Todd Butler grabbed onto the back of a Chevy S-10 pickup to know what it felt like to run as fast as Carl Lewis. He ran 60-yard dashes on a concrete overpass spanning I-10 in his hometown of Sulphur so he could catch passes for Louisiana’s toughest high school coach. He moved from shortstop to center fielder at Oklahoma to free his mind for running.
Todd Butler played fast and always wanted to play faster.
“He never got thrown out,” said Tommy Thomason, his high school baseball coach and speed trainer. “I’d get that S-10 and he’d hang on the tailgate. You sprint as fast as you can for 20, 30 yards and then the truck takes over and elongates your stride. World-class runners run around 28 mph. Todd could run 24.”
Speed and toughness always served Butler well. He played his senior football season with his broken jaw wired shut and a pair of wire-cutters nearby in case he vomited. In 1988, he stole 46 bases as a senior at Oklahoma, still a Sooner record. Even though he sometimes didn’t make the traveling squad as a junior, teammates selected him co-captain the next season.
“He played with a chip on his shoulder and he played without a whole lot of fear,” teammate and roommate Matt Anderson said. “I was the worrywart. He was always confident, saying ‘C’mon, we got this.’ ”
Wichita State hired Butler, 47, to revive its storied baseball program in June and it needs somebody to say “We got this” to push the Shockers back among college baseball’s elite. WSU last won an NCAA regional game in 2008 and last won the Missouri Valley Conference title in 2010.
On Friday, he coaches his first game and takes another shot as head coach after eight seasons as an assistant at Arkansas. He is trying to assemble his lineup under the threat of suspensions from the NCAA. As many as 11 players, mostly from the pitching staff, are expected to serve suspensions as punishment for purchasing non-baseball gear at a discount from the baseball program’s Under Armour account. Until the NCAA gives WSU its ruling, Butler is unsure how the suspensions will limit his roster early in the season.
On Thursday, Butler and his assistant coaches shoveled a few stubborn piles of snow off the infield, after WSU’s facilities crew cleared most of the field, and waited for news from the NCAA.
“Still waiting,” he said.
The Shockers practiced outside on Thursday afternoon under sunny skies and Friday’s game is on as scheduled.
Butler worked as head coach at McNeese State, where he played two seasons before transferring to OU, from 2001-03. He went 90-83 and took the team to an NCAA regional in 2003. He also learned something:
Playing fast isn’t always the best way.
“I probably wasn’t ready to lead a team like I needed to,” he said. “I was trying to work too fast. Demanding too much from players instead of trying to develop them over time. They say, ‘If it’s built fast, it’s not built to last.’ I think I was trying to build it too fast.”
Patience and confidence are Butler’s buzzwords now.
He no longer feels the need to reinvent the game and prove his smarts with trick plays. Baseball is a simple game for Butler. He lowers the volume while coaching, still challenging, sometimes needling, but rarely yelling. His practice schedule, built on repetition and consistency, give him the confidence to know he doesn’t need to push players too fast or obsess over a mistake. If an infielder doesn’t get the sign during a Tuesday practice, the mistake is corrected and reinforced on Wednesday.
“I think that comes becoming older, having children, and hopefully having some wisdom to be able to lead and direct and build a confident player,” he said. “Just a completely changed style of coaching. Now, practicing two days in a row, I don’t have to holler, because I know we’re doing the same practice schedule tomorrow. We’re trying to have repetition, so they’ll remember.”
Instead of trying to scare players into performing, he wants to motivate.
“Building up is his main goal,” outfielder Micah Green said. “He’s building confidence in each and every one of us, because some of us haven’t had confidence before.”
Butler ended recent practices with the players complimenting each other. At first, they treated the exercise as you might expect. They made it into a joke, praising teammates for clean T-shirts or a chain necklace. Butler laughed along, then explained how the exercise builds better players and a better team. Green told sophomore Tanner Dearman that his speed and ability to get on base helps the team win.
“That helps us learn our strengths and trust in each other,” Green said. “That builds each and every one of us up.”
At Arkansas, Butler prepared the Razorbacks for the 2012 College World Series by contacting players from the 2009 team that went to Omaha. He collected stories of their season, their struggles and their motivations. He printed out one each day and placed it in the lockers of the players of the 2012 team. He asked them to watch the 2009 highlight video on YouTube in the morning and before bed.
“That was a big key to the confidence, knowing that it can be done again,” he said. “It takes five wins to get to Omaha. Many times, our players think it’s like going to Mars.”
Butler learned his coaching techniques from some of college baseball’s best. He started as a student assistant at McNeese State under Tony Robichaux, now coach at Louisiana-Lafayette. He coached under Jim Wells, who taught him how to work hard as a coach, at Alabama from 1995-2000 and again after leaving McNeese State in 2004 and 2005. At Arkansas, he helped rebuild that program with coach Dave Van Horn. Butler counts former LSU coach Skip Bertman as one of his mentors. Bertman and Wells taught him the practice schedules in which he puts so much faith.
“It’s the evolution of a coach,” Butler said. “When you’re a young coach, you think you’re smart, but you’re really not. Simplicity. Taking what a player has and trying to build on that, instead of trying to make a player into something he cannot be.”
Butler would not have taken the WSU job if he did not expect to coach his team in the College World Series, a height not reached by the Shockers since 1996. In his introductory news conference in June, he spoke often of Omaha, not of MVC titles or regular-season success. He wants to use WSU’s great history, as he did at Arkansas, to make a return to college baseball’s favorite city.