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Mark Lazerus: Horizon League content to skip conference chaos

Dave Bartman/Post-Tribune Head shoulders Mark LaBarberDirector Athletics Valparaiso 05/17/06

Dave Bartman/Post-Tribune Head and shoulders Mark LaBarbera, Director of Athletics at Valparaiso on 05/17/06

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Updated: November 10, 2011 3:49PM



Let’s put this one to bed once and for all.

“This rumor that we’re going to be the 16th member of the ACC is not true,” said Valparaiso director of athletics Mark LaBarbera.

He was joking, of course.

But who can tell these days? With high-profile colleges being tossed into a Bingo roller and pulled out at random on a daily basis — Nebraska to the Big Ten, TCU to the Big East, Texas A&M to the SEC, Utah to the Pac-12, Syracuse and Pittsburgh to the ACC, Texas to its own alternate universe — who knows where the final domino will fall?

ESPN’s Andy Katz, among others, has gone so far as to speculate that Butler — along with fellow mid-major powerhouse Xavier — could get scooped up by the basketball-minded Big East after that conference is done hemorrhaging football programs. LaBarbera said he got a call on Tuesday asking about the rumors that DePaul and Marquette could be leaving the Big East to join the Horizon League.

The speculation is running rampant. But the Horizon League doesn’t seem to think the sky is falling. Let the BCS conferences have their college carousel, the Horizon League seems content to sit on a nearby bench and watch the chaos from afar.

“I can tell you that it’s certainly something that when we as athletic directors meet with the commissioner (Jon LeCrone), we do get an update on what’s happening with other conferences,” LaBarbera said. “But based on the conversations we have, we as the Horizon League feel pretty good about the group of 10 schools we have. We feel we’ve got a good group of 10 schools that makes sense from a lot of standpoints — from a financial standpoint, from a student-athlete standpoint, from a rivaly standpoint. It’s schools that logically fit together.”

Indeed, after years in the far-flung, low-rent Mid-Continent Conference, Valparaiso has found the Horizon League — a Midwest-only non-football league that’s a significant step up in competition in just about every sport — to be heaven.

When you asked VU athletes — in every sport — who bridged the school’s tenures in the Mid-Con and the Horizon, they would absolutely gush about the new digs. Gone were 2,000-mile trips to Southern Utah, replaced by bus trips to Chicago and Indianapolis, to Cleveland and Milwaukee, to Detroit and Dayton.

Sure, it costs the school a lot less money to charter a bus than buy a few dozen tickets on a Southwest Airlines flight. But the athletes didn’t care about that. They cared about the fact that they were on campus more. Missed fewer classes. Spent less time in airports.

So LaBarbera just shakes his head when he sees university presidents and chancellors jumping at conferences that make no sense from a geographical standpoint. After all, Pitt’s not on the Atlantic Coast. Texas Christian’s not in the east. Oklahoma’s not on the Pacific.

Every one of these moves — both the ones that have already happened and the ones that are being bandied about — are about one thing: money. Specifically, television money.

It’s certainly not about the so-called student-athletes.

“The thing I’m always disappointed about is the conversation never seems to get to one question — what’s best for the student-athletes?” LaBarbera said. “I think the strength of the Horizon League is it’s a conference with 10 schools committed to providing a good student-athlete experience. That’s why we moved to the Horizon League. I have a hard time understanding how it can be good for your student-athletes to ship them 1,500 miles across the country every week. We’ve done that already, and we were like, ‘Enough is enough.’ That’s why the Horizon League was a very attractive option for us.”

And that’s why LaBarbera thinks Butler’s not going anywhere. Not to the Big East, not to a bulked-up Atlantic-10, not anywhere. While the Bulldogs’ basketball program certainly is strong enough to compete in a revamped Big East (they’ve been to back-to-back national championship games, you know), the Horizon League hasn’t exactly held them back (they’ve been to back-to-back national championship games, you know).

Butler won the McCafferty Cup as the most successful all-around athletic program in the Horizon League last year, winning conference championships in men’s basketball, volleyball, men’s soccer, women’s and men’s cross country and women’s golf.

The Bulldogs are doing just fine in the Horizon League. And while they won the non-scholarship Pioneer Football League title two years ago, they’re not anywhere near BCS-ready in that regard (not that they couldn’t join a conference in all sports except football, mind you).

So while the media might be having fun speculating about the future of every college program in the country (and we are), the hysteria hasn’t yet permeated the lower levels of college athletics.

“We have no contingency plan,” LaBarbera said. “We have no plan on the table for, ‘Oh, gee, what’ll we do if a member leaves?’ I think Jon LeCrone has done a very good job of keeping track of what’s going on and keeping us informed. The sense I get when I’m in the room is that the members of the conference feel good about the conference as a whole.”

And in the unlikely scenario that the dominoes eventually do reach the mid-majors? Life will go on, with or without Butler. Just like it did in 1994, when Xavier left the Horizon (then the MCC) for the Atlantic-10.

“People asked the league back then, ‘What are you going to do, that’s your best program?’” LaBarbera said. “Well, it worked out well for them, and it worked out just fine for the Horizon League. It seems to me that it’d be best if people just took a step back and took a deep breath and decided what’s best for the schools and for the student-athletes.”

Alas, that ship has sailed. Rumor has it, it’s headed for the Pac-12.



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