Greg Cote

The greatest coach you’ve likely never heard of has Nova Southeastern basketball soaring

Nova Southeastern University

Jim Crutchfield’s first impression of Nova Southeastern University’s basketball arena was to be astonished by the elbow room. He was a visiting coach from West Liberty in Wheeling, West Virginia. The game was about to tip off. He looked across the court and saw the entire grandstand of bleachers empty but for two people.

They were the mom and dad of one of his players.

The Nova men’s basketball program was really bad and the lack of interest in the team was worse.

Things changed. Crutchfield changed them.

On Saturday, Crutchfield, now in his second season at the school that he visited that day, has Nova with a 26-3 record, ranked No. 3 in NCAA Division II, and top-seeded and hosting the NCAA Southern Regional. The formerly empty gym will be jammed for Nova’s 5 p.m. game vs. Miles College of Fairfield, Alabama.

The university in Davie might be best known in sports for being the site of the Miami Dolphins’ training facility, but Saturday, its compact campus arena will be filled for probably the biggest home game in any sport in school history.

The man they call “Coach Crutch” did that.

West Liberty is in the northern panhandle of West Virginia, where Crutchfield was something of a living legend. In 13 seasons, his record was 359-61. He could have coached there, and won there, for life.

“I left for an adventure,” he said.

He found one.

He inherited a Nova program that had endured 14 losing seasons in 17 years and was coming off a 6-22 record. He went 17-10 in his first season here. This season he went 26-3, the team nationally relevant for the first time despite far tougher competition, top to bottom, in the Sunshine State Conference than he had faced with West Liberty in the Mountain East.

He had made an exciting winner from nothing at West Liberty (one of his teams averaged 113 points per game) and sought the same challenge here.

“I discovered I didn’t like anything as much as changing the program,” Crutchfield, 63, said this week, in the team’s meeting room. “I just wanted the opportunity again to have that exhilaration of changing a program. I wanted to see if I could do it again.”

What worked at West Liberty — relentless uptempo offense and pressing defense — also worked here for the Sharks, led by senior point guard David Dennis, the only player Crutchfield brought with him from his previous school. Five Scandinavian players dot the roster.

After two seasons here, Crutchfield’s career mark is now 402-74, the .845 winning percentage the best of any coach in any division to coach NCAA men’s basketball at least 10 seasons. Ever.

“It’s almost for me surreal to see my name beside John Wooden and Adolph Rupp and stuff,” he said. “ ‘Wait a second! My name does not belong there.’ ”

Crutchfield was a college math major who planned to go to law school, sort of fell into coaching at the high-school level and never looked back. A desire to elevate to Division I coaching and a couple of feelers to do so never panned out, but he has been too busy winning to harbor regrets.

He would like to add an elusive national championship to his résumé. He is six wins away starting Saturday.

This is heady stuff for a man whose wife still kids him about his first game as Nova Southeastern’s new coach last season.

He walks into the arena, all dressed up in suit and tie, his wife and two daughters with him. A security guard asked to see his ticket.

“Almost had to pay to coach my first game,” he said, smiling.

They know his name now.

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