WHEELING — Anyone who doesn’t think coaching matters never met Jim Crutchfield. The West Liberty University legend is in the midst of building his second basketball juggernaut.
Crutchfield molded the Hilltoppers into one of the best Division II basketball programs in the nation. He took over a 4-23 West Liberty team and turned it into a 20-game winner in his initial season at the helm.
The Clarksburg native followed that program-changing campaign with 12 more seasons of remarkable success, compiling a 359-61 mark for an .855 winning percentage, highest in college basketball history.
Crutchfield is again weaving his remarkable magic, now in the Sunshine State, two seasons removed from the Ohio County hilltop. His Nova Southeastern Sharks are swimming in unchartered waters ranked No. 4 this winter in the latest D-II national rankings. West Liberty sits in the 12th spot.
The Fort Lauderdale-based Sharks were bottom feeders in the Sunshine State Conference the year prior to Crutchfield’s arrival, finishing 10th in an 11-team loop. They won 3 of 18 conference games while finishing 6-20 overall.
Crutchfield’s impact was immediate and impressive. Nova won its first six games last winter en route to a 17-10 finish, including an 11-9 conference mark, good for fourth place. One more win would have likely gained the upstart team a regional berth.
Nova has scripted a sparkling 12-1 mark this winter.
“We had a good season last year, but I am a little surprised with our start this year,” Crutchfield said. “We have played better the last few games. But I think we are a little ahead of schedule. We were picked fifth in our conference preseason ranking. Last year we were picked last.
“This team is more my style. We had to make some concessions with the team we inherited last year. We are playing more pressure defense and much more aggressive.”
Crutchfield touts strength and depth of the Sunshine State Conference. Nova is joined in the national top-10 rankings by conference member Florida Southern, a squad the Sharks beat after building a 25-point halftime lead.
“Florida Southern is as good as anyone. That was a huge win for us,” Crutchfield said. “The trademark of our league is the depth of talent. There is a lot of balance in this league.
“In the Mountain East Conference, it was West Liberty, Wheeling Jesuit and Fairmont dominating. That is not the case in this conference. Anyone can beat anyone on a given night. No one is unbeatable.”
Crutchfield is also witnessing a change in culture surrounding his upstart program.
“Our game attendance is picking up nicely. We broke the attendance record in our first game this year,” the soft-spoken mentor said. “In addition to winning, these kids are playing a lot more basketball now. I credit David Dennis for that.
“David is changing the dynamics of how his teammates play the game and the work involved and how to practice. David is a great player on the court and a class act off it. He is a great ambassador for our program.”
Dennis is a 6-foot-1 dynamic senior guard. He played two seasons at West Liberty, earning MEC Freshman of the Year honor while being named second-team All-MEC as a sophomore.
The Canal Winchester High School product made a splash with the Sharks, gaining the Sunshine State Conference Newcomer of the Year laurels to go with first team all-conference honors. In addition, Dennis was tabbed NABC All-District South Second Team.
Crutchfield turned 63 over the holidays. He is enjoying hoops as well with all that goes with the Florida school and climate.
“Nova Southeastern offers a quality education. It produces a lot of doctors. The college is adding a hospital and two more dorms. Nova is really growing,” Crutchfield said. “I also enjoy playing tennis in 80-degree weather in December and January. It’s been a great adventure and I am looking forward to many more good things here in the coming years. I am definitely younger now than when I first arrived here.”
West Liberty University will hold a “Team Meet and Greet” fundraiser to support its softball and baseball teams on Saturday, Feb. 2 at The Highlands. The dinner and silent auction event will feature former Major League Baseball pitcher and current Pittsburgh Pirates broadcaster Steve Blass.
“Proceeds from this event will go toward the funding of the new Belmont Savings Bank Indoor Practice Facility which opens soon,” WLU athletics director Lynn Ullom said.
The insulated indoor practice facility measures 120 x 120 feet in size and includes a turf field. It is located near Beta Hall and will be open to all athletic teams for training in all seasons, according to Ullom.
Blass was the winning pitcher for the Pirates in Game 7 of the 1971 World Series and was runner-up to teammate Roberto Clemente in the voting for World Series MVP. A member of the 1972 National League All-Star Team, Blass compiled a 103-76 record during his 10-year career with the Pirates. He has been a part of the Pirates’ radio and TV broadcast crew since 1983.
The “Team Meet and Greet” dinner takes place at the Highlands Event Center and begins with a 6 p.m. happy hour, followed by a dinner. A cash lottery and silent auction also are planned. The price for dinner is $40.
∫ Anthony Wallace is now the 33rd player in Marietta College basketball history to reach the 1,000-point scoring plateau. The former Linsly School star achieved the milestone in last Saturday’s win over Heidelberg. In that game, former River star Lukas Isaly led the Pioneers with 13 points. Marietta is ranked No. 8 nationally.
∫ I did pick Clemson to beat Alabama in the national championship game. I never expected a Bama beatdown of such major proportions. It was refreshing to see Nick Saban handed his lunch for once.
∫ Haywood Highsmith is a great story — from Wheeling Jesuit star to the NBA. The current Philadelphia Sixer made his NBA debut with a splash by draining a 3-pointer against the Wizards on Tuesday night. Highsmith is a case study in hard work and perseverance. Kudos also to Danny Sancomb who helped groom his talents at Jesuit.
∫ Kelly Rine is one of the premier athletic directors in the state of Ohio. Rine announced at Tuesday’s St. Clairsville BOE meeting that he was retiring as of June 28. He performed his duties with the utmost class and efficiency, while being a visionary in his profession. I wish him the best in all future endeavors.
∫ Former Weirton Madonna basketball great Joanna (Bernabei) McNamee is returning home … almost. McNamee is in her first year as head coach of the Boston College women’s basketball team. Her resurgent Eagles play the Pitt Panthers at 1 today at in the Steel City. Boston College is 12-4, including a 65-64 win at Wake Forest on Thursday.
∫ It is nice to have options. Heisman Trophy winner Kyler Murray has many sweet ones. He has already inked a $5 million contract with the Oakland A’s. He can enter the NFL Draft and be a possible first-round pick. He can try and do both sports like Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders did. Or, Murray can return as quarterback of the Oklahoma Sooners. That is a nice life.
∫ Wheeling Park grad D.P. Harris is enjoying another successful season guiding the St. Vincent College men’s basketball team in Latrobe, Pa. His Bearcats are 13-2 on the campaign. Harris is already a member of the Saint Vincent Hall of Fame.
∫ Neal Brown hit a home run during his first press conference Thursday as WVU’s new head coach. Time will tell how successful he is on the field. One thing is for certain, however, he exudes class, character and is family-driven. The former Troy coach is a nice refreshing change.
Bubba Kapral can be reached via email at: [email protected]