West Liberty Flying To Unthinkable Heights

WEST LIBERTY – Jim Crutchfield-coached teams go about their business a bit differently than most.

In an age where nearly every men’s basketball program is working the shot clock into the single digits on most possessions, West Liberty is inbounding the ball and racing to the other end. Defensively, it’s almost non-stop ball pressure.

Perhaps Crutchfield figures he doesn’t have time to waste.

”When he came to us at West Liberty, the only coaching job that was open was tennis and he slotted in there,” West Liberty athletics director Jim Watson said. ”He hung in there and for a while was the third assistant with the basketball team because he wanted to be around the game.

”Those early years were tough, but he had to get a chance to be his own man.”

Crutchfield has made the last 10 seasons look amazingly easy.

The Hilltoppers embark on their fourth straight trip to the Elite 8 this week – that’s a historical first for anyone in the NCAA Division-II ranks – and will be seeking the school’s first men’s basketball national title when they open by playing defending national champion Drury at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Ford Center in Evansville, Ind.

The numbers West Liberty has produced along the way, victories and otherwise, have been astounding.

In addition to winning four straight Atlantic Region crowns, Crutchfield’s resume is the envy of every coach, regardless of division, in college basketball.

Consider these facts:

— Crutchfield took over the Hilltoppers on the heels of a 4-23 season and promptly went 21-10 for just the third 20-victory season in school history.

— His teams have won at least 20 games in each of his 10 seasons, including last season’s school-record 34-2 finish.

— Crutchfield’s 270-48 (.849) record is the highest winning percentage in NCAA history for anyone with more than 10 seasons at one school.

— West Liberty is an NCAA Division II-best 156-12 (.929) in the last five seasons and is averaging more than 31 victories during that span.

— The Hilltoppers have led the nation in scoring, including this season (101.5 points per-game), in nine of the last 10 seasons.

— West Liberty has been ranked in 66 consecutive NABC Top 25 Coaches’ polls and has been in the Top-10 the last 44 times they’ve come out.

— Crutchfield is a six-time conference coach of the year, a two-time National Coach of the Year and has been named the recipient of the West Virginia Sports Writers’ Association’s Furfari Award, given annually to the state’s top college coach, three years in a row. Only two others – West Virginia men’s basketball coach Bob Huggins and former Marshall football coach Bob Pruett – have duplicated that feat.

”Not in my wildest dreams would I have ever seen it at this point. You just don’t win that percentage of games,” Crutchfield said. ”I can’t explain why we score 100 points, because we don’t talk about it.

”As far as the style of the play, everybody thinks they want to play that way. But it’s really hard to do. The hard part was to convince people we could do it different.”

It didn’t take long for Crutchfield to put his fingerprints on the program he had coveted for so long. The Hilltoppers were 19 games below .500 the previous season and returned few seniors.

The foundation was laid that first season.

”I didn’t feel like there was pressure to win immediately so I didn’t have to go out and try to bring in a quick fix with junior college players or transfers,” Crutchfield recalled. ”We dropped a game at West Virginia Tech and then went to a tournament in Shippensburg and lost to Barton and Shippensburg. We were 1-2 or 1-3 and everyone was so excited because they liked the way we were doing things.

”If we would have started this year 1-2, 1-3, someone would think something was very wrong.”

Crutchfield has stuck to that four-year player philosophy during his tenure, and what that does is allow the Hilltoppers to keep the cupboard stocked with the next big thing or things, and by the time it’s their turn to play, they are more than ready. That creates a bond – an all-in mentality – and prevents a drop-off when the program loses seven players who combined for more than 10,000 career points, as West Liberty has with the graduation of its last two classes.

”The tough part is, a lot of high school kids are looking for that instant gratification and you aren’t going to get that at West Liberty,” Crutchfield said. ”I think we look for guys that fit our system very well. There are guys that go other places and play well, but wouldn’t be very good at West Liberty.

”I’ve turned a couple of big men away because they are limited to being stuck on that block with their back to the basket.”

About that style. What is it exactly?

Crutchfield describes it as at times, chaotic. It’s not a gimmick, though, and he cringes every time the word is associated with the program.

”Those gimmick styles have never been able to sustain success on a year-to-year basis,” Crutchfield points out. ”Our system may look chaotic to everyone else, but to the guys on the court it doesn’t.

”The things that we do, we do them over and over every day in practice.”

Maybe the most impressive part of this extended West Liberty run is that Crutchfield has never had the strongest, fastest or most athletic team. As he often says, ”we haven’t won a warmup yet.”

The one thing the Hilltoppers have more of than seemingly everyone else is effort, which translates well to a blue-collar community.

”I really do appreciate our fanbase,” Crutchfield said. ”All the effort that goes into a basketball game and from the effort the university puts into the gym, to the locker rooms, to paying the coaches, and also the people that drive up here to pay to watch us play …

”To play and not play our hardest is ludicrous.”

A big part of that fanbase, Watson said, was the construction of the state-of-the-art Academic Sports and Recreation Complex.

”It has become a lure for the local community, which is made up of a lot of residents of that little area,” Watson said. ”The locals, as we refer to them, are lifelong residents.

”This gives them a focal point and place to gather, but it has extended beyond just a game. Churches have meals for the players and our fans travel more than any other fanbase I have seen.”

The marriage between Crutchfield and the West Liberty administration is a good one. It’s so strong, in fact, that the coach cited it as one of the main reasons he would remain at the school if a Division-I institution came looking for his services, as a few have done in the past.

”I’ve had good support from Jim (Watson) on down to our president since I got the job and that has made it more enjoyable,” Crutchfield said. ”They have let me be more independent and they have enough confidence to let this go and haven’t tried to control me.

”I have more freedom than I probably would at a lot of other places.”

The reason for that is elementary, Watson said.

”He’s earned it,” the AD said. ”Jim was a faculty member and an excellent teacher. We’ve been able to retain Jim for a number of reasons, certainly because he has been able to promote his full passion.

“Did I know it would turn out this way? No. But he certainly paid his dues.”