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Division I Unforgotten: Butler Bulldogs

I miss the sound of your voice.

Andy Lyons

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I haven't written one of these in a while, but with the recent announcement that Indianapolis is going to be a NCAA Tournament quarterfinal site in 2013, a revival is in order. The subject? Butler University, a program that hasn't existed at the Division I level since the 2006 season, which also happens to have a mailing address in the Indianapolis area. Let's learn stuff!

A Maiming and Seppuku
It's probably best to start the story of Butler lacrosse with the last days of its existence. The circumstances surrounding the end of Butler lacrosse tell a lot about a program that existed in the middle of the country -- both geographically and competitively -- and endured a painful end to a relatively proud, but short, history.

On January 26, 2007 -- just weeks from the start of the Bulldogs' season -- Butler announced that it would discontinue men's lacrosse effective June 1 of that year. In question and answer format, because it's easier to define a narrative when you demand only the questions you would like to answer, the Butler athletic department provided the following:

Q: Why lacrosse? Why men's swimming? A: The decision to discontinue lacrosse and men's swimming was made as a result of a total review of the athletic department. Included in the review was information gathered internally and an external comparative report of peer institutions. This comprehensive review uncovered the need to focus our efforts to ensure greater stability for the entire department.

* * * * *

Q: What will happen to the money saved? A: Money from scholarships, salaries and operating funds will be reallocated to the university's 19 teams.

To translate from athletic department rhetoric to, you know, human English, Butler said this: "basketballbasketballbasketballbasketball." And that's fine, I guess, but the decision occurring when it did ultimately became the worst aspect of the entire situation -- left with the option of playing a lame duck season or not playing at all, the players decided to cancel their 2007 campaign just five days after the athletic department's decision and 17 days prior to their opening date against UMBC in Baltimore. The Butler lacrosse program was maimed and left for dead, and rather than having a drifter step on their neck and rob them blind, the players chose to end things on their own terms (even if those terms were somewhat dictated to them). That's icky, man.

After the decision to shutter the program, Butler re-emerged on the club circuit in March of 2007, playing in the CCLA of the MCLA. The Bulldogs have had mixed results playing in the MCLA's second division, holding an overall 22-25 record with only one season above .500 -- a 5-3 effort in 2010. That's a long way from competing in the NCAA Tournament and putting together two seasons with at least 10 wins.

The Lost Glory
For a program that saw its genesis in 1993, making the NCAA Tournament in only its sixth season of competition is an impressive feat, especially considering that Butler is located in a non-traditional area and, as a smaller school, didn't exactly have the substantial resources that their competitors were lucky to have. The growth of the Bulldogs program wasn't exponentially impressive, building their way toward the top of the now-defunct Great Western Lacrosse League with schedules that frequently mixed non-Division I outfits with the Division I elite and meaty middle. Games against Lake Forest, Pfeiffer, Niagra, and Mercyhurst (among others) helped Butler avoid losing seasons in their early years, consistently staying at or above .500 with the exception of a 6-9 campaign in 1995 that saw Division I wins against only St. Joseph's, Canisius, Ohio State, and Denver. It all started to come together for Butler in 1996, though, finally busting through its conference slate and getting a taste of the big time.

The run toward the NCAA Tournament in 1998 really bloomed in 1996: Riding on the back of Craig Kahoun, the Bulldogs went through a renaissance. From 1996 to 2000, Butler claimed seven All Americans (Craig Kahoun (1996, Honorable Mention), Pete Johnson (1997, Honorable Mention), Mike O'Rourke (1997, Honorable Mention), Cory Kahoun (1998, Honorable Mention and 1999, Third Team), and Mike Regan (1999, Honorable Mention and 2000, Third Team)), three GWLL players of the year (1996, Craig Kahoun; 1997, Pete Johnson; 1999, Cory Kahoun; and 2000, Mike Regan), and 23 players were named to a GWLL all-conference team from 1996-2000. With talent and a coach that was named the GWLL's coach of the year three times in Jon Hind (Hind also took home national coach of the year honors in 1998), Butler looked to have everything going in the right direction.

The loss to Maryland in the NCAA Tournament -- an 18-10 affair at College Park -- was bittersweet: Even though Butler had finally summitted the GWLL with a perfect league mark and earned an invitation to its first (and what would be only) May adventure, it was the beginning of the end. The Bulldogs would never again achieve the highs it had approached in the mid- to late-1990's, and watching a program suffer through that -- despite having indoor and outdoor practice facilities, as well as membership in an automatic invitation conference -- isn't exactly fun.

The End Before the End
Jon Hind would leave coaching after the 1999 season, taking a role within the Butler athletic department. (You may also remember Hind from such escapades as chairing the rules committee that made everyone freak out this past summer.) With Hind's departure, the men's lacrosse program appeared to lose its identity and momentum: Over its last seven seasons, Butler was a pedestrian 34-59, never breaking the five-win mark and only once -- a 2-2 effort in 2000 -- achieved at least a .500 record in the GWLL. If Butler was looking for an opportunity to cut the men's lacrosse program it had it; simply, the program had apparently reached its apex, spinning back to Earth.

It's the sad prologue to the epilogue, a program that looked as if it could catch a break or two could possibly grow as the game was growing around the region.