Tag Archives: NCAA

‘Undefeated in Pennsylvania’

No NCAA men’s basketball coach won games at a more prolific clip in his first decade than West Liberty University’s Jim Crutchfield.

Last year, Crutchfield’s Hilltoppers reached the Division II championship game, and he entered his 11th season with a 272-49 record. That’s an astronomical .847 win percentage. This season, fourth-ranked West Liberty sports a 24-2 record, putting Cructhfield’s career record at 296-51.

Crazy stuff.

The only thing eluding West Liberty during this prolific run is a national championship, but, despite coming so close a year ago, it’s not a frequently discussed topic within the team.

“We never talk about a national championship or conference championship. Our goal is to win as many games as we can, try to win every game we play,” Crutchfield said. “We have two goals. One is to put a different product on the floor. We want to play a high-intensity game. Our other goal, as far as winning and losing goes, is we want to go into our conference tournament feeling like we’ve got a chance to win it.”

West Liberty will certainly be the favorite to win the Mountain East Conference championship when its tournament begins Wednesday. And its high-speed style of play gives the Division II program a level or national exposure rarely seen at that level.

As for that style, Crutchfield cut his coaching teeth at the small high school level. Before landing as an assistant basketball coach and men’s and women’s tennis coach at West Liberty, he was head coach at Cameron (W.Va.) High School through much of the 1980s.

If that school sounds familiar to readers of the Observer-Reporter sports section, it should. Cameron is a frequent opponent of West Greene and Jefferson-Morgan high schools.

Crutchfield hasn’t coached against those schools in some time, but he remembers the games well.

“I padded my record against those teams. I was undefeated versus Pennsylvania,” Crutchfield said with a laugh. “We always played West Greene, Jefferson-Morgan and Immaculate Conception, which I don’t think is there in Washington anymore.”

Cameron particularly enjoyed playing against Jefferson-Morgan.

“Our players always loved going into their gym” Crutchfield recalled. “Back then, they had a rim that was only 9 (feet), 10 (inches). Our guys thought they could dunk on it easier.”

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Why Signing Day stinks

Sure, recruiting is a lifeline for any college sports program. No matter how good the coach or the coaching staff, winning regularly without talent and depth is a difficult task. Finding such talent during the recruiting process is essential, and it’s a skill that separates the Urban Meyers and Nick Sabans of the college football world from the Gerry Fousts and Johnny Majors (at least during his second stint at Pitt).

And, over the last 10 to 15 years, recruiting became big business. Guys live in luxurious homes just for following the travails of teenage athletes. Loyal fans pay subscriptions to sites, soaking up information about those who might decide some day to play for their team. Coaches even joined the recruiting hyperbole through social media, as recently witnessed by humorous Twitter posts from various members of the Penn State and Pitt football assistants. (News flash: Of course, Penn State would win this year’s recruiting between the two. Pitt’s had its head coach in place barely a month.)

We’re given national, regional, state and district rankings from every site from ESPN to fan blogs. Players aren’t known as much by name as the number of stars sites like Rivals, Scout or ESPN assigns. Follow those sites and find out when a player is visiting a school and attending a nationally televised basketball game or when that same player narrows 73 scholarship offers to five programs.

Coaches are criticized for not bringing in enough four- or five-star recruits. Recruits are analyzed like they’re entering the NFL Draft.

It’s nauseating, and it’s the most inexact science in sports.

And it all culminates every year with the worst day on the sports calendar – National Signing Day, which happens to be today.

Starting in the morning, fax machines (yes, National Signing Day ensures these devices are still created) light up in college football offices across the country. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and recruiting websites monitor every National Latter of Intent sent. It’s silly, yet essential. Without good recruits, there’s no chance of winning.

Yet, the analysis is overdone.

Look at Pitt for instance. Two of the Panthers’ best players in 2014 – James Connor and T.J. Clemmings – weren’t sifting through offers from national powers. Yet, Clemmings is a possible first-round pick in the upcoming draft and Connor enters next season as the ACC Player of the Year.

For days leading into Signing Day, we’re told how Antonio Brown – the best receiver in the NFL these days – was an afterthought in the recruiting process. Not many schools wanted offensive lineman Eric Fisher, the No. 1 pick in the 2013 NFL Draft.

Finding players like Brown and Fisher are what separates a decent recruiting class from a good one.

As for those four-and five-star recruits, rankings are often bestowed upon them at camps, when looking good in the uniform matters more than how the player performs in it. There’s an overhyped offensive lineman from Western Pennsylvania who earned a bunch of stars but couldn’t make first- or second-team all-conference as a senior.

So many other factors aren’t weighed on Signing Day.

That five-star recruit may be a head case. He may miss mommy too much. He may have a pregnant girlfriend back home. Worse yet, all three.

Good luck keeping that guy from playing in the PSAC two years from now.

It’s inexact and over-the-top. And it’s affected everything from Division II swimming to Division track.

Because of the attention paid to Division I signings in football and basketball, high schools everywhere are holding “signing ceremonies” – a ridiculous display of lies.

For starters, athletes don’t sign to play for Division III athletics. The reason? There is no athletic scholarship money in Division III. Another common foible in recruiting are the service academies. If someone plays football for the U.S. Naval Academy, that athlete doesn’t sign a National Letter of Intent, he accepts an appointment. As for Division II sports, unless the athlete is playing football, basketball or wrestling, it’s highly unlikely much scholarship money is involved. Yet, high school hold these ridiculous events to appease parents and kids.

Do me a favor, next time you see a “signing ceremony” on your local newscast, look to see if the athlete is actually signing something or just doodling on a blank paper. I’ll take the latter and give you 100:1 odds.

The revolving door starts spinning

If the primary argument in retaining a coach is program stability, it’s not a ringing endorsement for the job being done.

And stability seems to be the main reason some Pitt football fans want to see head coach Paul Chryst remain stay for a fourth season. Chryst’s name emerged Wednesday as a potential replacement for Gary Andersen at Wisconsin, though it’s all speculation. Andersen departed Madison abruptly after two successful seasons for the football riches of Oregon State. Andersen’s move is a curious one, and an indictment of how the coaching world views the Wisconsin job.

PittsburghPanthers.com

PittsburghPanthers.com

Chryst heading to Wisconsin makes sense. He grew up in Madison, played quarterback for the Badgers and earned praise for his work as the Badgers’ offensive coordinator. His work as OC led Langeloth native and Wisconsin AD Barry Alvarez to unabashedly endorse Chryst for the job at Pitt. And when Bret Bielema left Wisconsin for Arkansas, Alvarez said at the time he wouldn’t feel right plucking Chryst after only one year at Pitt, and after Alvarez vouched for him.

But times change. Who would have thought a decade ago, when Alvarez ran one of the country’s best football programs, that Wisconsin would become a revolving door for head coaches. What Alvarez said about Chryst two years ago was … two years ago. It’s hard to imagine Alvarez not at least gauging Chryst’s interest, and it’s even tougher to imagine Chryst not being interested.

Not that Chryst did much to distinguish himself at Pitt, where the game-day atmosphere probably reminds him of coaching against Indiana or Purdue. And Chryst’s spotty record could be a determining factor at Wisconsin, which no doubt wants to quell the label of being a stepping stone to other jobs.

In three years at Pitt, Chryst owns a 19-19 record heading into the Armed Forces Bowl, which pits the Panthers (6-6) against Houston (7-5) in Fort Worth, Texas, Jan. 2.

Granted, Chryst didn’t unravel a program in desperate need of solid coaching when he was hired to replace Todd Graham, who was hired to replace Mike Haywood, who was hired to replace Dave Wannstedt. Chryst provided stability, and it’s difficult to say the Panthers don’t appear to be headed in a good direction. Pitt’s three best skill players – ACC Player of the Year James Conner, Tyler Boyd and Chad Voytik – are all sophomores. The offensive line displayed consistent improvement. Players responded to an awful stretch with two wins to end the regular season and become bowl-eligible.

But inconsistency elsewhere characterizes Pitt football during Chryst’s tenure. The defense struggles to make stops. There are head-scratching losses to the Akrons of the college football landscape. Pitt regularly snatches defeat from the jaws of victory, as recent results against Duke and North Carolina prove.

Pitt rarely lands top recruits, and for every two-star guy like Conner that succeed at Pitt, there are 10-15 four- and five-star guys within Pitt’s recruiting base excelling at other schools.

Should Chryst stay at Pitt, and the guess here is the Panthers will have an interim coach for that bowl game against Houston, he’ll enter a make-or-break year. Marked improvement will be expected in Year 4. If there’s another 6-6 season, or even a 7-5 one, Chryst will likely be looking for work.

So why take the chance? Chryst could land several years of job security at Wisconsin. Whether or not he can coach in Alvarez’s shadow will likely determine his answer if he’s offered. And judging by Chryst’s unspectacular demeanor displayed at Pitt, that won’t be a problem.

Then, Pitt’s revolving door will be moving again.

Pitt, is that really you?

Forgive Pitt fans if they approached Saturday’s season opener against Delaware with a near complete cloak of apathy.

Recent history warrants skepticism, despair and even a lack of interest.

Ready to relive some painful memories? Come on, you’re probably a Pitt fan if you’re reading this. Chances are you’re a masochist and are looking forward to the following.

Pitt opened the 2012 season, and the Paul Chryst era, with a loss to Division I-AA (Yes, I recognize it’s not longer called this) Youngstown State – at Heinz Field. It marked the Panthers first loss to a program in a lower division.

Pitt stormed into Toledo ranked No. 9 in the country in 2003 and left with a humbling 35-31 loss. Sure, Toledo’s Bruce Gradkowski and Lance Moore are current Steelers, but this loss ranks more maddening than most. Bill Hillgrove’s constant calls of, “Gradkowski complete for nine yards” can still be heard somewhere over Lake Erie.

Urban Meyer once coached at Bowling Green, but his Falcons lost at old Pitt Stadium back in the days of Latef Grim and then-freshman Antonio Brown. But, fast forward to the 2008 season, and Bowling Green left Heinz Field with a 27-17 win.

There’s been the Swinging Gate vs. Texas A&M, the Palko Slide against UConn, the terrible loss at Ohio and the “Whatever You Do, Don’t Kick the Ball to Marty Gilyard” game where Pitt blew a double-digit lead to Cincinnati with a berth in the Sugar Bowl on the line.

Pitt once lost to Notre Dame in a game where the Irish returned three kicks for touchdowns – in the second quarter. And, who wants to remember the 1996 fiasco at Ohio State where the Buckeyes defeated Pitt, 72-0. The Panthers crossed midfield once in that game and David Boston returned a punt for a touchdown with only eight players on the field.

That’s a lot of low points in a span of less than two decades. So, again, forgive Pitt fans if they entered Saturday’s game with incredible trepidation.

After all, the most Pitt thing to do would be fall behind or lose to Delaware then go win at Miami in the regular-season finale.

Instead, it was Pitt 62, Delaware 0.

The Blue Hens were held under 70 total yards of offense. Pitt rushed for 409 yards, with James Conner rushing for four first-half touchdowns.

It’s as unPitt as Pitt can get.

So what does it mean?

Too early to tell, but it’s certainly a good sign. Granted Delaware is Division I-AA (yes, yes, I know) program, but Pitt has had problems putting those teams away in the past. Villanova, Furman or The Citadel ring any bells?

Pitt simply doesn’t put teams away, let alone dominate them.

Friday’s game at Boston College should offer some indication if Pitt is improving in Chryst’s third year or if this opening game was nothing more than an unusual occurrence, like Warren G producing the jam of the summer in back-to-back years. That actually happened in 1993 (Indo Smoke) and 1994 (Regulate).