EL DORADO — For a long time now, when it comes to junior-college football, it’s been Butler Community College and everybody else.
As in everybody else in the entire country.
So when it came time to make some hard decisions about how Butler’s own Jayhawk Conference might better create parity for the seven other teams had fallen drastically behind their marquee team, the result was one that many saw coming from a long way away.
The playing field would be leveled, for better or worse.
In March, conference presidents voted for perhaps the biggest rule change in conference history, upping the number of out-of-state players on football rosters from 12 to 20 and expanding rosters from 55 to 63. The move, which Dodge City Community College president Don Woodburn championed, was a direct response to the domination of Butler, the most powerful junior-college program in the nation and last season’s national runner-up.
“It’s frustrating when I hear that people want to adjust the rules because we’ve been good, because the fact is it comes across like people don’t respect that we’ve had to work hard to get this level of success,” said Butler football coach Troy Morrell, who was hired in 2000 and was an assistant on the 1998 and 1999 title teams.
“I look back at a guy like Dick Foster, who was the coach when Coffeyville dominated in the 1980s, and was in Sports Illustrated, if they tried to change the rules to slow him down? I don’t remember us trying to change the rules when Garden City was dominating in the 1990s. All I remember is them beating us and us trying to work harder to get better players and figure out a way to beat them on the field, not trying to change the rules or manipulate some outside factor.”
The Grizzlies, who own five national championships and 13 out of 15 Jayhawk titles since 1998, ended up being a victim of their own success on and off the field, where their ability to hand-pick the best in-state recruits — the lifeblood of any program in the Jayhawk — became such an insurmountable obstacle that it was commonly cited by Woodburn and others in the pursuit of change.
“The battle for the top in-state talent is over, it’s been over for some time,” Garden City Community College president Herbert Swender said. “And that’s not to say there aren’t quality players that do end up here that are from Kansas, but the majority are going to Butler. And that’s made it hard to compete with them on the field.”
But the rule change might be exactly what the Jayhawk needs if a team from Kansas wants win another NJCAA championship. Since Butler won its last title in 2008, teams from the Jayhawk have been to the national championship game three of the four years and lost all three times. Fort Scott lost to Cam Newton and Blinn in 2009, Butler lost to Navarro in 2010 and Iowa Western in 2012.
“Every year, you feel that unknown factor because you’re relying on freshmen and transfers and redshirts coming from different scenarios to come in, practice for three weeks then line up and play a college football game,” Morrell said. “But this year, it’s an even greater unknown because there is the potential there for a team to have 20 out-of-state starters. We won’t be in that boat, I can tell you that, but when you look back at when it was 12, we never even started that many out-of-staters because we would always keep an extra tailback or wide receivers.”
Blinn and Navarro, both Texas schools, have a distinct, built-in advantage because there’s no need to recruit out of state and can give full scholarships. Iowa Western can also give full rides.
“If the tables are turned, I can see where the other schools are coming from, I can see what their concerns are,” Butler athletic director Todd Carter said. “We’ll be better, but the amount we’ll improve is not going to be proportional to how much better the other teams are going to get. What’s not going to happen anymore are the crazy scores we’ve seen the last couple of years, because the games are going to be more competitive.
“I guess, from our perspective, there are other sports where the other teams dominate us and we’d like to see the playing field leveled, but we know, because we’re Butler, we have the target on our backs.”
Carter wasn’t exaggerating when he referred to “crazy scores.” The Grizzlies won their seven Jayhawk games by an average of 54.2 points, scoring more than 60 points four times and 80 twice.
Even fellow Jayhawk power Hutchinson, perennially ranked in the NJCAA Top 20, lost 40-7 to Butler in the regular-season finale.
“We had a very sophomore-laden team, experience all over the place,” Morrell said. “And now we only have one starter back. We’re so much younger, that’s something else to consider.”
Morrell hasn’t hid his frustration with the rule changes, and that it comes from a basic level. He’s concerned that rosters with more out-of-state players will lead to fans losing local connections. He’s worried that there’s the potential for players from Kansas to miss out on opportunities.
“It’s a concern, like I’ve said, but it’s no definite,” Morrell said. “The rosters are bigger, so the Kansas players aren’t going to be reduced. One thing that could happen, though, is some of these communities could see a real disconnect with their fans if the players on the field are all from out of state. We’re still here to serve our regions and our communities, first and foremost.”
The Grizzlies, ranked No. 5 in the NJCAA preseason poll, opened the season on Saturday, hosting Dodge City. Butler opened 2012 with a 72-12 win over the Conquistadors.