James McCann arrived in Fayetteville, Ark., in the fall of 2009 as a self-described light-hitting catcher. A desire to play baseball dropped the freshman from California into the land of the Hog call, Sam Walton and the Southeastern Conference.
“I went into it completely blind,” he said. “It took a day or two of fall baseball to realize that Coach (Todd) Butler was the heartbeat of the Razorback baseball program.”
Butler, 46, is now the heartbeat of Wichita State baseball, a program in need of a new direction after five disappointing seasons signaled the end of coach Gene Stephenson’s history-making tenure. Wichita State announced his hiring on Sunday morning, giving him a salary of $300,000 (plus bonuses) for seven years.
“(Monday) will be the greatest day in my 23 years of coaching,” Butler said in a news release. “The opportunity to be the next head coach of the Wichita State Shockers, a storied program with tradition, a national championship and continuous seasons of greatness is a blessing.”
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Butler spent the past eight seasons as an assistant coach at Arkansas, earning a promotion to associate head coach after the 2012 season. He served as head coach at McNeese State from 2001-03, compiling a 90-83 record.
WSU will hold a news conference at 2 p.m. Monday at Eck Stadium’s All-American Club to introduce Butler. The public is invited to meet him from 5 to 7 p.m. Monday at the All-American Club.
Get there early. If McCann is correct, everybody who meets him will walk away feeling like they made a new friend.
McCann is hitting .317 with the Erie (Pa.) SeaWolves, Detroit’s Double-A affiliate, after being drafted in the second round in 2011. All the Arkansas coaches helped get him there; Butler did his part by spending countless hours working with him in the batting cages at Baum Stadium. Butler remains a part of McCann’s rise in the pro ranks. They talk once or twice a week and McCann trusts Butler to talk him through a slump, evaluate his swing and offer suggestions. In the off-season, he returns to Arkansas to work with Butler.
“I can’t believe the number of hours he put in for me,” McCann said. “When I came to campus, he was a coach. When I left, he was a friend, a lifelong mentor.”
Neosho County Community College assistant coach Scott Gurss feels the same way. He spent two seasons at Arkansas as a volunteer assistant. He is hitting coach and recruiting coordinator for Neosho, the same roles filled by Butler for the Razorbacks. Gurss spent two years watching Butler, a man he says who manages to make his family a priority and work tirelessly with his players. Butler is a player’s coach, who keeps the game fun with a dry sense of humor and an upbeat attitude. If the situation demands, he can still get in the batting cage and show the youngsters how it’s done.
“He can do what he preaches,” Gurss said. “He’ll go in that batting cage with a kid and challenge him. They love hitting for him.”
Butler can even sing, McCann revealed somewhat reluctantly. He heard Butler sing once -- during a 10-game win streak -- and suspects a time in a choir is in his background.
“He can really sing,” McCann said.
He can also really recruit, according to his reputation. He is regarded as one of the best, regularly helping Arkansas rank among the top classes as evaluated by Baseball America and Collegiate Baseball. Baseball America ranked the 2010 class No. 8, one of five in the top 10 during his time at Arkansas.
His style is straight-forward and pitched to the family. Gurss said he goes into a home and wants to know how little sister’s volleyball team is doing. He can talk to the parents about academics. He can talk to the athlete about winning baseball.
“He wants to listen,” Gurss said. “He wants to make sure mom and dad are comfortable.”
Neosho head coach Steve Murry watched Butler recruit several of his players while at McNeese State and Arkansas. If he tells a player he will call on Friday, he calls. If he is low on scholarship money, he paints a realistic picture. If he is loaded at third base, he will tell the recruit it might be best to redshirt.
“He’s a true people person,” Murry said. “A lot of coaches are used-car salesmen and he’s not one of those. He’s a quality person, a quality coach and a quality recruiter.”
Troy Eklund, who played outfield for Arkansas on its 1989 College World Series team, observed Butler for his current role as TV broadcaster with Cox Sports.
“He’s a guy that I would want my son to be playing for,” Eklund said. “Great character. Great man of faith. He’s going to develop those kids on the baseball field and in life.”
McCann, a semifinalist for the Johnny Bench Award in 2011, is one of those kids.
He hit .242 with one home run as a freshman for a team that reached the 2009 College World Series. As a sophomore, he hit .286 with nine homers. He raised his average to .306 as a junior, hitting six home runs and 14 doubles to help Arkansas win the SEC Western Division. Out of high school, the Chicago White Sox drafted him in the 31st round. Three seasons later, the Tigers grabbed him and MLB.com ranked him the organization’s No. 12 prospect entering this season.
He knows the WSU players are going through an uncertain time, exciting because a new coach is on board, yet scary because the new coach means change.
“He knows how to win,” McCann said. “Put your trust in him and let him lead the way to Omaha.”
Starting Monday, that is Butler’s No. 1 job.