Horizon League Commissioner Jon LeCrone is hopeful Butler University officials will not let their enthusiasm over the school’s
recent push to the NCAA Championship game run wild.
LeCrone has warned all 10 Horizon League schools not to let the pursuit of athletic excellence turn into the bidding war for coaches and arms race for facilities that it has in many power conferences.
That may be easier said than done. Butler alumni groups had formed to raise money to retain head men’s basketball coach Brad Stevens even before his contract was extended April 8.
And on April 1, Butler Athletics Director Barry Collier and President Bobby Fong unveiled a $10 million-plus capital campaign
to make improvements to Hinkle Fieldhouse. Butler has hired Indianapolis architect firm Moody Nolan to study renovation costs.
But after conversations with Collier in the days leading up to and following Butler’s near miss against Duke University, LeCrone is confident Butler will stay true to its own mission and to that of the Horizon League.
“We’ve been building this league in a very special way for 18 years,” said LeCrone from the Horizon League’s
Indianapolis headquarters. “We realized a long time ago that we cannot compete if the only window we look out is the
financial one. We cannot and our schools won’t try to go out and double and triple their budgets.”
LeCrone added that Butler’s success only fortifies the league’s position.
“They’ve shown what a team from the Horizon League can do,” LeCrone said. “Butler has shown that it’s more about people than facilities; it’s more about working as a team than having the biggest budget.”
Butler has a basketball budget of $1.7 million, 142nd out of 345 NCAA Division I schools, according to bbstate.com, which has kept a database on all college sports programs for a decade.
Butler had by far the smallest men’s basketball budget of any team in the Final Four. West Virginia spends $6 million annually, Michigan State $9 million and Duke—which has the biggest men’s basketball budget among NCAA schools—shells out $13.9 million a year.
Likewise, Butler trails many of its statewide brethren. Indiana University has a $6.9 million annual budget for men’s basketball, Purdue has a $4.7 million budget, and Notre Dame spends $4.4 million, according to the schools’ own filings and bbstate.com.
“There’s going to be pressure on Butler, no doubt,” said Bob Beaudine, whose Dallas-based executive search firm counts many of the nation’s largest schools and most successful coaches as clients. “There will be a swell of support for this program, but there will also be increased demands from corporate sponsors and especially alumni groups.”
The expectations will be a lot to handle, Beaudine said, for a school whose $11.2 million athletics department budget ranks 215th among Division I schools.
But Fong and Collier have vowed not to let that pressure change their focus.
“We’re not about to try to compete financially with the big schools and conferences,” Fong said. “We have our own ways of doing things and our own measuring sticks.”
Those measuring sticks, LeCrone said, have been discussed since the Horizon League was founded in 1979 as the Midwestern City Conference.
“We’ve always been focused on developing value-based leadership,” LeCrone said. “We have always adopted metrics the 10 schools in this conference can live with and not worry about other conferences.”
Even if Butler had the desire to compete with bigger schools, it simply might not be possible.
Butler, with about 40,000 living alumni, won’t ever garner the support of a large school like IU, with 495,000 living alumni, or Ohio State University, with nearly 600,000. That alumni base is one reason Ohio State can afford to spend $102 million annually on athletics.
Of course, a historically stellar football program also generates tens of millions of dollars for schools like Ohio State. Butler generates very little through its football program.
The disparity manifests itself in many ways. “The first measure of disparity is the ability to pay to attract and retain a top-notch coach,” said Richard Sheehan, University of Notre Dame economist and author of “Keeping Score: The Economics of Big-Time Sports.”
Even before Butler’s tournament run, the school had dramatically increased what it pays its men’s head basketball coach, from $245,000 three years ago to a base pay of $350,000 last year. Terms of Stevens’ new 12-year contract were not available at IBJ deadline, but sports business experts project his base pay now exceeds $500,000.
Gonzaga University, which has had a decade-long run of success in men’s college basketball, has shown what a small school can do. Gonzaga, a school with an enrollment of less than 5,000, last year paid its head men’s basketball coach, Mark Few, $851,000 in base pay with additional bonuses. In 2000, Gonzaga paid its basketball coach just $200,000, according to school filings.
Gonzaga has seen the fruits of its labor, with its enrollment increasing almost 70 percent since 2000. Officials for the private school in Spokane, Wash., said the academic quality of its student body has improved during that time. But Gonzaga’s success has also taken its toll.
“Gonzaga has really tipped the scales in the West Coast Conference,” Sheehan said. “And now you’re seeing other schools there scrambling to compete. In most cases, those schools really can’t afford that kind of financial commitment.”
Even though Butler has increased Stevens’ pay, the school will likely never be able to pay as much as IU and Purdue, which each offer their basketball coaches packages worth more than $2 million annually when incentives are included.
On top of coaches’ pay and facilities improvements, Butler may also feel pressure to increase its budget for things like recruiting. Butler’s 2009 sports recruiting budget of $75,000 is woefully behind IU’s nearly $527,000. Gonzaga had a nearly $187,000 recruiting budget in 2009.
Tom King, a 1966 Butler graduate and 24-year member of the school’s board of trustees through the late 1990s, said he supports upgrading the school’s athletics department, but not in an attempt to compete financially with the biggest NCAA schools.
“We’ve seen what using our basketball program as a sales and marketing tool can do,” King said. “After our last Sweet Sixteen run [in 2007], we saw an enrollment bump of 20 percent and an alumni-donations increase of more than 10 percent.”
King wouldn’t say how much he thinks the Butler athletics department budget should increase, but said he believes Fong and Collier are the right people to lead the school into the new frontier.
“No one foresaw this,” King said. “No one a year ago would have predicted Butler would make it to the Final Four. Now we have a new set of opportunities and challenges to manage.”•