WEST LIBERTY — Already the winningest men’s basketball coach in college history in terms of percentage — yes, better than guys like John Wooden, Adolph Rupp and Roy Williams — West Liberty’s Jim Crutchfield is heading into some lofty territory within the confines of his home state.
Crutchfield, a Clarksburg native, has been selected as the winner of the Furfari Award, given to the state’s top college coach each year as voted on by the West Virginia Sports Writers Association, for a record-tying fourth consecutive time. That pulls him alongside former Marshall football coach Bob Pruett (1997-2000), who will be inducted into the West Virginia Hall of Fame next month, as the only people to win the award four times in a row. Furthermore, Crutchfield is one off legendary Fairmont State men’s coach Joe Retton for the most overall awards with five.
“I love the sports writers and I really like Mickey Furfari, who I have had the pleasure of meeting,” said Crutchfield, who is a 1978 graduate of West Virginia University. “The Rettons, Pruetts, [Bob] Huggins, everyone whose name is attached to this award, I have watched and admired.
“This doesnát seem real to me. Those guys are legends and I’m not.”
Crutchfield edged runner-up Mike Carey, who led the WVU women’s basketball team to a 30-5 record, the best in school history. Doc Holliday, who propelled the Marshall football team to a Conference USA East Division title, a 10-4 record and a Military Bowl victory, was third in the voting. WVU rifle coach Jon Hammond, who captured his third overall national title and second in a row, was fourth, while Mountaineers baseball coach Randy Mazey and women’s soccer coach Nikki Izzo-Brown ended in a tie for fith.
Crutchfield’s Hilltoppers are coming off a season that saw them win 30 or more games (31-4) for the fourth consecutive year, become the first team to capture an Atlantic Regional championship as a visitor, and advance to the NCAA Division II national title game, where they came up just short, falling to Central Missouri 84-77 in front of a crowd of more than 5,000 at the Ford Center in Evansville, Ind., and more than 3 million watching at home on television.
“I’m not sure that I didn’t have a pretty objective viewpoint while it was going on, but some of the sting from that loss is starting to dissipate,” Crutchfield said. “We were just worried about IUP, East Stroudsburg, Drury and on down the line, but at no point were we really thinking about getting to the title game. It all happened so fast because you’re playing a game almost every day.
“You hope to make a few shots to win it, but you can’t help but think, ‘If we would have done this, or that.’ It was an incredible journey.”
Having lost seven players in the last two graduating classes that amassed more than 10,000 career points, including Division II national Player of the Year Alex Falk, one could argue last season should be considered a rebuilding one on the hilltop. Crutchfield and assistant coaches Ben Howlett and Aaron Huffman choose not to think in those terms.
Regardless, a third trip to the Final Four in four seasons and a fifth straight berth in the Elite Eight suggest this may well have been Crutchfield’s best coaching job in his 10 seasons at West Liberty, a span that has resulted in a 272-49 record. This year’s team became the first to lead the country in scoring — the Hilltoppers have accomplished that feat in eight of the last nine seasons — and advance to the title game.
“I am trying hard, but I don’t know if that makes a difference,” Crutchfield said. “If things don’t go well, and we had a lot of that, you try harder.
“We have told the players that, and I thought Aaron and Ben and I tried to make sure we were also doing that.”
Another class of highly successful players led by consensus All-American guard Cedric Harris, single-season shot-block king Keene Cockburn, and Jeff Yunetz, who Crutchfield has referred to as the ultimate teammate, will soon be picking up their diplomas. That would be cause for concern at a lot of schools, but at West Liberty the motto is “next man up.”
They experienced it ... all these guys saw it,” Crutchfield said of that trio’s final game. “You have to become better.
“We sold that last year and it ended up pretty well.”
Nobody can say for sure that West Liberty will be able to keep this remarkable string going, but it will attempt to do so with Crutchfield at the helm. He said again that rumors of his leaving for a Division I job are just that.
“I don’t hear it as much as you would think, but no, it doesn’t bother me,” Crutchfield said. “Sometimes just the fact that my name is being thrown out there and connected with these jobs is an honor.
“Occasionally I have heard it on the recruiting trail and that has scared me a little bit, but I tell them ‘nope, I am not going anywhere. I will be here.’ ”
Crutchfield will be presented his award May 4 at the Charleston Civic Center as part of the 68th annual Victory Awards Dinner.