HUNTINGTON -- Three years after moving Mountain State Academy to Huntington and forming Huntington Prep, head coach Rob Fulford has produced a national boys basketball powerhouse of talent in the Tri-State.
Even after Fulford put together a team that has been consistently ranked in the Top 10 nationally for the last two seasons, there are people in the area who have never heard of Huntington Prep.
Fulford sat down and hashed out several questions surrounding the program earlier this week in an effort to increase knowledge and awareness.
What is Huntington Prep?
In terms of Huntington Prep's general model, it's not all that different from Findlay Prep (Henderson, Nev.) -- a basketball-focused college preparatory program housed within a pre-existing school. In this case, Huntington St. Joseph Central Catholic High School.
One of the major misnomers is that Huntington Prep is its own school.
That is not the case.
Players for Huntington Prep are students at St. Joseph Central and adhere to all the guidelines set forth by the school administration.
Fulford stressed that aspect, saying many "prep schools" are known as basketball factories that help get kids grades to play at the collegiate level. It's the exact opposite for his players.
"I have people call us all the time and say 'Hey, I have this kid who needs this grade to be eligible. Can he come to your place?" Fulford said. "I instantly turn them away and tell them this isn't the place for them because our kids don't get cut any slack. They have to take care of their schoolwork and they have to be mature.
"That's one of the things I'm most proud of about these guys. For the semester that just ended, our team GPA was a 3.31. That's impressive."
Fulford said the whole point behind Huntington Prep is two-fold.
Elite players throughout the country can come together with other elite players and get a college-like atmosphere on the court, getting them in shape and used to the fact that they might not be the star at the next level.
They have to learn to play within the confines of the team, much like what they will in college.
From an academic standpoint, the players learn how to be responsible for their own studies while also learning to be independent.
How is it funded?
One of the key questions that always arises when talking about Huntington Prep is how the program is funded.
Fulford said it's not an uncommon question to him either, and he went in-depth to explain the financial backbone of the program.
"We have a fundraising group called the Elite Club that is similar to the Big Green (at Marshall)," Fulford said. "It's a scholarship fund that helps take care of the expenses that we have to keep the program running.
"We do a lot of fundraisers, but our program is basically solely on private donations from business people all over the Tri-State area. It's not like we have one guy, which for example, Findlay Prep has one guy that funds the entire program. We probably have 100 who give different amounts."
Fulford said when he started the program, he was hoping to have an operating budget of around $220,000 for each year to pay for the program's expenses.
He said the figure was based on what he hoped to get in donations, along with what he anticipated from ticket sales.
After the first year, he realized that amount was unattainable, and now the operating budget is about $150,000 per year.
Much of that budget is swallowed up by two principle costs: tuition at St. Joe and fees at the Marshall Recreation Center where the team practices and works out.
Every student-athlete playing for Huntington Prep is responsible for full price tuition at St. Joe, which comes out to about $85,000 annually for the team -- more than 55 percent of the operating budget.
Marshall Rec Center memberships account for nearly $23,000, meaning those two aspects swallow up roughly 72 percent of the operating budget right off the top.
"Those are overly expensive projects that we have to keep going to keep this program succeeding at a national level," Fulford said. "For us, the Marshall Rec Center is a huge recruiting tool. That's a $20,000-plus a year investment that has to be maintained because it helps us."
The rest of the money goes for expenses such as travel, gym rental for home games at Spring Valley High School and the Tri-State Hoops Classic, the team's host tournament which will take place Feb. 1-2 at Spring Valley.
Fulford also said that because of the team's standing nationally, several tournaments and showcases want Huntington Prep to be a key part of their event.
When the team goes on the road for such events, the tournament pays for expenses such as food, lodging and travel.
"These showcases we play in, we're not out anything," Fulford said. "People think 'Well, they travel all over the place to Florida and others' but we don't pay for any of that. Showcases are willing to do that because they know we sell out everywhere we go and they'll make the money back."
If the team schedules a home-and-home series with a team, each team normally pays their own way for travel, which is factored into the budget.
In addition to the Elite Club, the biggest supporter of the program are the host families who allow the players to live with them during their time in Huntington.
"We have some great host families and I'm really appreciative of everything they do for us," Fulford said. "They take on not only the role of host family but from a financial standpoint, they support the kids while they are here, and that can include tuition, lunch programs and other things associated with school. Without them, we wouldn't be able to do this."
What's in it for Fulford?
Fulford said another of the biggest questions raised to him concerns what he gets out of the program.
He joked that it might sound a little cliche, but he's proof that money truly can't buy happiness.
"From a salary standpoint, I'm not ashamed to tell you I don't do this for money," Fulford said. "When I left pharmaceutical sales back in 2008 for good -- I was coaching (at Mountain State Academy) and doing that and couldn't balance the time -- I took about a $95,000 pay cut."
When Fulford brought the former Mountain State Academy to Huntington, he said he wanted to keep his salary similar, but having an operating budget lower than what he anticipated did not allow.
Instead, Fulford has no set salary and his assistant coaches do not make anything, aside from having their living expenses (apartment, utilities) covered -- much like what a graduate assistant at a college would.
Fulford said for he and his staff, the financial aspect is not what it's about.
"Since I left pharmaceuticals, there hasn't been a day that I woke up and felt like I had to go to work," Fulford said. "I love what I'm doing and I made less than $20,000 last year. When you are a non-profit and you're trying to get the program established, there's not a lot of money extra right now. Everything we get in goes directly toward the kids and the program.
"I always get asked 'What are you in this for?' It's certainly not money. If I wanted money, I would've taken some college assistant jobs that were offered over the last couple years. I'd have made more money, but I'd have lost more games, too.
"Do I take a hit as far as my own finances for the betterment of the program? Absolutely. I'm probably on pace this year to make less than the $20,000 I made last year, but I'm fine with that. I'm not in it for the money. I want to build Huntington Prep to the elite status that it is and I want to keep it there year-by-year."
Fulford grew up in Mullens, W.Va., the same town as Los Angeles Lakers coach and former Marshall standout Mike D'Antoni.
He maintains his pride in his state and wants Huntington Prep to become something that the Tri-State and West Virginia takes great pride in.
"This is my state," Fulford said. "I'm very proud to be from here and proud of the hard work that is done around here. People here take great pride in accomplishments through hard work. This venture is not an easy one; it's very difficult, in fact. But look at us right now. We have the nation's top prospect and one of the nation's top-ranked teams. That's something this state can take pride in."
As the interest in Huntington Prep grows, so too do the numbers of people questioning why he keeps such a prestigious program here in small-town West Virginia -- a place where Fulford admittedly struggles to get people to come watch and few still know about the program.
"I hear it all the time at showcase events -- 'Why West Virginia?'" Fulford said. "Once again, I'm from here. My son (Jordan) is from here. I'm from Mullens and this is my state. I could easily move this to Lexington and I'd never have to worry about finances ever again.
"Honestly, if this were in Lexington, Ky., the idea of finances and me and my coaches not getting a salary would never be addressed again because we'd make enough in gate alone to cover that.
"But once again, I'm from here. This is home."
Huntington Prep is ranked No. 4 in the USA Today Super 25 and is also No. 6 in the MaxPreps Academy Top 10.
The team features Andrew Wiggins from Toronto, Ontario, the top recruit in the Class of 2013 who is still looking at Florida State, Kentucky, North Carolina and Kansas, while also featuring four NCAA Division I signees for the Class of 2013 -- Xavier Rathan-Mayes from Toronto (Florida State), Moses Kingsley from Abuja, Nigeria (Arkansas), Dominic Woodson of Round Rock, Texas (Baylor) and Travon Landry from San Antonio, Texas (Tennessee).
Other 2013 college prospects on the team include Patrick Strake, Carlos Arroyo and Williams Gabriel. Strake is from Austin, Texas, Arroyo is from Mayaguez, Puerto Rico, and Gabriel is from Lagos, Nigeria.
The team's only junior is reserve guard Vlad Novak from Krasnodar, Russia.
With so many seniors on this year's team, Fulford has already built a solid nucleus for the future in point guard Nevell Provo (Preston, Nova Scotia, Canada), shooting guard Austin Grandstaff (Dallas, Texas) and Montaque Gill-Caesar (Toronto, Ontario, Canada).
In addition to Fulford, assistant coaches are Arkell Bruce and Baker Neal from Huntington, Ryan Arrowood from Glenwood, W.Va., and David Meddings of Wayne. The team strength and conditioning coach is Chris Lane from Chesapeake, Ohio.
The Express takes an 18-1 record into a pair of weekend games.
On Friday, Huntington Prep takes on La Lumiere (Ind.) at the Flyin' To The Hoop Classic in Dayton. La Lumiere is ranked No. 5 on the MaxPreps Academy Top 10 and No. 8 in the USA Today Super 25.
The Express then flies to Springfield, Mass., for a Sunday nationally-televised game on ESPN at 5 p.m. against New Hampton Prep from New Hampshire in the Spalding Hoophall Classic.