflection of him. They’re tough. They’re relentless. Yeah, they may have lost a few games, but I think if anybody knows Coach Huggins and their program, he’s gonna get it fixed. He’s gonna get it done. That’s why he’s going to be a hall of famer.
“That’s what I respect about Coach Huggins and their program. They have a standard. They not only play for themselves, they play for their entire state. That’s the thing I think that’s different – so much different – with West Virginia.”