A life of knighthood: Preston AD Bruce Huggins announces retirement

KINGWOOD — Preston High School co-athletic director Bruce Huggins has an impressive number of stories from his 34 years in secondary education, but his favorite one to share involves former co-worker Mike Contic and an overeager reptile.

“We have a pet snake at the school we call Charlie – he’s about a seven foot black snake. Everyone out there knows about Charlie,” he said.

“So we have a mowing building on the property, and Mike and I went in one day to put up the mower. Charlie was hanging up in the rafters, and he dropped right down. Now it didn’t take me too long to get out of there, but Coach Contic was already back in the car.”

Charlie’s sneak attack may be the most humorous challenge Huggins and Contic faced working together over the years, but it certainly wasn’t the most serious. Before Contic’s retirement in 2017, the pair had shared the office of athletic director since the fall of 2001, guiding Preston through a difficult time of little-to-no funding for its sports programs and keeping the athletic department afloat.

Now, Huggins left his office on Friday for the final time as he officially retired from his position at Preston. His departure comes following a 28 year tenure that began with the opening of the school — he also spent time as a teacher of history, special education, and driver’s education, and a coach of girls’ basketball, boys’ basketball, and baseball. Previously, he spent six years at Central Preston before the county consolidated schools.

“Friday was a little hard. It sounds melodramatic, but I love it. The neatest part has been watching these kids go off and be successful,” he said.

“This is always what I wanted to do, and I was fortunate enough to be given that opportunity. It’s been an honor to have the opportunity to serve Preston County in these roles. I just hope that I made an impact.”

The early years

Huggins grew up a son of Preston County, raised outside of Reedsville. He graduated from West Preston High School in 1980, and became an avid golfer while in school due to the influence of Kevin Dodge, his high school English teacher’s husband. Huggins credits the teachers and coaches in Preston County for inspiring him at a young age to pursue a field where he could make a difference for children.

“It’s something that I loved to do. Growing up, the teachers, principals, and coaches I had drove home the ideas of education and giving back. I firmly believe that we have great teachers and coaches in our county, and they played a major role in who I am today.”

Huggins attended WVU, and graduated in 1984 with an undergraduate degree in Secondary Education with a focus on Social Studies and a Safety Education minor (he later obtained a Master’s Degree in Special Education and Learning Disabilities). From there, it didn’t take long for him to figure out where he wanted to go and what he wanted to do.

“I graduated on a Saturday at WVU and I started subbing in Preston County the Monday after I graduated. We had multiple high schools in Preston at the time, and Central Preston was my first job offer,” he said.

“I grew up here and I love it — this school system gave me a good education, and I wanted to give back. I never wanted to go anywhere else. It’s home to me.”

Among Huggins’ first class of students at Central Preston was a bright-eyed pupil by the name of Joe Schmidle, who would eventually go on to take the reins of the University boys’ basketball program and capture the 2019 Class AAA State Boys’ Basketball Championship.

“Bruce was my teacher, and he was a student teacher my junior year and I had him for history. We all loved him — he was a sports fanatic, and he was a great guy. You could tell even back then that he loved kids,” Schmidle said.

Huggins was quickly hired as a history and driver’s education teacher by the school, and got into coaching soon after — he served as an assistant girls’ basketball coach and baseball coach during the mid-late 1980’s.

During his tenure with the baseball team at Central Preston, Huggins served under head coach Mark McCarty, who could tell when it came to working with kids — both academically and athletically — there was something special about him.

“He was always very loyal to the program. That was his number one asset. He was very dedicated to the job — I taught with him as well, and he was always real dedicated to the kids and into their progress. He was willing to put any time in that was needed — he went above and beyond. For a while he was a volunteer assistant and he worked as hard as any paid assistant I ever had,” he said.

The Preston High era

Until the 1990s, there were four high schools serving Preston County — Bruceton High, Central Preston High, East Preston High and West Preston High. In 1989, a vote was held to consolidate the four into one larger school serving all high school students in the county, effective during the 1991-92 term.

Huggins would join the girls’ basketball and baseball staff as an assistant during the inaugural year, and was hired the following year as a special education instructor and head baseball coach. There were plenty of challenges that came with the change and the new environment, and one large one impacted Huggins and his sport rather heavily.

“The big thing was we didn’t have a baseball field. The first year of the school we played uptown where Central Preston played — then my first year as a head coach we played at Valley District Youth league’s field. It wasn’t until the third year of the school that our field was playable,” he said.

In the mid 1990s, more problems arose with the failure of a levy to supply extra funding to the county’s school system — the development left the district with only the minimum state funding available, which means the athletic department took a large hit.

“There was no extra money to pay so the county had to quit paying the coaches salary and the bussing. Each sport had to cover their own. In the last four years or so the board picked that back up, but before that we had to fundraiser for everything. We went a long time without that levy,” he said.

“They cut half pay originally. Then we had to drive to all the ball games. During the baseball season it wasn’t unusual for me, my wife, and our assistant principal to drive to ball games. A lot of the time my family had two vehicles to put gas in. We did that out of our own pockets.”

The challenges Huggins faced fueled his desire once he earned the role as co-athletic director to ensure the fair treatment of every athlete in every sport, and to do his best to keep the programs running when funding continued to fall through. For Contic, it was a large part of why he chose Huggins to help him in the position.

“It was really a lot of fun — the kids came from all over the county, and they gelled. That’s what made Preston work — people always said it wouldn’t but the kids made it work. They didn’t care, because they just wanted to play ball. Looking back it was all worth it. I’d do it again in a heartbeat,” Huggins said.

“He’s always been involved in athletics. He’d been down the path of the struggles. He coached before and after the levy failed. They’re going to miss him. He did a lot of extra stuff that a lot of AD’s don’t – stuff that I couldn’t do. He’s going to be hard to replace. He wanted to keep our sports going for the kids. Neither one of us were driven by the idea of ourselves,” Contic added.

Rising to the top

In the fall of 2001, Contic faced a conundrum — it was his seventh year on the job, and he was tasked with not only running the office of athletic director on his own, but also heading both the varsity football and wrestling programs at the school. He knew stepping down from one of the roles wasn’t an option — lest he wanted to dash the dreams of young athletes across the county — but he had to find some assistance.

Meanwhile, Huggins had mostly retired from the coaching gig — he volunteered on the sidelines for boy’s basketball as a favor to Schmidle, who was then the JV coach at Preston, but his health had gotten in the way of continuing one of his passions full-time. Contic had a feeling that Huggins would be perfect to help him handle position of athletic director.

“My hip had worn out, and I couldn’t physically keep doing the coaching thing. Coach Contic needed help and asked me — he thought that this position would be a good way to help keep me involved in athletics.”

With money and resources scarce at the school, times were tough. For a while, many involved in the athletic department at the time called the survival of athletics during the 1990s and 2000s a team effort, which was headed by the duo of Contic and Huggins.

“We were a good team — Bruce did the computer work and I did the other stuff. Those were tough years, because those were the years without levy money. Everything had to be raised or brought in through gate seats,” Contic said.

“We were a lot alike — we were very concerned about the minor sports. We wanted everyone to have a fair shake, but there was no money to upgrade facilities. We had to go out and get people to donate.”

Despite the lack of funding and the extra challenges, Huggins played a crucial role in keeping the department running smoothly, and earned much respect and admiration for his willingness to go above and beyond the traditional requirements of the job.

“Whether it was track meets, the Knight Night relays, or any conference or regional meet we had, Bruce was a hands-on athletic director. He was the first guy to show up and the last to leave after tearing down. There’s nobody with a work ethic like him. You won’t find someone in the county who will put in the hours he did,” Preston cross-country coach Paul Martin said.

“I wouldn’t have wanted to work with anyone else. He used to take care of the opposite teams in football, he’d work the gate, help run the track meets, and help take care of the football field,” Contic added.

While many would argue that the effort put in by Huggins is extraordinary, it was never something he viewed that way. It was all about keeping something special going for those who needed it most — the students whose lives were shaped and molded by athletics.

“That’s just part of being a team player. It took everyone working together and that was huge. None of us quit — we were willing to keep working for the kids. It took all of us working together, and because we did, those athletics survived. Those coaches have to be commended too, because they were working their butts off trying to make sure they had the same opportunities that we did as kids,” he said.

“I believe in our system, our kids, and our athletes. Athletics are so important in these kids’ lives, and it doesn’t always have to be athletics; it’s just belonging to something. There are kids who have come back to me and said if it wasn’t for athletics, they don’t know how they would have went off to school or where they’d be. That’s the great part of it.”

A legacy as large as Preston County is wide

Schmidle is currently recognized as one of the top Class AAA basketball coaches in the state of West Virginia — but long before he was coaching the brightest young players in the state, he was a rookie teacher at Preston, just beginning his journey towards molding young minds.

On day one of his new gig, he was informed that he’d have to share a classroom with a co-worker. When he walked into his new workspace, he was surprised to find his new roommate was none other than his high school teacher. Eventually, he’d serve as a mentor in the world of coaching as well.

“I was as happy as I could be getting to know that I would get to work with Bruce Huggins. He was coaching the baseball team at the time, and he was the girl’s basketball coach before that. I decided I wanted to get into coaching, and I took the job at Central Preston Middle School, and I asked Bruce if he’d be my volunteer assistant,” he said.

“We worked together there one year, then he came to Preston and helped me with the JV team under Coach Barry Sanders for four more years. He was always there for me, and the whole time we stayed close. You’ll never find someone who cares about kids more than Bruce Huggins.”

While Huggins may mull over whether or not he made enough of an impact at Preston, that’s certainly not a thought that’s entered the mind of anyone else he spent time working with. Whether it was the minds he molded in the classroom, the lessons he taught as a coach, or the role he played in providing athletic opportunities for Preston over the past two decades, it’s hard to deny that he served as an influence and inspiration to those who came across his path at Preston.

“He basically lived at the school — it’s going to be quite strange not having him present all the time,” Martin said. “Just from a consistency standpoint, to do a coaching job in this county you havto wear many different hats. There’s a lot to stress about. But here, you never had to worry about Bruce’s commitment to your sport — he always had your back. He always treated every sport fairly, unequivocally.”

“The thing I probably learned more from Bruce than anything is how to be around kids,” Schmidle said. “Coming from playing college basketball, you sometimes need to be brought down a few levels to where you can relate to these young kids. One of the first lessons he ever taught me was not to ever assume these kids know something — there are a lot of kids who have never been coached, or that have been playing a long time but they don’t know the sport.”

His influence also extends into his personal life, where his work has created lasting and important relationships.

“He comes from a really good family, and he’s a real quality human being. He was an excellent assistant, but he’s one of my best friends,” former coach Mark McCarty said.

“There are a lot of decisions I make in life that I run by him,” Martin said. “He’s not just the director of athletics — he’s one of my closest friends, and his wife was one of my favorite teachers in high school.

“Neither of them ever had kids, but they’ve influenced thousands, including me, through the classroom and athletics.”

With the search on to find a replacement for his position, current co-athletic director and assistant principal Pam Wilt will take over a majority of the duties. As Huggins vacates his role for the final time, he looks back fondly at the opportunities he was able to provide for students and athletes alike in the Preston school system.

“Everything we add, it gives the kids a chance to belong to something and excel at it. Hopefully I made a difference and taught these kids to treat everyone fairly and respectfully. If I made any sort of difference, that makes my whole career worth it,” he said.