With 7:27 remaining, in an unusually low scoring game, Princeton guard Ali Smith scored an uncontested backdoor lay-up to put her Tigers ahead of the host Columbia Lions 36-33 on Friday night. On the sidelines, Columbia head coach Jay Butler, threw his arms up in desperation and began pacing the hardwood floors of Levien Gym. Someone had obviously missed an assignment of defense, and this was a game in which points were hard to come by. Two possessions later, freshman guard Megan Griffith, threw an errant pass out of bounds, capping yet another unsuccessful fast break and sparking a volcanic eruption from her volatile coach.
“What are you doing?” he hollered at the young woman, as his colorful tie flailed off his grey suit, his face turning hot red against his grey crew-cut style hair.
“Let’s go defense! Let’s go!” he yelled in his hoarse voice, in a sudden transition from admonishment to encouragement.
The Lions responded, turning up their defensive intensity. With 2:43 to go, the score was tied at 45. Princeton would not score another point, as Columbia shut them down en route to a 48-45 victory.
“It wasn’t pretty, but we got the win,” a calmer Butler said later.
Under Butler’s reign, the Columbia woman’s basketball team has been enjoying more victories than ever before. With an impressive come-from-behind upset of Ivy League-leading Penn the following night, the Lions improved their record to 12-12 overall, including 6-6 in the Ivy League. While such a record may seem like the definition of mediocrity, this is hardly the case at Columbia.
In the 20 years since Columbia University and Barnard College joined forces and entered Division I competition, the team has yet to post a winning record. With a victory in either one of the upcoming games this weekend against Ivy League foes Brown and Yale, Columbia will set a single season mark for most wins by a woman’s basketball squad. Yet, Butler is still far from satisfied.
“My goal is to win a championship, not to finish .500,” he said. “This may be success at Columbia, but it’s not success in the eyes of Jay Butler.”
Born in North Bergen, NJ, Butler, a 42-year old father of two, grew up like most future coaches — dreaming to be a player. He played at Division III Castleton State, where he was later inducted into the school’s Hall of Fame. Yet, after seeing his older, more talented brother fail in his attempt to go pro, the 6-foot-3 Butler realized that his playing career would likely end in college, and he turned his attention towards coaching. Early on, though, he knew that coaching men’s basketball was not for him.
“The whole thing turned me off. It’s more of a business. They aren’t coaches, they are business people,” he said of most men’s NCAA coaches. “It’s too corrupt. If I wanted to get into corruption, I would have gone into business.”
Butler was attracted to the women’s game. He saw it as a purer form of basketball, played under the rim, with more of an emphasis placed on the fundamentals of the game. His mother was a teacher and his father was a construction worker. He claims that his coaching philosophy resulted from a combination of both his parents, focusing on education and hard work as the elements required for success. He felt that the women’s game was a more fitting stage for such an approach.
His first Ivy League women’s experience came as an assistant coach at Brown from 1989-94. He was the head coach at St. Mary’s College in Maryland before taking the job at Columbia in 1996, where he began rebuilding a team that had won only five Ivy League games in the six previous years. With a deep and talented roster, led by star guard Sue Altman, who scored a season-high 32 points in the win against Penn, Butler has enjoyed his greatest success this season.
“He is very patient,” attested junior guard Susan Kern, who says Butler has helped her develop as a player. “He yells a lot, but we know it’s not personal. It’s constructive criticism.”
However, Butler does admit that his intense personally and competitive nature sometimes clashes with the gentle psyches of some of the young players.
“I need to know what buttons to push,” he said, adding that as a man, he has learned quite a bit about female social dynamics. “Girls like to be part of a team. They enjoy the social atmosphere and not the competition.”
Some of his players, though, respond that the coach is less in tune with his players than he thinks.
“He has no idea what we are thinking,” said junior center Edytte Key, the team’s leading rebounder and second-leading scorer. The 6-foot-4 Key has had many run-ins with her coach. Butler suspended her earlier in the season and has recently cut her playing time significantly. Key played only five minutes against Princeton and did not get off the bench at all against Penn.
“I’m not angry because I am not playing,” she said. “I’m frustrated because I don’t know why I’m not playing. He hasn’t talked to me at all. There is a total lack of communication between players and coaches on this team.”
Butler says that despite the team’s relative success, it has been very inconsistent this year. While he is aware of the academic demands placed on his student-athletes, calling it a “double-edge sword,” he is also often critical of his players for giving their studies priority over their commitment to the team.
“I value academics over athletics,” admits Key, who was offered full athletic scholarships to several Division I schools, such as Oregon and Wyoming. “That is why I chose to come here.”
Yet, other players on the team question the coach’s own commitment to success.
“With the talent we have on this team, we should have won the league [Ivy League] this year,” said Altman, who despite her star status on the team, said she has no bond whatsoever with her coach. “He’s outdated. Bottom line is, he is in over his head.”
Nonetheless, Butler enjoys the strong support of his superiors, who find him approachable, applaud his record and disregard any rumblings of discontent from below.
“Coaching is a tough business,” said Columbia Athletic Director Dr. John Reeves, himself a former coach. “The players don’t have to like him, but they should respect him.”
Butler, who says his main commitment is to his family, says he plans to take Columbia to the next level and only then, perhaps, depart for a larger basketball program.
“Eventually, I’d like to go to a school that offers athletic scholarships and where I wouldn’t have to go more than 300 miles to recruit players,” he said.