By Josh Smith, Contributing Writer
On Tuesday of last week, West Liberty University lost one of the most impactful staff members in its long history. West Liberty University and its President Dr. Stephen Greiner announced that Men’s Head Basketball Coach Jim Crutchfield resigned from his position and will be taking the head coaching job at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
In 2004, Crutchfield became the head coach of the WLU Hilltoppers. The season prior to his arrival was anything but pleasant for the Toppers. They finished the season with a 4-23 record, with a winning percentage of .148. The Toppers had struggled for many seasons, and although many of the previous seasons were near the .500 winning percentage mark, going even during a season is not necessarily a goal for many teams.
In the 20 seasons prior, the Toppers sported a winning season only eight times. A change needed to be made, and so began the Crutchfield era.
As a very successful men and women’s tennis coach on the hilltop (8-time WVIAC Coach of the Year and a combined 11 league titles), Crutchfield certainly had the mentality of a winner. He also had previous experience coaching basketball at Cameron High School in Cameron, W.Va., where he is still the most winningest coach in school history.
The Topper community hoped Crutchfield could turn the program around, and he did just that.
In his first year, the Toppers finished the season in the WVIAC Final with a record of 21-10 (.677), the best record in nearly 40 years. The culture surrounding the team seemed to drastically change. In the next four seasons, Crutchfield and his Toppers continued to improve, as they made it to the NCAA Regional tournament in the 2006-07 season and the WVIAC semifinals the following two seasons. Crutchfield and the Toppers, however, started their dominance in the 2009-10 season.
In Coach Crutchfield’s first six seasons with the Toppers, they finished their best season to date with a record of 29-3 (.906), making it to the NCAA Regional final in 2010. With an extremely successful season, the WLU Hilltoppers began to solidify themselves as one of the top teams in the nation. The next three years echoed that.
In the next three seasons, Crutchfield led the Toppers to a 99-6 record (.943), winning the WVIAC, WVIAC Tournament, and the NCAA Regional Championship three-straight years. Their national championship hopes fell short in the Elite 8 each season, but they would have the opportunity to bring home a championship to West Liberty in 2014.
After the dissolvement of the WVIAC, the Toppers joined the Mountain East Conference in the 2013-14 season and managed to win their fourth straight regional championship.
Crutchfield and the Toppers were able to battle through the Elite 8 and made it to WLU’s first men’s basketball national championship. The Toppers, sadly, were defeated 84-77 by Central Missouri.
Losing in the national championship is tough for any team, but the Toppers continued to prosper over the next few seasons. In the last three seasons under Coach Crutchfield, we have seen three MEC championships, a trip to the Sweet 16, a trip to the Elite 8 semifinals, and, most recently, a tough loss in the round of 64 against rival Wheeling Jesuit.
Yes, Crutchfield coached the Toppers exceptionally well over the last 13 years, sporting an overall record of 359-61 (.855), with the highest winning percentage in college basketball history; having 13-straight 20-win seasons, with five seasons over 30 wins; winning the NCAA Division II National Coach of the Year two times; name an accolade, and Coach Crutchfield probably has it.
But Crutchfield did more than win basketball games. He put the small, secluded town and university of West Liberty on the map for the entire country to see. And for that, we thank you, Coach Crutchfield.
Photo credit: Hilltoppersports.com