SANDY SPRING – Warren Crutchfield always gave a special gift to each of his graduating student athletes at the end of their senior year.
He would write them a letter and present it to them, framed and signed, a memento of their high school careers under his tutelage.
When current Wheaton High School Assistant Principal Sandi Williams graduated from Sherwood High School, she also received a letter from her former basketball coach. Crutchfield had ended the letter with “this is not goodbye, it’s so long, until we meet again.”
On July 5, countless students, athletes, teachers and the Montgomery County community bid a tearful “so long” to Crutchfield, who passed away at the age of 82.
“Crutch,” as he was commonly referred to by students and peers alike, left behind a legacy that will likely never be duplicated. He ran track at the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore (UMES), and is a member of its Athletic Hall of Fame; he later attended the Olympic trials as a sprinter. He was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1960 and served in a medical unit in Germany for two years. Crutchfield then taught physical education at a Montgomery County elementary school and served as a traveling teacher at a time when the playgrounds were still segregated and there were very few African American teachers.
Most notably, though, Crutchfield was the very first African American head coach in Montgomery County. That title and responsibility came with more than its fair share of adversity, but Crutchfield took that adversity in stride.
“He paved the way for a whole lot of coaches, African American, Hispanic, any kind of minority coach within the county,” said George Awkard, who served as assistant principal at Sherwood High School when Crutch was coaching there. “What he went through, those were tough times. I think what he went through and what Allen Avery (head coach at Richard Montgomery) went through helped later on because it broke some glass ceilings and let you know that yes, they can be effective and they can be extremely good.”
“He was the Jackie Robinson. Not every Black guy could have done that,” said Rita Williams, who served as Crutchfield’s assistant head coach in track and field at Sherwood. “It takes a certain person with confidence within themselves to believe that what you’re doing is going to make everybody around you better. There’s a lot of men that you could have put in that position, and they wouldn’t have endured what he had to go through.”
Despite the adversity he faced, Crutchfield maintained his calm demeanor. He never swore; he seldom raised his voice. If someone upset him, instead of losing his cool, Crutchfield would utter a favorite phrase: “you’re not worth a wooden nickel!”
“Crutch never got upset; I don’t care what it was about. If some team cheated against us, he’d say ‘hey, we’ve just got to beat them harder next time.’ Nothing ever fazed him,” said Williams. “He always had a kind word for even his worst enemy, and Crutch didn’t have any enemies.”
Crutchfield retired from teaching in 1996, but continued to coach for many years. Awkard and Crutchfield would joke that every time the latter tried to officially retire, another school would come calling, eager for Crutchfield’s knowledge and wisdom.
Even though he won a pair of state championships and broke barriers as an African American coach, Crutchfield emphasized the importance of education, family and teamwork.
Sandi Williams is the youngest of seven children, and, with Crutch’s guidance, was the only one of her siblings to go to college. When she played basketball at Bowie State University, Crutchfield was in the stands for every home game along with his good friend and 10-time NBA champion Sam Jones of the Boston Celtics.
“Every day in high school, Crutch would tell me ‘you’re going to college.’ When it comes to education, that’s something nobody can take away from you, and education was important to Crutch,” said Sandi Williams.
It was those relationships with students and that wisdom that he imparted to everyone he met that kept Crutchfield coaching even after his retirement. As recently as last season, Crutchfield was attending varsity basketball games in Montgomery County and giving advice to the coaches after the games.
Springbrook Head Coach Darnell Myers was a student at Glenelg High School when he first met Crutchfield. Like Sandi Williams, Myers recalled Crutch’s emphasis on education and getting good grades, on spending time with the right people and doing the right thing.
“He just taught you so many things about life. You couldn’t find a better person than Mr. Crutchfield. He was warm-hearted,” said Myers. “He was a guy that had so much joy, and when he talked to you, you would just listen.”
Myers saw Crutchfield in the stands at a Springbrook boys basketball game last season, and true to his nature as a coach and as a teacher, Crutchfield offered advice to Myers after the game.
“He would just give me knowledge and what to do and how to adjust. And even last year when he came to a Springbrook game, he looked at my kids, and he told me things that we need to work on,” said Myers. “Coach Crutchfield was the type of guy that you just admired, and you knew what he said to you was the right thing.”
Crutchfield left such a lasting impact on the Montgomery County community that many of his peers consider him to be family. Rita Williams said she considered Crutch to be like an “older brother;” Awkard and Sandi Williams referred to him as a “father figure.”
“Outside of my husband and my mom and dad, when God made Crutch, he threw the mold away,” said an emotional Rita Williams. “He was a great guy, just a great guy.”
Sandi Williams said she is working to get Sherwood’s gymnasium named after Crutchfield.
“You just can’t forget this guy. He was in a class of his own,” said Myers. “Sherwood High School should honor him and name that gym after Coach Crutchfield because he has touched so many kids’ lives at Sherwood, and he has done so many great things as a teacher and in the community at Sherwood.”