Butler's lofty goals may require jump to bigger conference

April 13, 2010
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There’s a feature on Sesame Street called “What doesn’t belong?” At least there was when I was a kid.

You know the game. Big Bird shows four objects and one is unlike all the others. This feature always amused me, even as a six-year-old, because it was so painfully obvious.

There on our living room TV screen would be three milk jugs and a rooster. And the sing-along jingle … “which object doesn’t belong …” would blaze away in the background. It always made me smile.

I can’t help but envision that feature down on Sesame Street when I think of Butler University and the Horizon League.

Butler Athletics Director Barry Collier isn’t about to say the idea of jumping out of the 10-team Horizon League has crossed his mind. But listening to him talk in the days following Butler’s march to the NCAA Championship game, I can’t help but wonder if Butler is outgrowing its little league brethren.

No offense against the Horizon League, which is based in Indianapolis and has been instrumental as one of the hosts of the Final Fours here, but Butler is no longer finding adequate competition there, certainly not in basketball. Butler went 18-0 in the conference this year and won the conference tournament.

The Horizon League is the perfect collegiate league for teams that want to compete in NCAA Div. I athletics, but don’t want to break the bank. In many ways, it’s a healthier way to exist than the BCS conferences’ big-spending way of life.

I should note here that Butler President Bobby Fong has told me several times that the school has no intention of spending like the nation's biggest schools. Of course, that was before Butler threw its men's basketball coach a very big bone to sit and stay.

Amazingly, a quick review of Horizon League team finances shows that Butler has become the N.Y. Yankees of the league without outspending the competition like George Steinbrenner.

The Bulldogs are just barely above the league average in basketball spending, shelling out $1.7 million annually, less than $100,000 over its league counterparts.

Butler’s overall athletics budget is in the $11.2 million range compared to the Horizon League average of about $9.98 million. Since Butler is only one of three Horizon League schools to have a football team, it would appear Butler is getting quite a bang for its buck. Football teams aren’t cheap to operate.

But if you know Barry Collier, you know he’s a long way from satisfied with one run to the Final Four and a mid-pack athletics program. That’s evident in the fact that he probably doubled Coach Brad Stevens salary last week. Now a $1 million-a-year coach in the Big Ten might not mean anything, but it’s three to four times what the average Horizon League coach makes.

And when you’re paying a single coach 10 percent of your entire athletics department budget, you expect a return on your investment. Collier might have left the coaches box, but he still thinks like a coach. Strategically, and most importantly with a competitor’s spirit.

That spirit won’t let him rest. He wants to grow the Butler athletic department to new heights. That’s good for the school, because it will bring it publicity in circles Bulldog alums and trustees never before imagined.

Collier’s no fool. He knows sustaining his vision of long-term ascension in college athletics takes money. And he’ll only have Butler trustees' backing so long as the athletics department is self-sustaining. A school like Butler isn’t about to let money be sucked away from academics into an athletics black hole.

Butler has lost their last three men’s basketball coaches to Nebraska (Collier), Xavier (Matta) and Iowa (Lickliter). If Butler is to become the powerhouse Collier wants, he can’t afford to be losing any more of his top-flite coaches to the likes of those schools.

If IU, Notre Dame or Duke come calling, that’s another kettle of fish entirely. But unless we’re talking about football or wrestling, an aspiring sports power can’t lose their coaches to two niche sports programs and a private, Catholic school that has never sniffed a Final Four.
So Collier and Butler stand precariously at a crossroads. Next year, his school is likely to own the Horizon League’s biggest basketball and athletics department budget. He is already looking to leverage relationships with Duke and Purdue, not only as a way to bolster publicity for the team and school, but as a way to generate some cash.

Butler is in a tricky situation, because it may not yet be in a place to command home-and-home deals with those schools, but you have to believe Butler is now beyond making deals to play away games at places like UAB as it did this year.

Pre-conference tournament offers are likely to come-in, especially as long as Stevens is on Butler’s sidelines, but that can only bring in so much cash.

A bigger conference, though, say the Atlantic 10, Big East or Mid-American Conference would bring a much bigger revenue-sharing check.

And if Collier is able to continue to grow Butler athletics, is the Big Ten completely out of the question? At this point, that scenario is difficult to imagine, but who knows?

It’s no secret the Big Ten wants a 12th school, but can’t find a suitable match. The Bulldogs could certainly compete in basketball, but even the Big Ten’s smallest school, Northwestern, has a $48.6 million athletics budget. It would take an incredible leap by a school still as much puppies athletically as Dawgs.

But coaches and athletes—and that is Collier’s background—are conditioned to think they can take on anyone anywhere.

And after the Bulldogs’ narrow loss to the powerhouse Blue Devils, who can argue with that mindset?

  • mvc
    i think the mvc would make the most sense travel wise
  • mvc
    i think the mvc would make the most sense travel wise
  • MVC
    I have heard mention of the Misouri Valley Conference, but I wonder if it would be a big enough leap to make it worth while. I will have to take a look at MVC's financial situation to see if that might make some sense. Of course, a lot depends on what Butler wants to do with its football program.
  • Jumping ship
    BB may be king but Butler football vs Ohio State then Iowa then.....no way. Love to see OSU ant the BU bowl though. About the only competitive sports would be soccer, cross/track and maybe golf. BU would have to start up a few sports again....way too soon!!! Maybe in 10 years?
  • BU vs IU football
    Reddog, You make a lot of solid points, but as it is, Butler football probably isn't all that far behind IU. 2 years ago, Ball State put the hurts to IU, so why not Butler? Now, other sports might be a different situation, but Butler football probably isn't as far behind IU as people think. But you are probably right, BU is 10 years away from contemplating Big 10.
    • Football
      would Butler schedule a game at like Purdue or IU to get a nice payday like Indiana State does
    • What no love for MO Val?
      Nice Blog on the Butler conference situation.
      One glaring omission for me was the possibility
      of joining the Missouri Valley Conference.
      Home of Northern Iowa, Illinois State, Southern Illinois,
      Bradley,Crieghton,Drake and of course natural rival and guaranteed sellout game
      Indiana State.
      It is 1-AA in football which would give Butler a better transition
      for their program.
      The facilities are top notch across the leauge and attendance exceeds Butler's
      current numbers.
      If not a natural choice at least one that makes some sense.
      Your Thoughts? Your readers?
    • MVC debate
      Hello Bill, Check out my comment above (3rd from top). I'm not sure a jump to the MVC would be a big enough benefit to warrant the leap. Do I think it would help Butler? Probably somewhat. But how much and at what expense are big questions. Collier must justify any investment with a solid ROI, so a leap to an even bigger, higher-profile conference might make even more sense. But from what I've heard off the record or on background from Butler officials today, the idea of moving to another conference has been discussed even before this year. And the run to the Final Four certainly is heating up that discussion.
    • BU vs IU football - really?
      Butler football isn't even a division 1 sport (I believe it's division 2 maybe 3). No scholarship players. How can you honestly compare it to IU? Ball State was on a solid run the year they beat IU. Ball State's coach awarded a sizeable contract after that season. IU isn't up to the caliber of Ohio St., but it's well above Butler - sorry to break it to you.
    • Have you seen ...
      Have you seen IU play football recently? It doens't look much like Div. I.
    • MCC V.2
      Butler isnt joining the MVC or any other league that currently exists. Whenever the Big Ten expansion/Big East implosion occurs, look for Butler, Xavier, Dayton, Depaul, St Louis, and 3 to 5 other midwest privates to come together in a league that resembles the 80s MCC.

      It will be a Top 6 basketball league every year.
    • Never sniffed a Final Four??
      One of your comments referred to Xavier as
      "a private, Catholic school that has never sniffed a Final Four.". Hmmm, let's see, in the last 5 years, X has gone to two Elite Eights, losing one game by 3 to Duke and the other by 6 to Pitt. I'd call that "sniffing a Final Four". That was farther than Butler had ever gone before this season. So, while we all applaud the Bulldogs great year, you're factually incorrect (and snidely so) in your comment re Xavier. Oh, and nice time clock you've got there at Hinkle. Great way to steal a game.
    • Butler
      Interesting how when the topic arises of what Butler may do conference wise, the lame IU moniker is trown around. Why not Butler, IU sucks in basketball and football and will not likely unsuck itself anytime soon.
    • Butler
      Point of order: Butler played a home-and-home with UAB.
      Butler to A-10 ... drives up travel costs and lost class time significantly.
      Butler to Big East ... get real, and it drives up travel costs and lost class time significantly.
      Butler to Mid-American ... football. End of discussion.
      Butler to Mo Val ... again, greater travel and lost class time.
      Butler isn't leaving the Horizon League.
    • really?
      "a private, Catholic school that has never sniffed a Final Four."

      I dont know what your definition of "sniff" is but Xavier has been to the Sweet 16 twice and the Elite 8 twice in the last seven years. I think they may have caught a whiff...

      Butler lost Matta to XU because it has a better program, in a better conference that spends more on basketball because they are smart enought to realize that is where they will make their money. Or they could waste money on a Division I FCS football team that is a cost center for the university. Perhaps that is why he left?

      It doesn't seem like you really have a firm grasp of the facts so maybe I shouldn't expect you to be tethered to the truth either.

    • Big 10?
      MAC maybe, but Big 10? Not in our lifetimes.
    • Thanks XU
      Did you stop to think that maybe one of the reasons Butler was able to make it the National Championship game is based on the fact that the Kansas State players were still recovering from playing a double overtime game and did not have the adequate rest they needed to play against Butler. Quit trashing programs like Xavier - only one other school has been able to make it to the NCAA tournament the past 4 years to the Sweet 16!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    • What doesn't belong?
      Answer: you... in journalism.
    • Schoettle, why the neg comment to a positive experience?
      After such a great basketball experience through Butler's run to the Final Four, why the need to knock down Nebraska, Iowa and Xavier by throwing salt with comments like "niche programs" and "never sniffed a Final Four". Sandwiched between those phrases was "a private, Catholic school" in reference to Xavier. I can only hope that you are professional enough not to write any personal religious biases into your stories but, as part of clear language to demeen the schools that past coaches have headed for, one is left to question.

      As Butler alum, I must ask why the need to make comments that would distance some of those very people (some XU fans I know personally were Dawgs backers last week) that routed on our Bulldogs.

      You are likely going to reply that you were stating facts, but the way you used niche and sniff were opinionated and carried negative tone. If you print in the IBJ this weekend, consider omitting paragraph 16. Others may not be quite as for giving of the negative inuendo wrapped around "private, Catholic school". Futhermore, a more accurate and informed description of Xavier would be "a private Jesuit university".
    • Go musketeers!
      I see we have the good folks at musketeermadness.com all riled up. I agree, if Butler is going to take its program to the next level, compete with the very highest hoops programs in the land on a consistent basis, Butler can't lose its top talent to the X, and two schools in the corn belt known for excellence on the gridiron but certainly not the hardwood. The same rhetoric is bantered about at every Fortune 500 company. Apple doesn't want to lose top talent to Bill Gates and vice versa. Now the same is true for Butler. Surely Barry Collier thinks his program is now on at least equal footing with Xavier. Not sure anyone would quibble about that right now. So you don't want to lose your talent to a competitor (let alone someone you deem an underling), simple as that.
    • Not so fast my friend
      Butler football is not even close to IU. Butler is a lot closer to Indiana State than IU in football.

      Butler in the Big Ten is absolutely laughable. They would have to spend tremendously higher amounts of money to even field teams in all the Big Ten sports and they would get killed in almost every sport.

      Plus, academically Butler is a poor fit as all of the Big Ten schools are large research dollar institutions which Butler is not and Northwestern is the only school that isn't huge and even they dwarf Butler.

      Something like the Atlantic 10, Missouri Valley, MAC, etc. would be a much better fit and the more likely option.
    • And why would the Big Ten want Butler?
      Forgot to add this...

      Why would the Big Ten want Butler? I can't think of a single reason why they would be a good candidate. They don't expand the footprint of the Big Ten Network as something like Rutgers or Missouri would so they add nothing from a tv revenue standpoint. They draw very poorly in basketball and football vs. Big Ten schools so they add nothing from a revenue standpoint there either. Where is the win for the Big Ten in this? I just don't see it. If the Big Ten adds another school it will likely be one that adds a substantial new tv market, and draws at least close to Big Ten levels for basketball and football attendance. They are better off to just stay pat and wait for the right opportunity than to add a very poor fit like Butler.
    • Which person am I now?
      After reading the responses to this blog all I can write is -- aliases, aliases everywhere!

      Oh, I almost forgot, Xavier is awesome! (Quite possibly the greatest basketball program known to man) And Butler stinks!

      I know that I stuck with the singular first name only moniker, but did I change my writing style enough to fool you?
    • Butler in Big 10
      correct me if i am wrong, but I thought in order to be in the big 10 a school had to have a researching arm tied to it...i don't think Butler has that.
    • Settle Down, X Fans
      "If IU, Notre Dame or Duke come calling, thatâ??s another kettle of fish entirely. But unless weâ??re talking about football or wrestling, an aspiring sports power canâ??t lose their coaches to two niche sports programs and a private, Catholic school that has never sniffed a Final Four."

      He's talking about Notre Dame never sniffing the Final Four, at least not since 1978. IU and Duke are certainly the niche programs reference above, since they are known exclusively as basketball schools.

      Put down the pitchforks, people.
    • Now for a dose of reality
      Butler to the Big 10? They have about an equal chance of playing on the moon. However, the Big 10 will play a big role in schools like Butler...

      If the B10 expands to 16 (via 2 8-team divisions) as they are currently discussing, they will pull from B12 and B-East --Rutgers, Missou, BC & others. This will force a chain reaction -- either Texas/Oklahoma to SEC or Bama/LSU to B12, then SEC will grab from ACC, ACC will grab from B-East and so on.

      The result will be programs like Providence and Depaul becoming "free agent" programs. With the amount of free agent programs this could produce, it's anyone's guess as to how it could shake out. Of course, the B10 will need to expand to 16 first, which is either a 100% guarantee or a 0% fat chance depending on which blog you're reading at the time.

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