Deep in the heart of Zag Nation, a hillbilly stands alone.
Charles R. Huggins is the name, although “Hillbilly Huggins” is how he introduced himself to me on the phone.
The North Side resident wanted me to know that not every Spokane hoops fan will be barking for the Bulldogs when Gonzaga takes the court this afternoon (4:20 on TNT) in its NCAA tournament opener against West Virginia.
Not ol’ Double H. No sir.
This 77-year-old delinquent will be hollering for the Mountaineers to bag the Zags and skin ’em for their hides.
“I think West Virginia is going to beat ’em,” predicts Huggins, adding that he watches “Hillbilly College” whenever the school’s games are on TV.
Uh, Hillbilly College?
“It was Hillbilly College and always will be Hillbilly College,” said Huggins with love in his voice.
A true West Virginian, this Huggins. He was born near the city of Wheeling in 1934, “on Apple Pie Ridge and in Johnnycake Run.”
(A “run” is another word for valley.)
“I went to a two-room schoolhouse at the end of the run,” he recalled, detailing his hillbilly credentials.
“It had outhouses, and if you wanted a drink of water you had to use the outdoor pump. I remember sometimes going to school with no shoes on.”
And if that isn’t convincing enough, here’s the clincher:
An amateur genealogist, Huggins said his research has uncovered an actual kinfolk link to the Mountaineers basketball coach, Bob Huggins.
“We are related down the way,” said my host, not long after I arrived at his home.
Huggins showed me a sheaf of bracket-filled papers that bore a strange resemblance to NCAA tournament pairings.
I couldn’t make heads or tails out of it, but then I know less about genealogy than I do about hunting raccoons.
According to Hillbilly Huggins, however, his great-great-great grandfather was a brother or a cousin of Coach Huggins’ great-great-great grandfather.
This apparently all took place back in the 1700s, or about the time Dick Vitale was adding “Dipsy-doo, Dunk-a-roo” to his repertoire of grating catchphrases.
Huggins said he mailed a packet of genealogical data to Coach Huggins, who called him back, although Charles wasn’t home to take the call.
A few days later, our Huggins tried to return the favor, but this time it was the coach who wasn’t in.
Which leads to a question: How many attempts does it take for two hillbillies to reach each other on the phone?
Before I step in it any further, it should be mentioned that WV is no doubt a fine place of learning and worlds apart from any stereotypical images of toothless hill folk who smoke corncob pipes and brew moonshine.
“I have a cousin who still makes moonshine back there,” announced Huggins. “Whenever I visit I always bring back a bottle.”
I guess the point of all this is that Huggins finds no shame in the H-word.
On the contrary, he said, “It’s not derogatory. That’s what everybody is from West Virginia. They’re hillbillies.”
Somehow I doubt the West Virginia board of tourism, or whatever it’s called, would go along with this assessment.
The Huggins household, however, is filled with rustic walking sticks, refrigerator magnets, calendars and other items that attest to the man’s good-natured acceptance of his backwoods roots.
Take the pair of outhouse-shaped salt-and-pepper shakers, for example. Or the “Hillbilly Activity & Colorin’ ” book some smart aleck gifted to him.
One of Huggins’ treasured ball caps is emblazoned with the message: “It’s hard to be humble when you’re from West Virginia.”
His Hillbilly Nation T-shirt makes a powerful fashion statement, too.
Why, just the other day, he said, a woman at a gas station told him:
“I look at you and I can tell you’re a hillbilly.”
Huggins practically swooned from the compliment.
Graduating from high school in 1953, Huggins joined the U.S. Navy and left the runs and the ridges far behind. Huggins sailed the globe and achieved the rank of chief petty officer. His last port of call was at the Navy recruiting office right here in landlocked Spokane, where he retired after 23 years of service.
Huggins liked us so much he decided to drop anchor.
And for the most part, the Lilac City and Hillbilly Huggins have made a good match. Then once in a while the great game of basketball gets in the way.
Huggins’ wife, Kathy, you see, is a Zag-loving Irish Catholic.
To make matters worse, there is a granddaughter who attended GU. Another relative, he said, graduated from Gonzaga’s law school.
Someone, Huggins isn’t sure who, left this cheery message on his answering machine:
“Go Zags. To hell with the Hillbillies!”
They don’t call it March Madness for nothing.