Day 4: Butler | Traveling Violations
INDIANAPOLIS – Twenty minutes after the second Butler practice of the day, as five Bulldogs still were getting up some extra jump shots, Todd Lickliter sat courtside in historic Hinkle Fieldhouse, the gym he grew up in the shadow of. He smiled the smile of one content basketball coach.
Lickliter may not have a million-dollar contract here on this bucolic campus north of downtown. National television may not come to every game. The Bulldogs never will be a favorite to reach the Final Four.
But it can't get too much better for a coach. Not when he runs a program where he doesn't have to beg kids to work in practice or in the classroom, where he doesn't fret that the next phone call will be from the cops, where each spring he gets invited to multiple graduation parties.
Oh yeah, the program has produced at least 22 wins in each of the last seven seasons. And last year the Bulldogs went 27-6 and romped to the Sweet Sixteen.
"This is a beautiful building, a great school and a great city," Lickliter said. "But it is the kids that make it special."
Mid-major basketball is where the game still is pure – where student-athletes still care about both sides of the hyphen, where team is everything because no one is good enough to do it alone.
Gonzaga. Butler. Tulsa. Penn. Manhattan. UNC Wilmington. To name a few.
"Part of the job at a place like this is to be able to dream," said Lickliter, now in his third season as head coach at his alma mater. "And dream big about doing things you are not favored to do."
Talk to a lot of coaches – even the richest and most famous – and the litany of complaints about the profession is endless. The stress is considerable. The demands, the pressure, the problems never stop.
Talk to Lickliter and you find an intense teacher who runs a demanding and instruction-rich practice but still can converse intelligently and joke around with his players.
What you don't hear is a lot of cussing and screaming and begging and pleading. Lickliter doesn't spend a lot of time disciplining his players because he has men, not boys.
"The coaches treat us like human beings," senior Mike Monserez said, "not like rats in a laboratory. It is very real world-like. Every now and then you get your butt chewed out, but the guys we recruit don't need to be motivated with yelling and screaming. We are motivated by the numbers on the scoreboard."
Those numbers are beyond impressive: an average of more than 23 victories per season since 1996-97. It's been done the "Butler Way," using an unselfish passing system run by a group of team-first players. To do that, you recruit good people and have the older kids teach the younger ones about the program's principles.
"We have a running goal," Monserez said. "Which senior class has the most wins when they leave here? The last three years, every senior class has broken the record of the class before.
"My class needs 23 to tie, 24 to win."
A self-motivated team? How about a selfless one, too. On Tuesday, the Butler marketing department finished the proofs for the team poster that will hang in businesses and bedrooms throughout the city. Two of the seniors, Monserez and Duane Lightfoot, were pictured. The third, lightly used walk-on Nick Gardner, was not.
Monserez and Lightfoot immediately nixed the design. Remake it with a picture of Gardner also or use the team photo they said.
"Pretty good, isn't it?" smiled Lickliter, delighted with the team unity.
Then he paused.
"Of course, no one complained Coach Lickliter wasn't on there, so maybe we have a problem."
Then he laughed.
"Butler has attracted the student-athletes that have built this environment," said Lickliter, whose program has a near-perfect graduation rate. "We think you can do two things really, really well: be a very good player and an excellent student. The diploma is non-negotiable."
"We just have great kids," he said, looking at five players still shooting and shooting. "We get these kinds of guys. Last year with [Brandon] Miller and [Darnell] Archey, we had to tell them to stop shooting. They'd come back in here at night and wear themselves out."
Which means that, despite the seasons of 20-plus wins, despite the respect he enjoys from his players and the joy he derives from being a coach instead of someone who just puts out fires, the job isn't perfect for Lickliter after all.
Sometimes he has to stop his kids from practicing too much.