REGGIE HAYES: Richard Butt and Hoosier Hysteria from Liberty Center to Lakeland to Leo
I’ve found the best way to mentally prepare for the upcoming Indiana high school basketball tournament: Drink coffee and reminisce with Richard Butt.
Butt coached Liberty Center in the state-record nine overtime regional game in 1964. He coached Lakeland and Leo to their first boys sectional titles. He retired in 1996 with 429 wins and his love for prep hoops intact. He’s a friendly, enthusiastic flashback to the classic days.
“I’m 81, but I could still go back and coach,” Butt said, jokingly. “Look at Jerry Hoover down at Blackford.”
Hoover, 83, is in his first season at Blackford and has led the Bruins to a 9-4 mark, which is eight more wins than the last three seasons combined.
Butt is not headed back to coaching, although I have no doubt he has the energy to do so. He is, however, returning to old stomping grounds tonight. Butt will be inducted into the Lakeland High School Hall of Fame tonight at the school, an overdue honor for his nine years of building the foundation of the Lakers boys basketball program. Butt took over newly consolidated Lakeland in 1964-65 and led it to three sectional titles.
One of his former Lakeland players, Dennis Harp, tipped me off to Butt’s induction. As I read Butt’s resume, visions of sold-out gyms and single-class basketball jumped to life in my head. The fact Butt coached the team from Liberty Center, the small town where I grew up, in that legendary nine-overtime game stoked my curiosity even more.
I called Butt and asked if he’d be willing to talk. He invited me over. Best morning of my week.
This is a coach who lived and thrived in the golden age of Indiana high school basketball.
THE ENDLESS GAME
The box score in the Bluffton News-Banner after Liberty Center’s 65-61 loss to Swayzee in 1964 requires an extra line to cover the score by quarters and overtime periods. The score was 52-52 at the end of regulation, as well as the first, second, third, fourth and fifth overtimes.
Butt’s best player, Dick Harris, was later a small-college All-American at Manchester and a pro for the short lived Fort Wayne Hoosiers of the International Basketball Association.
Harris fouled out in the fourth quarter of that 1964 regional game with Liberty Center up three points. Turns out, the game was only half over.
“He sat with me during all those overtimes,” Butt said. “He scored 26 points and sat on the bench for 31 minutes, so that has to be a record. With him out, we really couldn’t go against Swayzee very well. We’d hold the ball and try to find somebody who could score at the end. Unfortunately, nobody was scoring for us.”
All five Liberty Center players had a chance at a game-winning shot in the overtime periods. Both teams scored two points in the sixth overtime, both scored five points in the eighth overtime. Swayzee finally prevailed in a marathon session that’ll likely never be matched.
Butt had taken over as Liberty Center coach five years earlier, just a year out of Manchester College. Liberty Center, which later became part of Southern Wells, had 70 students and was the smallest school in the 1964 regional.
“The first year, we won two games,” Butt said. “The next year, we won nine. Then I started to get a little smarter. We won 19, then 21 and then 19 again.”
His final season at Liberty Center ended with a game known throughout the state.
“The Indianapolis (Star) paper will pick it up every now and then, talking about the nine-overtime game and say how it’s never going to happen again,” Butt said. “It’s neat, and the boys that played in it, they always wish they’d have won. But if we had won, we were going to have to play Huntington next, and we’d have got stomped. They went all the way to the final game.”
Swayzee lost to Huntington by 25 points in its next game after the Liberty Center marathon.
Butt left Liberty Center for Lakeland in 1964-65, and he had the challenging job of bringing camaraderie and team chemistry to the boys from the communities of Brighton, Lima, LaGrange and Wolcottville.
He had to mold a team with six seniors (Harry Kohlheim, Dick Byler, Tom Swihart, Brad Taylor Paul VanderWeire, Tom Lewis and Dan Hollenbeck) and, since bleacher construction was underway, sometimes had to practice at the old Brighton school.
Three of those players – VanderWeire, Lewis and Kohlheim – went on to become coaches.
“We won the sectional that very first year, and that was a big deal for them,” Butt said. “The thing about it was, just about all my starters were from the same school (LaGrange). That wasn’t by design. They just happened to be my best players.”
He had so many good players, however, that some who had played varsity the year before at their previous schools were relegated to junior varsity so they could have playing time.
It was a different era. No one complained.
The 1965 team lost to North Side in the regional. That North Side team, which lost to Indianapolis Washington in the state championship game, was considered North legendary coach By Hey’s greatest team. Lakeland’s 1968 sectional title team reached the regional final and its 1970 sectional title team knocked off heavily favored Fairfield in the championship.
LEO ONCE, LEO TWICE
Butt had connections in the East Allen Country Schools system and that led to an interview about some upcoming changes at the schools in 1973.
The district had opened Harding High School and was looking to fill its boys basketball coaching job. Harlan Frick, the Leo coach, was interested. Butt said the district was going to let Frick choose whether to coach at Leo or Harding and offer the other job to Butt. Frick moved to Harding.
Butt took over at Leo, and in his first season led the Lions to the Allen County Athletic Conference tournament title. At the time, the tourney was played at Memorial Coliseum and the finals televised live.
“Again, I was lucky,” Butt said. “Just like when I went to Lakeland, my first year, we were strong. The next year we won a sectional and Leo had never won a sectional before. So we won that year, and the next year, two in a row, so they were happy with me.”
Butt coached Leo until 1985, but stepped aside because of his commitment to help his father and uncle, both of whom were dealing with cancer. Five years later, Butt was asked if he’d like to return. The school needed a seventh grade coach. He took the job and his team went undefeated.
Eventually, Butt returned again to the head coaching job and led one of Leo’s finest seasons: 23-1 in 1993-94. Leo, led by Butler University-bound Jon Neuhouser, beat Harding to win the sectional title, but was upset by DeKalb (which sported a talented freshman named Luke Recker) in the regional in overtime.
“We really didn’t play well that game,” Butt said. “If we won, we would have played Dwenger that night and Dwenger only had like three losses, and one was to us. That was the game I think they were pointing to. We didn’t talk about it but I think it was on their minds.”
Butt coached two more seasons before retiring, so he and his wife Karen (now married 58 years) could spend more time traveling to see their children and grandchildren. Their son, Randy, lives in Puerto Rico and daughter, Renee, in Atlanta.
Phil Bollier, who played for Butt at Leo, became the Leo coach after Butt retired. The current Leo coach, Cary Cogdell, was part of Butt’s 23-1 team in 1994.
Butt looks back the way most of us do who were around for the heyday of Hoosier Hysteria. Those were some good old days.
“At Lakeland, when you’d come back after winning the sectional, the big firetruck would meet you and there’d be a parade through town,” Butt said.
Talk to Butt for any length of time and he has the same thing to say about his days at Liberty Center, Lakeland and Leo. He wouldn’t trade any of those experiences.
“We were always around so many good people,” Butt said. “They were just good people.”
Isn’t that the heart of Indiana high school basketball, when it’s at its best?
This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Reggie Hayes at email@example.com.