Rine: Expectations Hard to Meet At West Lib

CHARLESTON – Everyone thinks it must be easy to be a basketball coach – men or women – at West Liberty. Roll the ball out on the floor and conference championships and trips to the national tournament will soon follow.

Except that it really isn’t that simplistic.

Talent-wise, men’s coach Jim Crutchfield has never been blessed with a loaded roster. But he gets the most out of the kids he is able to bring in because he demands hard work. Yet he has two Final Fours and a pair of Elite 8 appearances to his credit.

“People came up to me this summer and said ‘I feel bad for you about last year, but maybe this year,'” Crutchfield said Saturday. ‘I thought, ‘we won the conference championship, we won the tournament championship and we won the regional championship and beat Winona by 20 in the national tournament. That’s pretty good.

“I can’t remember if it was when we lost the one game to Notre Dame or the one to Fairmont, but I had a lot of people say ‘you can get this turned around.’ At that point in time we were a Top-5 team in the country and leading the region with a 20-1 record or whatever, and we’re looking at trying to get something turned around.”

Women’s coach Lynn Ullom certainly doesn’t have any sympathy. His program carried the athletic flag for the entire university for quite a while. His teams were in 8 of 9 West Virginia Conference championship games at one point and he’s won 20 games or more 13 times in the last 15 seasons.

Yet still, people want to know why the Hilltoppers haven’t captured a conference title since 2004.

“Therein lies the problem, the what have you done for me lately mentality,” Ullom said Saturday after his Hilltoppers were beaten in the Mountain East semifinals. “We ruled the roost and three or four universities got serious about it.

“I give our league a lot of credit.”

It’s probably time for everyone else to do the same, because it’s not a case of West Liberty taking a step back, but rather other programs moving forward. It’s a lot easier getting to the top than it is maintining the position once you’re there.

“It’s hard and it’s a constant battle. The number of successes we’ve had, you think it would make it easier. But, no. It makes it harder,” Crutchfield said. “Every now and then it’s good to remind our guys of how we got here.

“In the last year we haven’t had a lot of losses, but in a couple of them we thought we were Goliath. I gave them a long speech in the locker room and told them we’re not Goliath, we’re David. I don’t care what our record is, we’ve never been Goliath.

“We will always be David.”

Will either ever win a national championship? Well, remember David really did slay Goliath at one point, so nothing is impossible.

Chances are they won’t though, simply because the task is incredibly difficult. But let’s not allow that to serve as the standard because no matter how many games these teams win, there’s a handful of others with equal or better athletes that work just as hard.

“If you got to the national championship game, you can win that game. But getting there is so incredibly hard,” Crutchfield said. “You can play your very best and still lose a basketball game. But what you don’t want to ever have happen, is when you didn’t play your hardest and lose.”

Ullom understands that better than most.

“Basketball’s a high-profile sport and it’s not easy sharing the spotlight with the No. 1 team in America, which our men have been the last four or five years. But there’s no jealousy,” he said. “I told the girls in the locker room that none of this comes easy. There are dues that have to be paid.

“We talk about the good old days all the time and we want to get back to the level we were on.”

There are no guarantees, however. Personally I am just enjoying being a passenger on the amazing ride these two former Cameron High School coaches have presented us.

Shawn Rine can be reached via email at srine@theintelligencer.net