From the Foster Projects to head coach at his alma mater, no dream has been too small for Michael Huger
By Tom Ballato
Michael Huger was a kid from New York with a dream of playing basketball. He grew up in the Foster Projects in Harlem, New York. His dream of playing basketball was small, but as he started getting better and growing his game, the dream began to grow.
“You started to realize all the things basketball can give you if you use basketball and not let basketball use you.”
Huger played high school basketball at Stevenson High School in the Bronx, New York, for coach Steve Post. “Steve Post did a great job with us. We were able to win back to back city championships in 1988 and 1989, which was huge.” Mike still has a relationship with his former high school coach, who attends some of his games. He also remains close to his backcourt mate in high school, David Cain, who went on to play at St. John’s University.
Basketball was a lot of fun for Huger while he was growing up. When the opportunity came for Huger to go to college, he was recruited by Seton Hall, Temple, Providence, South Carolina, and the list went on. “When it was time to choose a college, coach Jim Larrañaga, who was from the Bronx, I got a chance to know him. He knew my AAU coach at Riverside Church. Back then, there were only two AAU teams, Riverside Church and (New York) the Gauchos. That was it, and if you played for one of these two teams, you were one of the best twenty-four players in New York City.”
Half of his team from Riverside Church were high major talent, Adrian Autry went to Syracuse, and David Cain and Shawnelle Scott went to St. John’s. As for Mike, he went to Bowling Green to play for coach Larrañaga.
Huger played at Bowling Green from 1989-93 and helped them to a pair of NIT appearances. He was Naismith Award nominee and the runner-up for MAC Player of the Year as a senior losing to Gary Trent of Ohio University. “I lost to a freshman named Gary Trent, who ended up being the 11th pick in the NBA Draft a couple of years later. I was upset because he was a freshman, and I was upset until he was the 11th pick in the NBA Draft. Someone saw something in him, and he ended up being three-time (MAC) player of the year.”
The opportunity to play professional basketball became an option for Huger. He went to Turku, Finland his first year. Turku is two hours north of Helsinki, the capital of Finland. Huger, when describing the experience in Turku, said, “It was a great experience for me to go over my first year playing. It was a new environment, new culture, new everything. The sun came up at 11 A.M., and the sunset at 1 P.M., and that was the craziest thing I’ve seen in my entire life.” Huger also described going to play a tournament in Lapland, Finland, a place where they have six months of day and six months of night.
In his professional career, Huger spent two years in Finland, two years in the Netherlands, and nine years in Belgium. He was named Dutch League MVP in 1996, averaging 25.3 points and 5.8 assists per game. In 2000 and 2004, Huger led his clubs to Belgium Cup championships.
At 28 years old, Huger considered coaching for the first time, but he had just signed a two year deal in Antwerp, Belgium. His assistant coach at Bowling Green, Steve Merfled (infamous coach that led #15 Hampton over #2 Iowa State in the NCAA Tournament in 2001) called Huger and asked him what he was going to do after basketball. “He said, ‘You have to figure out what you are going to do after you’re done playing.’ I have a degree in education, and I thought maybe I would teach. He (Merfled) said, ‘What about coaching?’ I didn’t want to coach. He said, ‘Well, coaching is teaching the game of basketball.’ I never looked at coaching in that way.”
Huger came home in the summer and joined Merfled at ABCD Camp in Teaneck, New Jersey. He took notes on players that he liked from the camp, and they discussed them after. His former coach Jim Larrañaga was at the camp, and they talked about why he was at the camp. Coach Merfled ending up offering Huger an assistant coaching job at Hampton, but he had just signed to play in Antwerp. Poor timing, but he got his feet wet at his what life could be like after playing.
When Mike finished playing he tried to get into coaching, but for the first three years, it was tough. Huger said, “My third-year coach Larrañaga (George Mason) called me. He had just lost one of his assistants, Bill Courtney, to Providence and was looking for an assistant. He called me, and we spoke. He told me about the job, salary–everything, but in the end, he said, ‘I can’t hire you. I need an assistant with experience.'” That year George Mason went on an incredible run to the Final Four.
After the season, Larrañaga asked him again if he was interested in coaching. One of his former assistants at Bowling Green, Mike Gillian, just got the head coaching job at Longwood and needed an assistant. Huger didn’t hesitate and took the position. He was living with his wife Tonya in Buffalo, New York, and they made the drive to Longwood in Virginia. Huger would spend two seasons at Longwood, gaining valuable experience as an assistant.
A spot opened up on Larrañaga’s staff at George Mason and he interviewed twelve candidates, including Huger. “He talked to me as if he didn’t know me. He knew me as a player, but he didn’t know me as a coach.” Huger thought the interview went well and he was prepared to travel from Longwood to Cleveland to visit his wife’s family when Jim Larrañaga called. “He said, ‘I want you to come and see me and bring your wife.’ We go in and meet him in his office, he starts talking, and he asks my wife, ‘Why should I hire Michael?'”
Michael’s wife Tonya pointed at a book on Larrañaga’s desk (Good to Great), a book that he loved, according to Huger. His wife said, “You know that line where it says to get the right people on the bus and then decide where you are going? Well, Mike was the right person to get on your bus, now you need to decide where you are going.” That ended up getting Mike the job at George Mason.
After four years at George Mason, Huger followed Larrañaga to Miami. While at George Mason, they won two CAA (Colonial Athletic Association) Tournaments and made the NCAA tournament twice. He spent four years at Miami where they went to the Sweet 16 in 2012-2013, was ranked as high as #2 in the country, and it was an excellent experience for Huger. It was a remarkable process for him to build those teams that included Bruce Brown, Davon Reed, and Shane Larkin. Beating Duke and North Carolina seemed like something that couldn’t be done when Huger went to Miami. Within the first two years of being there, they won the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) Regular Season Championship and ACC Tournament.
The opportunity came at his alma mater Bowling Green. “It was an opportunity to become a head coach, and that was always my dream.” Huger accepted the job at Bowling Green in April of 2015.
When asked about what he instills in his team that he’s learned from coach Larrañaga, Huger said, “Attitude, commitment, class. Our philosophy is one thing that I got from him. The way I run my program is the same way he runs his program. Your attitude is everything; life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it. We talk about commitment, making a total unconditional commitment to our program, to our families, to our educations, and to get better every single day. Class, always carry yourself in a first-class manner. You never get a second chance to make a first impression.” Mike instills this in his players and has created a culture of excellence at Bowling Green.
Since returning to Bowling Green, Huger has rebuilt the program. He’s enjoyed being back at Bowling Green, which now has new and improved facilities. He has been able to build his program from the beginning to the talent the team has now. Bowling Green was a game away from the NCAA Tournament when they lost in the MAC Tournament finals to Buffalo last season.
Huger has Bowling Green rolling this season, and they’ve overcome injuries at the right time. With a team that has experienced success, Huger has his team battling in conference play with the ultimate goal of winning the conference tournament. Bowling Green is led by redshirt junior Justin Turner, who is the leading scorer, and he has great supporting players that fit his system around him.
Justin Turner spoke about his coach and said, “I kinda always called him a guards coach. He has taught me the little things like the pick and roll, ways to read the defense and come off screens. He was a pretty good point guard at Bowling Green, so the things he’s teaching and different ways to see the game is what I appreciate the most.” Huger has built a devoted team that plays for each other.
Huger had his contract extended through the 2023-24 season. Bowling Green’s future is in the right hands with Huger at the helm. With the support of his wife Tonya and his son Michael Jr., Huger has everything he needs at Bowling Green.