‘Scrappy’ Butler climbing in Big East sports despite small budget – Indianapolis Star
So far, it has been positive.
INDIANAPOLIS – Butler could not win a Big East men’s basketball championship with a couple of scholarship athletes and a roster filled with walk-ons. Yet, the Bulldogs nearly did so in men’s indoor track and field.
Implausibly, they finished third in the February conference meet with 128 points. DePaul was first with 146 and Marquette second with 135. As in most sports, Butler does not award the maximum number of track scholarships allowed.
“We’re scrappy. We play small ball, find avenues to get points,” coach Matt Roe said.
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It has been a longtime Butler strategy in all sports.
As Butler enters its fifth year in the 10-team Big East, the transition from Horizon League and Atlantic 10 remains a strain. Butler’s total budget ranks ninth in the conference and its recruiting budget 10th.
The Big East does not calculate all-sports standings. But according to figures compiled by IndyStar, the Bulldogs have improved from ninth overall in 2013-14 to fourth in 2016-17.
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Surprisingly, Butler featured the top men’s program in the Big East by its fourth year. The Bulldogs were champions in tennis, second in basketball and soccer, third in cross-country and indoor track.
(Points were awarded per sport: 10 for first, 9 for second, etc. Total points were divided by number of sports. Indoor and outdoor track were counted as one sport, not two. There are no tennis standings, so points were for first and second in the conference tournament. Sports in which fewer than five schools participate were not included.)
That the Big East is basketball-centric is underscored by the numbers. Member schools are all-in on hoops but scrimp elsewhere. Exceptions are Villanova, the only Big East member playing scholarship football, and Providence, which has men’s and women’s hockey.
Butler did not divulge how many scholarships it awards in each sport.
According to a recent NCAA report, fewer than 50 of nearly 350 Division I schools awarded the equivalent of 100 scholarships in 2013-14. Three-fourths of the schools offering fewer than 100 scholarships are private, and three belong to the all-private Big East: Butler 99, Xavier 97 and Creighton 89.
“We go as basketball goes, to be honest, in many ways,” said Tari St. John, co-coach for Butler women’s soccer.
LaVall Jordan speaks to the crowd gathered after being introduced as the Butler University men’s basketball coach at Hinkle Fieldhouse on Wednesday, June 14, 2017.
Keeping basketball nationally relevant remains Butler’s mission. The Bulldogs reached the NCAA tournament in each of three seasons under former coach Chris Holtmann, including the Sweet 16 last March. In those years, Butler’s 34-20 cumulative conference record is second in the Big East to Villanova’s 47-7.
Even so, Butler’s basketball budget of $4.8 million ranks last in the Big East. Doing more with less is the Butler way.
“We’ve mostly been fortunate to have really good coaches who have worked with what they have had and always tried to get better,” athletic director Barry Collier said. “And found kids who fit at Butler. That is so big.”
Collier said Butler has largely been successful in Big East sports in which it was successful in the Atlantic 10 or Horizon League. Those include cross-country, soccer, volleyball and men’s basketball.
In contrast to the men, the women’s basketball program has plummeted, finishing 10th last season and ninth the year before that.
Ninety-five percent of all Butler students receive financial aid, as do 90 percent of students nationwide at private colleges. Many Butler athletes are eligible for academic scholarships, Collier said.
“Because we recruit those kind of kids,” he said.
Coaches in most sports are pitted against the Big Ten in recruiting because Indianapolis is in the middle of Big Ten country. Except for Northwestern, the Big Ten is made up of huge state universities.
If prospects want a large school or big-time football, Butler is not for them. There is no “wow” factor on the Sunset Avenue campus, as one Butler coach put it. If athletes want big-time sports on a small campus, as local volleyball star Anna Logan did, Butler is an option.
“I say this to recruits: One isn’t better than the other,” volleyball coach Sharon Clark said. “I went to a large public school. That doesn’t make it any better than this. But what we offer our students here, I never had access to or a shot at when I’m sitting in class with 200 people.”
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In Big East volleyball, Butler has finished fourth, fourth, seventh and fifth. Clark said the Bulldogs were “in a really good position” before arrival in the conference, so the transition has not been as difficult as in other sports. Butler brand recognition has allowed her to recruit nationally.
Clark said she used to explain what the Horizon League was, where it was, who was in it. Not so in the Big East.
“When I go to Texas to recruit,” she said, “people know Butler.”
When he recruits, softball coach Scott Hall touts travel to locations such as New York and Washington, D.C., for sightseeing. He said players miss fewer classes in the Big East because they take Friday flights to weekend games, and in the Horizon League the team bused everywhere.
“There were times we’re busing out early Friday morning and missing all day,” Hall said. “Getting back at 3 or 4 a.m. from Green Bay on Monday mornings.”
The Bulldogs have finished fourth in softball in each Big East season, surprisingly winning the conference tournament and securing an NCAA berth in 2016.
In women’s soccer, the Bulldogs made it to the NCAA tournament in 2015, although St. John conceded they had to overcome “that intimidation factor” in the Big East. Teams are better, players are more athletic and coaching is outstanding, she said.
St. John’s response: Compete with what you have. Butler’s mantra, even when Brad Stevens was the basketball coach, is that people are resources, not money.
“Quite frankly, I don’t know what I would do at a school that has $3 million at its discretion every year,” St. John said.
She and track coach Roe said they do not “reload” annually. They recruit and grow teams over time, then renew that process. It is about developing a group and “having that moment,” Roe said.
The women’s cross-country team had such a moment in November 2013. The Bulldogs finished third in the NCAA Championships, beating programs with more resources, talent and tradition.
“You can’t do that every year,” Roe said. “But the fact we did it is incomprehensible.”
Butler distance runners have excelled even though they are in the same conference with storied programs such as Villanova and Georgetown. Butler has a legacy, and Roe suggested legacy remains important in sports beyond football and basketball.
One former Bulldog, Scotland’s Callum Hawkins, was fourth in the marathon at the recent World Championships. Two Butler graduates, Rob Mullett of Great Britain and Victoria Mitchell of Australia, represented their countries in the steeplechase there.
Another, Erik Peterson, was third at June’s NCAA Championships in the 10,000 meters and was top U.S. finisher. Coming out of high school in Barrington, Ill., he ranked 101st in the nation in the 3,200 meters.
“We have to recruit people who are lower profile, and we have to find a way for them to be better than their peers to be successful,” Roe said. “And that’s a big ask.”
He said the Bulldogs have the gear and travel that any Power Five school would have. He acknowledged all Big East schools are up against “the shiny stuff” offered by those bloated with TV money. Roe said college football’s Power Five is “eating into the powers in the Olympic sports.”
Collier conceded that stepping up to the Big East was going to be a challenge. He said he was confident Butler would improve as coaches recruited to the Big East. Yet that might not occur until Years 5, 6 and 7, he said, because athletes in sports other than basketball commit so early.
Except in basketball, the Bulldogs are not aiming at national championships. Yet dreams and reality sometimes intersect.
In the 2016 Big East softball tournament, Butler overcame four- and six-run deficits in the semifinal and championship game. Then, in the regional, the Bulldogs lost to host Kentucky 6-1 (it was 3-0 in the fifth inning) and to Illinois 2-1 in eight innings.
That was enough to affirm Butler belonged.
“It’s kind of what Brad Stevens showed all of us,” Hall said. “Just get in the tournament, and you don’t know what happens.”
Call IndyStar reporter David Woods at (317) 444-6195. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidWoods007.
Big East sports budgets
Total/School, men’s basketball budget
$39.5 million Villanova, $9.4 million
$37.7 million Georgetown, $11.3 million
$35.9 million St. John’s, $9.2 million
$32.4 million Marquette, $11.3 million
$30.7 million Providence, $7.9 million
$24.4 million DePaul, $5.6 million
$22.9 million Seton Hall, $6.3 million
$22.2 million Creighton, $7.3 million
$21.3 million Butler, $4.8 million
$17.8 million Xavier, $5.7 million
Source: U.S. Department of Education’s equity in athletics data analysis for 2015-16 school year.
All-sports standings by year
(Note: In each sport, 10 points are awarded for first, 9 for second, etc. Score is total points divided by number of sports offered.)
Combined – 1, Marquette 7.55; 2, Georgetown 7.33; 3, St. John’s 7.08; 4, Villanova 6.68; 5, DePaul 6.50; 6, Xavier 6.08; 7, Creighton 5.95; 8, Providence 5.70; 9, BUTLER 5.54; 10, Seton Hall 5.07.
Men – 1, St. John’s 8.00; 2, Marquette 7.30; 3, Georgetown 7.14; 4. Providence 7.00; 5, Xavier 6.64; 6, Villanova 6.64; 7, Creighton 6.20; 8, BUTLER 5.08; 9, Seton Hall 4.75; 10, DePaul 4.40.
Women – 1, DePaul 8.25; 2, Marquette 7.80; 3, Georgetown 7.50; 4, Villanova 6.71; 5, St. John’s 6.43; 6, BUTLER 5.88; 7, Creighton 5.75; 8, Xavier 5.59; 9, Seton Hall 5.36; 10, Providence 4.63.
Combined – 1, Villanova 7.14; 2, Georgetown 7.00; 3, St. John’s 6.62; 4, Marquette 6.59; 5, DePaul 6.17; 6, Seton Hall 6.00; 7, tie, BUTLER and Xavier 5.82; 9, Creighton 5.73; 10, Providence 5.62.
Men – 1, Georgetown 7.79; 2, Villanova 7.14; 3, Providence 6.60; 4, Marquette 6.58; 5, Xavier 6.57; 6, Creighton 6.10; 7, St. John’s 6.00; 8, BUTLER 5.67; 9, Seton Hall 5.25; 10, DePaul 5.00.
Women – 1, Villanova 7.14; 2, tie, St. John’s and DePaul 7.00; 4, Marquette 6.60; 5, Seton Hall 6.64; 6, Georgetown 6.31; 7, BUTLER 5.94; 8, Creighton 5.42; 9, Xavier 5.07; 10, Providence 4.93.
Combined – 1, Villanova 7.29; 2, Georgetown 7.17; 3, Xavier 7.00; 4, DePaul 6.38; 5, Marquette 6.36; 6, St. John’s 6.21; 7, BUTLER 5.57; 8, Creighton 5.55; 9, Seton Hall 5.38; 10, Providence 5.21.
Men – 1, Georgetown 7.86; 2, Xavier 7.64; 3, Villanova 6.79; 4, Providence 6.10; 5, Marquette 6.08; 6, tie, BUTLER and Creighton 6.00; 8, St. John’s 5.40; 9, DePaul 5.30; 10, Seton Hall 5.25.
Women – 1, Villanova 7.79; 2, DePaul 7.14; 3, St. John’s 6.79; 4, Marquette 6.70; 5, Georgetown 6.56; 6, Xavier 6.44; 7, Seton Hall 5.50; 8, BUTLER 5.25; 9, Creighton 5.17; 10, Providence 4.57.
Combined – 1, Marquette 7.73; 2, Villanova 7.00; 3, DePaul 6.59; 4, BUTLER 6.47; 5, Creighton 6.32; 6, Georgetown 6.30; 7, Providence 5.98; 8, St. John’s 5.96; 9, Xavier 5.41; 10, Seton Hall 5.07.
Men – 1, BUTLER 7.64; 2, Marquette 7.17; 3, Providence 7.10; 4, Villanova 6.71; 5, Creighton 6.50; 6, Georgetown 6.21; 7, Seton Hall 5.92; 8, Xavier 5.71; 9, DePaul 5.60; 10, St. John’s 4.12.
Women – 1, Marquette 8.40; 2, tie, DePaul and Villanova 7.29; 4, St. John’s 6.88; 5, Georgetown 6.38; 6, Creighton 6.17; 7, BUTLER 5.44; 8, Providence 5.18; 9, Xavier 5.11; 10, Seton Hall 4.36.
Sources: Big East and IndyStar.