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SPORTS Bill Benner: Little-noticed Horizon League prospers and grows

September 18, 2006

SPORTS Little-noticed Horizon League prospers and grows

From his fifth-floor office in Pan Am Plaza, Horizon League Commissioner Jon LeCrone has a view of the Indianapolis skyline. His only wish is that the city would look back.

Not at him. At his nine-member league, which will grow to 10 next July when upstate Valparaiso joins Butler in the league's Indiana contingent.

Alas, it's a prime example of good news making no news. Or of the media, local and otherwise, determining that Horizon League activities are not worthy of coverage in a crowded landscape that must feed the beasts that are pro sports and the "big-time" institutions of the NCAA's so called power conferences.

So never mind that the HL institutions engage "student-athletes" and don't have to apologize for the term. Never mind the broad array of community service activities they perform, almost as much a part of their routine as practice and games. Never mind an emphasis on sportsmanlike behavior that's the expectation for coaches, players, officials and, yes, student bodies and fans.

It's all a part of what the Horizon League staff and the school presidents said they would be when they changed their name from the Midwestern Collegiate Conference five years ago. And it's what the conference has become.

"It's a commentary on the times that good works don't get lots of attention, and that's OK," says LeCrone, in his 15th year as HL commissioner. "It's also a commentary on the times that athletics in the quasi-professional Division I get more attention than schools closer to the collegiate model.

"Now I'm not being critical of Ohio State just because they have an $80 million budget, because they do great things. But it's fundamentally different than [HL member] Wright State, which also does great things. It's just that nobody knows about those great things Wright State does."

LeCrone isn't whining. Expressing some frustration, yes, but whining, no. The quest to sell newspapers and draw television and radio ratings means giving consumers what they want, and the media respond accordingly. "So we've tried to say that we define our success measurements, not others," LeCrone says.

And there has been success, even as Horizon League teams compete in a Division I environment against mega-schools with infinitely greater resources. Butler and Wisconsin-Milwaukee have made Sweet Sixteen runs in the NCAA Men's basketball tournament. Wisconsin-Green Bay has an outstanding women's basketball program that also has had one of the nation's highest collective grade point averages. Wright State is emerging as a baseball power. Illinois-Chicago has a nationally competitive men's soccer program. Butler excels in track and cross-country.

"Our competitive levels are going up in a time of limited resources... ," LeCrone says. "When we changed our name, our goals were, one, to be real competitive; two, to be competitive with real student-athletes; and, three, to establish the expectation that our student-athletes would be role models involved in community service."

HL athletes have been involved in causes such as diabetes, hurricane relief, Big Brother/Big Sister programs and more.

Academically, according to the league's Web site, more than 500 HL athletes have been named to the Academic Honor Roll each of the past three semesters. Thirty-five were named to Academic All-District teams in 2005-2006 and 11 earned Academic All-America honors, including two first-team selections.

It's also worth noting that LeCrone is one of the most respected administrators in Division I, evidenced by his term on the prestigious Men's Basketball Committee. Held in similarly high national esteem among women's administrators is HL Assistant Commissioner Alfreeda Goff.

And locally, the Horizon League plays an integral role in serving as the institutional co-host (with Butler) for NCAA championship events that take place in Indy, most notably men's and women's Final Fours.

Good stuff, if not the stuff of headlines.

Finally, a couple of unrelated items.

In last week's column, I incorrectly referred to the Yankees winning the post-9/11 World Series. Well, they played in it, but lost, to the Arizona Diamondbacks. At my advancing age, I should know better than to rely on my memory. My apologies.

Finally, I join those whose thoughts and prayers are with Indiana University football coach Terry Hoeppner and his family as Hep recovers from another surgery. While it is tempting to place Hoeppner's situation in the perspective of the program he's trying to build, the only things that really matter are his health and recovery.



Benner is associate director of communications for the Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly.To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor e-mail bbenner@ibj.com.
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