Butler’s lofty goals may require jump to bigger conference

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?

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