Duggar Baucom has empathy for the dedicated college students inside those mascot costumes.

“It gets awfully hot in there,” the Citadel’s head basketball coach said.

He knows from experience.

Baucom, before switching careers, spent five years as a city cop in Charlotte and four more as a North Carolina highway patrolman. Duties included long hours, tense encounters and a recurring role as McGruff The Crime Dog. Baucom wore the outfit representing a popular 1980s-era canine dedicated to taking “a bite out of crime” while talking to school children about prevention tips (McGruff — sans Baucom — continues to make appearances all over the country).

“The kids got a huge kick out of it,” Baucom said.

And maybe it has a little something to do with the Citadel’s improved play over the last few weeks. The perennial underdog Bulldogs (9-16, 4-9 in the Southern Conference) have three wins in their last five games going into Thursday night’s home date with UNC Greensboro. Included in the stretch are victories over Mercer, Wofford and Furman and a 73-71 loss to first-place ETSU.

“Law enforcement helped me deal with people of all different types, of all different economic backgrounds, all races, everything,” Baucom, 57, said inside his Citadel office. “It put you in stressful situations where you had to think quickly on your feet. That’s a lot like coaching.”

Yes and the Crime Dog stint also led to Baucom’s big basketball break. While working as a law enforcement resource officer at Charlotte’s North Mecklenburg High School, his alma mater, Baucom reconnected with his high school coach. Leroy Holden, who would go on to win over 500 games, asked Baucom to coach the junior varsity team.

Holden’s encouraging pitch: You weren’t very good as a player, you have to be better as a coach.

From JV to Division I

The North Mecklenburg JV went 16-4. Baucom, given a free hand, began the early stages of strategy experiments that led to the fast-pace style he runs at the Citadel.

He was hooked. He eventually retired from law enforcement and in 1995 earned a college degree from UNC Charlotte.

A few months later, Davidson head coach Bob McKillop — “My greatest mentor,” Baucom says — hired Baucom as an unpaid administrative assistant. The launch led to head coaching stops at Tusculum and VMI before the Citadel.

“I think I’m the most blessed guy in the world,” Baucom said. “There are only 351 of us. Especially coming from my background as a JV coach. I didn’t play for Dean Smith, I didn’t have Coach K (Mike Krzyzewski) calling for me. I wasn’t a great player.”

But Baucom does have a Crime Dog edge over all (or surely most) of the other 350 NCAA Division I head coaches.

About that McGruff suit

Baucom and a fellow resource officer took turns playing McGruff at their respective high schools.

“If I had a program at North Mecklenburg he was my McGruff,” Baucom recalled. “If he had a program at Independence I was his McGruff.”

Because there is no way you play McGruff at your own high school.

“Oh, no,” Baucom said. “You couldn’t be seen out of costume.”

That lighter side of police work sure beat attempting to settle domestic disputes between angry and sometimes armed combatants.

“There were more life and death situations in law enforcement than you have to make in coaching,” Baucom said. “If I make a mistake in coaching it will still bother me for a long, long time. But it’s not quite like making a bad decision in law enforcement.”

It always helps to have Crime Dog experience when you’re a Bulldog trying to take a bite out of the Southern Conference.

Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff