By the time he interviewed for the job that would define his career, he had been given quite the education in basketball: A starter on Nixa’s late 1970s Final Four teams, and then tours as a high school coach and as an assistant under Cheryl Burnett (MSHOF Legend 2015) with the Missouri State Lady Bears.

And yet there Jim Middleton was in the spring of 1994, naturally nervous while on campus at Southwest Baptist University. In the room was then-SBU President and future U.S. Senator Roy Blunt and then-Athletic Director Rex Brown. The women’s basketball team needed a coach.

“They grilled me hard. Ultimately, they said, ‘Can you do this job? Of course, I said, ‘Yes,’” Middleton recalled. “But inside I was saying, ‘Man, I hope I can do this job.’”

As they say these days, he nailed it, which is why the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame proudly inducted Middleton with the Class of 2021. After all, Middleton became the winningest coach in SBU women’s basketball history and further solidified his credentials by leading the Nixa High School Lady Eagles to a state championship.

In 14 seasons at SBU (1994 to 2008), Middleton’s teams were 239-158 (.602) and advanced to six NCAA Division II Tournaments, reaching the Sweet 16 in 2000. Twice he was nominated for NCAA Division II Basketball Coach of the Year (2001, 2008) and named the 2008 Coach of the Year in the MIAA, or Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association.

“We needed a new mindset, a new culture if you will,” Middleton said. “We worked the dog out of them in preseason conditioning, which helped make them tougher mentally and physically. We then hung our hat on great man-to-man defense. We felt our defense would dictate our offense.”

At the time, the MIAA was loaded and, to reach the D-II Tournament, teams had to be a top-six team in the region as only 48 teams made the field.

Middleton recruited locally. Marshfield’s Michelle Mikkelsen, Kickapoo’s Stephanie Thurman-Phillips (MSHOF 2011) and Glendale holdover Jennifer Riefle steered SBU to the D-II Tournament in Middleton’s second season. Skyline’s Carrie Long Green (MSHOF Filbert Five 2019) was SBU’s first All-American and teamed with Lee’s Summit’s Shari Grady and Australian talent on the Sweet 16 run.

“First, having an administration that wanted us to be successful was the foundation,” Middleton said. “Getting local talent to stay local was another boost. Southwest Missouri was and still is a hotbed for Division II talent.”

Years before, coaching basketball wasn’t even on his radar. A four-sport letterman, he started on Nixa’s 1978 state championship and 1979 third-place teams, and then set out to be an attorney before entering nursing school to be an anesthesia nurse.

But while a physical education major at MSU, he networked with the Lady Bears coach Valerie Goodwin-Colbert and Burnett, then an assistant.

That led to a graduate assistant role, and then a head coaching job at West Plains High School (1989-1991) before Burnett, by then the head coach at MSU, brought him back as a full-time assistant. The 1992 team reached the Final Four, with Middleton tasked with game preparation, travel and summer camp coordination.

“I learned that I had a whole lot more to learn,” Middleton said. “(Burnett) ultimately taught me how to be organized and to pay attention to detail. She taught me how to think of all angles to be prepared. It was all about what happened at practice that set us up for success.”

Middleton coached Nixa’s girls from 2009-2013, with the 2009 team winning the Class 5 state title and earning a No. 15 national ranking. Eight Nixa players earned college scholarships.

So many helped Middleton along the way, primarily his wife, Ronda.

“She is my biggest supporter and is always there in the ups and downs,” Middleton said.

He also credits his parents, Leo and Cleva Middleton, siblings Kathy, Janice, Marlene and Bob as well as coaches Rodney Towe, Grant Crow, Frank Branstetter, Jeff Berryessa and Burnett.

All players and assistants were key, including Scott Womack, Charity Elliott and Jennifer Perryman.

Their influences helped him influence players. A case in point was a Facebook message.

“Not only did you teach me basketball, but I credit you for so many positive character traits I learned playing for you,” former SBU player Danielle Box-Brockman wrote.  “You taught us mental toughness, to never give up, that we can overcome any obstacle or trouble we face. … You deserve this honor. Thank you for believing in me.”