By Bill Nestor
Jim Crutchfield grew up in Harrison County and was a 1974 graduate of Roosevelt Wilson High School. Crutchfield has always had a love for the game of basketball and he took over the basketball program at West Liberty University in 2004.
The Hilltoppers were coming off a 4-23 record in the year prior and in the 13 seasons prior had a 160-349 record. In the 13 years that Crutchfield was at the helm of the program, West Liberty never had worse than a 21-10 record, which happened to come in his first year at the school on top of the hill. During Crutchfield’s tenure, the toppers were 359-61 with seven conference championships. Crutchfield brought an exciting and innovative brand of basketball with him to West Liberty which would attract some of the top players in the country.
Crutchfield also used the newer state-of-the-art sports complex as a major recruiting tool early on in his tenure. The 1,200-seat arena opened during the 2000-2001 season and it is still one of the nicest venues in the Mountain East Conference. West Liberty became a target for players far and near but Crutchfield was very selective, searching for a certain type of player to fit in his program. They had to be talented obviously, but that was just the tip of the iceberg. Intelligence, selflessness, and the work ethic of a workhorse were all required. If all four credentials weren’t met by the entire roster, his teams would sink like the Titanic. His team would play baseline to baseline utilizing a full court press that would slap on a trap anytime anywhere. Multiple players would sub in at every opportunity, and playing time was shared among the entire rotation. In other words, if you were a player that was used to scoring tons of points, and playing heavy minutes, you would not fit into this system. However, if your emphasis was on winning at all costs, and you were willing to sacrifice for the betterment of the team then you were Crutchfield’s kind of player.
The second season for Crutchfield brought a hard-nosed player to the program. Ben Howlett helped guide the Hilltoppers to four consecutive 20-win seasons. In his senior season, Howlett averaged 23 points and was the nation’s fourth leading scorer. After his playing days were over, Howlett began his coaching career as an assistant coach under Crutchfield.
The 2017-2018 season brought major changes with Crutchfield at Nova Southeastern. West Liberty made Howlett the 16th head coach in program history. Howlett had kept the ball rolling and the old saying “it it’s not broke, don’t fix it” applied in Hilltopper territory. Howlett has followed the blueprint set in place by Crutchfield to accrue a 161-25 record in six seasons.
Crutchfield inherited a Nova Southeastern program that was coming off a 6-20 record the year prior. The only thing hotter than the Fort Lauderdale weather was Crutchfield’s emergence in the Sunshine State. In six seasons, his record was 136-21 and duplicating his previous success as West Liberty further proved that it wasn’t just the scheme that brought in the wins.
Ironically, these two teams would meet in the Division II championship game. The Sharks were undefeated leading into the lockup while the Hilltoppers hadn’t lost since Jan. 21 and were riding an 18-game win streak. It was viewed by hoops fans in the Mountain State as a no-lose contest. If Nova Southeastern won then the West Virginia native was victorious, and if West Liberty claimed the win then the MEC would be king.
The teacher had one more lesson for the pupil — how to earn a National Championship. The Sharks garned a 111-101 win. Ironically, both teams would set records for points scored, and the play on the hardwood lived up to the pregame hype that fueled the interest of fans around the country.
Maybe the two will meet again someday, and if so, class will be back in season once again.
That will do it for now. Until next week… take care and God Bless!