— By Kim North, For the W.Va. Sports Writers Association
The list of past Furfari Award winners is very impressive to say the least.
West Liberty University men’s basketball coach Ben Howlett thought the same thing when he was informed that he is the latest honoree.
“Very humbling. Very humbling,” Howlett admitted of the honor as state College Coach of the Year. “I’m familiar with the other coaches in the state and the success of their programs. To be nominated and then voted the winner is very humbling and I’m very appreciative of it.”
Named for the longtime state sports writer Mickey Furfari, a Morgantown native who spent 70 years covering West Virginia University athletics, the honor was started in 1942 by the West Virginia Sports Writers Association.
Howlett finished ahead of Glenville State women’s basketball coach Kim Stephens, last year’s winner; Marshall University men’s basketball coach Dan D’Antoni; and Shepherd football coach Ernie McCook in the voting by members of the W.Va. Sports Writers Association.
Howlett will be recognized at the nation’s oldest statewide sports fete, the 76th annual Victory Awards Dinner, on May 7 at the Embassy Suites in Charleston.
“Just the list of those individual coaches and past winners is impressive,” Howlett noted. “I’ve been a fan of some of those coaches, so be to be added to that list is an honor and a privilege.”
Howlett, a former standout guard for the Hilltoppers, guided the Black-and-Gold to the NCAA Division II national championship game this past season, his sixth as head coach at his alma mater.
The high-scoring Hilltoppers fell to unbeaten Nova Southeastern in the national title tilt in Evansville, Ind., after winning the Mountain East Conference regular season and tournament titles plus the Division II regional crown. Nova Southeastern was coached by former West Liberty coach Jim Crutchfield, who won the Furfari Award from 2011-14.
“I never thought the season would go as well as it did. I remember sitting in the locker room after we lost a regular season game to Wheeling University at their place, and I did not feel good about our team,” Howlett admitted. “We didn’t lose again until the national championship game. I don’t know how many wins that was in a row, but we reeled off quite a few.
“I thought the guys really bought into each other and believed in themselves,” he added. “They played some high-level basketball and we were one win away from being national champions.”
Howlett, a Marietta, Ohio, native, became the fifth West Liberty coach to receive the Furfari Award. In addition to Crutchfield, former women’s basketball coach Lynn Ullom, the current WLU athletic director, was honored in 2001; men’s basketball coach Ollie Olson in 1961 and football coach Joe Bartell received the award in 1957.
Howlett said he was very appreciative of the 14 players on the team and especially proud of his three assistant coaches. “They don’t get the publicity they deserve,” he said of Michael Lamberti, Aaron Huffman and Connor Hart. “They work day and night.”
Some previous winners include: Randy Mazey (WVU baseball, 2020); Nikki Izzo-Brown (WVU women’s soccer, 2017); Bob Huggins (WVU men’s basketball, four times); Bob Pruett (Marshall football, 1997-2000); and Joe Retton (Fairmont State men’s basketball, five times).
A list of all previous W.Va. Sports Writers Association awards may be found at wvswa.org.