This is Part 1, of my Sit down with West Liberty Head Coach Ben Howlett
“Could you play a basketball game like you are down 10 points with 2 minutes left, for an entire game.” Sound familiar? That was Jim Crutchfield’s idea when he constructed this basketball juggernaut back in 2004-05. Since that time, he amassed 359 wins to just 61 losses. When I sat down with Ben Howlett, Jim’s former lead assistant and now Head Basketball Coach at West Liberty, he spoke those same words.
The face may be different, but the song remains the same.
It’s not easy to follow a coaching legend. Although I bet Coach Crutchfield would not call himself a legend, that is exactly what he is here and throughout the coaching community.
During my sit down with Coach Howlett, I asked him what his favorite movie was, he said “Rudy.” I said why Rudy? He said “because he wasn’t supposed to be there. He was supposed to be in the factory like the rest of his family.”
I said it’s Ironic you brought that up because when I was thinking about you following such a successful coach, the first thought in my mind was how hard it had to be to follow Lou Holtz at Notre Dame. Holtz went 100-30-2, and won a National Championship during his tenure for the Irish. Can you imagine how difficult that was for Bob Davie who chose to follow in those footsteps?
Coach Howlett, when asked about how difficult the decision was to take the job, he said “I was really reluctant at first. He (Jim Crutchfield) would always ask me “When I leave, what are you going to do? Would you take this job?” I always told him no just because I would rather go after a job where they were losing.”
When the time came that Coach Crutchfield was leaving, he told Ben “you need to go see the President, I think he is going to offer you the job.” After that meeting, he had a decision to make.
”I’m 30 years old. Was I going to follow the winningest coach (percentage wise) in basketball history? Thinking all along… I don’t know if I really want this job. After a week of not eating much, driving around back and forth, talking with coaching friends and just thinking. I got a call from Dan Monteroso (current player and leader), and he said we met as a team and we want you to be our coach.” Once I heard him say that, it was like everything was fine. Like all the weight was lifted off my shoulders. I was like, I’m taking this job. I’m ready to go, let’s practice tomorrow.”
“If it wasn’t for him, I’m not sure I would have taken the job.” When I asked him how it made him feel, he said “Awesome! It was a really really good feeling.”
The Hilltoppers are 11-0 currently and all they do is keep winning. Coach Howlett is driven and he takes pride in what he does and how he does it. But it’s not just pride in himself, he has a great affection and love for the school and the town of West Liberty.
Ben played here for 4 years and was not only a stand out, but he is in the top 15 in scoring all time. He spent a 5th year here as a student assistant then after graduation, he moved on to Ohio Valley College. After just one season, he came back to West Liberty as the lead assistant for 6 years. This is home for Ben Howlett. He has a home here, and this where he wants to be.
“I’m putting every ounce of energy I got into this Program.” I have to, I can’t let this program get off track. Means to much the school and the people of West Liberty. When this game is over tonight, I’m headed to Columbus tomorrow to recruit. Then Huntington on Friday. If there is a kid I think can play, I want to do everything I can to get him.”
The players are the lifeblood of any program. And finding the right players for this system is not an easy task. He said “recruits will come in here and say I want to play up tempo.” I tell them “it’s hard to do.” “It takes a special player.” So the recruits come out here in an open gym situation with our guys, and after about 10 points or so, they’re done.”
I asked him, what do you look for? He said “guys that can do a little of everything. I’m not looking for big guys. We don’t have a true center right now. I think our biggest guy is 6’6”. In my mind, I would love to put 5 guards out on the floor. Give me 5 really tough players that want to play really hard, and the rest will take care of itself.”
He then went on to talk about some of the “luck” they have had finding players. For example, Alex Faulk did not have an offer out of school and ended up being a Division II National Player of the Year. Seger Bonifant is a 2 time player of the year and he did not receive many offers either.”
There is Something very telling about the players they have and they recruit. “The guys here are really good in the class room. I think there is a correlation there.”
I think you’re right coach!
When I asked him about the system itself, he said “It’s crazy.” We get this misconception that we try to shoot inside a certain time period. It’s just not the case. We also get the title of run and gun. Run and gun teams don’t win basketball games.“
“We just try to get a good shots with guys in rebounding position.”
He could not emphasize enough though that it all begins on defense. “We just try to make defense, our offense. When we press teams, we’re not only physically taking them out of their games, but mentally also. That’s Because there is nothing worse than being face guarded. There is nothing more demoralizing to a player than being face guarded for a whole game.”
He said “in normal basketball, there is no defense being played between the 3 point lines. I want guys to play defense all over the court.”
West Virginia University
When he talked about his team’s press, I said it sounded like another good basketball program in the state of West Virginia. Ben’s face lit up. I said Coach Huggins runs a similar style of play. He said, “I love coach Huggins!” I’ve never met him, but I watch every one of WVU’s games. They take playing hard to the next level.” He went on to comment, “With how he coaches and recruits, I don’t think Bob Huggins will ever get Blown out of a game.” he finished by saying “I love watching his teams play more than any other team in the country.”
I transitioned that conversation to a question I really wanted to ask him. But I prefaced it with the fact that I saw that West Virginia played Wheeling Jesuit last week. I was incorrect in my original assumption that it was a regular season game, it was in fact just an in season exhibition. Coach Howlett was the one that pointed that out to me.
With that said I asked him, Would you sign up to play WV? He laughed a bit and said “it was our turn. They called and said we want to play in the middle of season, but the date they picked we had a game already scheduled. We tried to get it moved but couldn’t.”
You could definitely see though, he wants that opportunity.
In life, most people live by a rule of “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.” And when Howlett took over as head coach, that was in fact the philosophy he took. I mentioned to him, that Coach Crutchfield always would say “you need to do what works for you.” So I asked him what changes either in play or institutionally has he made since taking over.
”We changed our practices a little. I used to say for 6 years, Coach Crutchfield runs the best practices in the world. But with me, I have a bunch of guys that were role players in the past. So I had to do something different. Our practices are tough and we only go for two hours. But everything we do in practice is win or lose.”
”We have only 1 veteran on the team, and Dan Monteroso who is a senior played football last year.”
Something else they have done is more team building. “We have tried to do more team bonding then we did prior.” He was quick to say that it was nothing against Coach Crutchfield in what he did, he just felt with this group he needed to do a little more.
For example, “We went paintballing in the fall. We have so many new guys that have never traveled before and aren’t used to it. Guys making new friends. Just felt like it would be a good way to have run and learn how to work together.
“We have also done some community service type of things. We raised money for the floods and hurricanes in Texas. This past week, we went to Woodsdale Elementary, the guys read and played with the kids.”
As for thoughts on some future activities, “he said he would like to get involved with a soup kitchen and have his guys do the good work that is done there.”
This is clearly a guy that gets it. He understands not only the game, but his role in life and the community. He also knows how to keep his guys grounded. He has great respect for his players, he of course had a part in recruiting all of them. So this is a close group.
“When the guys are here, they’re a little goofy. But when they are in public, they know how to act. It’s fun.”
That is a very telling statement so I followed up by asking, is that something you stress here and work on? His response was brilliant.
”We recruit that!” “We just get guys you don’t have to worry about. I don’t want my assistants to have to walk guys to class. Just go to class, make the right decisions.”
They carried on a couple more of Jim Crutchfield’s traditions. “We have a no cussing rule here. It’s not a good environment to be in If your cussing.” I asked if that goes for his coaches. He said “Heck Yeah!”
The other rule they have is no complaining about anything. He said, “they’re (the players) going to school and getting it paid for. Playing hoops in front of people. They get 3 meals a day and their practice gear is washed. They get to stay in dorms and hang out with their friends. What more could you want at that age?”
In a world where social media rules and the more ridiculous you are the more you get noticed, All coach Howlett does is follow his own moral standard. Those morals set the standard for himself and his team.
Why would not want to send your kid to come and play for this guy?
To say the Program at West Liberty is in good hands would be an understatement in titanic proportions. He is a person that just gets what it takes to build a winning culture. He is a leader of men and he shapes the students he gets into the best people they can be.
He is in fact what is right about sports and College Athletics. And after spending only a little bit of time, I was completely blown away by him and not at all surprised by his success.
Part 2 will be released on Saturday.