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Interview w/ Jonathan LeCrone

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Horizon League

Cigarboy Interviews the Horizon League Commissioner

(part one of a two part series)

Horizon League Commissioner Jon LeCrone sits down with our own CigarBoy and spills the beans about everything you ever wanted to know about the Horizon League including the new championship format, expansion, the logo and the Bracket Busters.

I first met Jon LeCrone at the Dayton /Detroit NIT game last year at the University of Dayton Arena. He agreed to an interview and gave me his number. Seven months later I called him and after negotiating some times with his assistant Dana Thomas and chatting with Horizon League Director of Communications Michael Ingberg I was good to go.

When I got there they rolled out the Red Carpet for me. The first person who greeted me, and she did it by name, was Dana Thomas. She gave me a big smile and showed me into the conference room. After just a minute Commissioner LeCrone came in and warmly greeted me. We chatted for a few minutes about my drive and earlier interview I had that day with UCís Associate Head Coach Dan Peters. I was amazed at how casual and at ease Jon LeCrone was.

Two and a half-hours later we were still going strong. He answered all the questions and didnít seem in a hurry to get on with running the Horizon League. I got the impression that if I needed another hour to complete the interview he would have given it to me.

I found his explanations of the Bracket Busters and League Championship for basketball to be most fascinating. Also the solid composition of the league membership and the core values of the league will interest many readers.

Also Michael Ingberg was an interesting guy. He has worked in sports communications in both pro and college ranks. His past included stints with in NBA, CBA, Big 10, and Gulf South Conference. He is a sports nut. I really enjoyed just talking sports with him. He has been everywhere and done almost everything. He is the kind of guy who would be fun to sit down with and watch a game.

So this is a peek into how this league works and to a lessor degree some of the people that make it go.


PART ONE

CigarBoy: The first question I want to get into is, what is the mission now of the Horizon League?

LeCrone: Well Cigar Boy, let me talk to you a little bit about our name change and how we got there, covering a little bit of background for you because that announcement was made on June 4th last year so we are about 14 months into our new name. Itís gone very, very well. Itís been very well received. I think the graphic element that some people may not have initially liked, is catching on. But the thing that is exciting to me is that people understand what it means. We might be one of the few athletic leagues where our name and the logo do represent what we believe in, which is a little bit different than something that is geographic or based in numbers. If you look at the Horizon League name, just the name that was selected for a specific purpose and so was the logo. The logo is a star figure and that is representative of the student as the center or star of our league and thatís why we do this. That is a star figure, and itís also a star figure engaged not only in an athletic movement but a creative movement and we think that symbolized development. Thatís really is one of the things we believe in very strongly is working together to develop all these young people. Then you can see the star figure kind of paints the horizon, if you will, and thatís another creative kind of movement. Itís the student athlete as the center or star of our league, engaged in a creative, dynamic, moving athletic motion, but more than athletics, itís suppose to symbolize more than that. The word Horizon and the tag line Ďraise your sightsí, you know if you think about the word horizon, the juncture between earth and sky, symbolically we chose that. We liked that because we talk a lot about the juncture between student and athlete. It is about athletics but itís also about, we think, a number of other things. Itís about performing academically. Itís about being responsible. We talk a lot about personal accountability and responsibility. Finally, we think itís about, while youíre in college, but also a life long experience, that is given back. Now, that might mean giving back to your teammates, giving back to your team, back to your athletic department, or your school, or your city, or your region, or your state, or your country, or your world. We really donít care. If you are giving back to one person, we think thatís important, but itís one of our founding principles. So what was important to me is that now, people are beginning to understand that Ďraise your sightsí does mean something. We are telling our students, here are expectations, and itís what we expect of you. We are telling our coaches that, and our administrators, and our officials so itís kind of a forward-looking, raising your sightsÖit is more about wins and loses, it is more about going to practice, it is more about playing the games and thereís a lot more there. There are life-long learning kinds of experiences and we tried to capture it in what we call the Horizon League Promise. What we promise young people is this will be a holistic experience for you that hopefully will add value to your college education. But at the same time, you can carry that on into a life-learning type of thing. So when our young people come out the other side, we hope theyíve had a very high level, high quality national league, competitive, athletic experience. We hope theyíve learned a whole lot. We hope theyíve taken seriously and understood the role of role model, because thatís what they are. Thatís what we believe and thatís what we tell them. If you are a student athlete on a campus, people are watching you and you do have some standards to live by. And then finally, we what them to give some things back. We think those things are great foundations, life long learnings. So responsibility, accountability, that when they walk out the door, that makes them great teachers, lawyers, engineers, makes them citizens. What weíve begun to talk about a little bit is more of the notion of the citizen athlete rather than the student athlete. The reason we talk about that is the citizen aspect of that responsibility piece, the outreach piece, and then as a great student and a great athlete, you kind of have the whole package. Thatís what we are really talking a lot about and trying to be serious about, and trying to do some more thinking about. All of that change was based on a pretty intense and involved research project that started about four or five years ago. Mike Cusack (Wright State AD) was a big part of that. He was certainly one of the driving forces behind the change.

CigarBoy: Did it start out talking about changing the name of the MCC and developed an identity, then you got into all the other stuff. What was the genesis to get this whole thing started?

LeCrone: Mike Cusack had a real role in that. We were at an Athletic Directorís meeting 5 years ago and we began to talk about how weíd been together for a while and what did we really want to become. And Mike, Iíll never forget it, he kind of pushed his chair back and he said, you know something we need to do, something to break away from the pack. We all do the same things and we just really need to do something to break away from the pack. So I took that idea to our presidents and had them think about that and debate that with us. What they asked me to do is to engage the services of a creative communications/public relations company that might help us with that. We took this out to bid and ended up with three finalists. At the end we selected a company from here in Indianapolis called Caldwell Vanriper Marc. What we asked them to do was really, go out and ask our external and our internal constituencies two fundamental questions: 1) Externally, who do people think we are? What do the name and the logo mean? What kind of identity do we have? 2) Then we kind of asked ourselves that. In other words, it was this balance of who do we think we are and who do people say we are. What we found out was there was very little knowledge in the marketplace, or value in the marketplace, of the name of Midwestern Collegiate Conference, the three letters MCC, and the logo we were using. We had student athletes who couldnít really tell us who was in the league, what it met, so that was pretty fundamental. Then we really heard loud and clear from our students. Hereís what they believed in. They understand where they are in the world. They understand they arenít in the Big 10 or the ACC or the SEC because if they were that caliber of elite athletes, theyíd be there. But, that is not to say that they donít really enjoy competing on a very high national level. Theyíd love to compete with the Alabamaís and the Ohio Stateís, and the North Carolinaís and think they can! At the same time, they also said in our interviews how important a college education was to them. So that was the genesis of it. We didnít say to Caldwell, please change our name, need to change our logo, need to change our identity. We asked them to do that research and say who are we? What do people say we are? So where we landed is in four big areas. 1) Absolutely, we wanted to compete at a high national level, where we could. We have some limitations. We have budget limitations, we have geographic limitations, we have facilities limits, but where we can, we wanted to compete nationally. 2) We were very serious about recruiting students and not people that are coming in to play for a year or two and go to the NBA. We think thereís more value than that. 3) We heard loud and clear that people thought a lot about this notion of respect and responsibility and accountability, and they did want to be role models. They did understand their role. 4) We found out that they were doing a whole lot of work on community service that nobody even knew about. So those became our platforms. Then we had to be able to come up with something that represented all that. It was kind of our values that we started with first and then we went through a lot of names and we came up with Horizon that we thought represented very well, all of those. We actually, in a very deliberate way, chose League rather than Conference because there are very few leagues out there. We wanted to be different, we wanted to be distinctive. We wanted our name to represent what we were trying to do. Not where we were, or how many people were in our league or anything like that. Thatís whatís so great about the logo. If you look at the 31 or 32 logos, I mean think about it. Iím not sure any of them, you can look at them and it really gives you an idea of what those people believe in, what they are trying to accomplish. But ours is different because what we believe in is the student at the center of our league. So thatís why it all fits together, why it connects. When you tell people that and they kind of open their eyes up, they go, yeah, thatís kind of interesting. That was the genesis and that took about 18-24 months for that whole process and now we are about 14 months into the whole name change and continuing development of our platform.

CigarBoy: You mention the Horizon League Promise, the Horizon League experience. How do you ensure that the Horizon League experience is the same at all nine schools?

LeCrone: Well, where the Horizon League experience should be the same is at our championships. I think we run 18 championship events and our first one this year will begin Nov 1, up at Loyola when we do our cross-country. So we make all the effort to ensure that at those championships, itís evident that we are doing what we believe in. For instance, at just about every championship last year, we organized/arranged some kind of either learning or outreach activity for everybody that came. Geez, we did everything from collect shoes, to food, to make hospital visits. So all those athletes that were coming into that community went out and did something in the community. Thatís one leg that is the same. Just last year, we had every one of our students, on all of our campuses, sign an ethical conduct document. Is that in and of itself something that is dramatic? Probably not, I would guess a lot of leagues do something like that. But why it was important to me was because we had our studentís sign it, our administrators sign it, and now our officials are signing it this year. We think in our league, the way the Horizon League experience is the same all over is that you have to have buy-in from everybody whoís participating in the competition, and thatís the players, the coaches and the officials. They control it. They donít care whatís going on up in the stands. There could be something not too sportsman-like going on in the stands, but the players and the coaches and the officials are handling things the right way. The coach can calm that stuff down. The players can calm that stuff down. But Iíll tell you one thing, if things get ugly on the court, then youíve got a problem. So thatís what we want to tell all our young people. Say, wait a minute, youíve got a responsibility here to your teammates, to your opponents, to one another, the officials, the coaches. Everybody knows their job and we are going to have a consistent experience across the board. One of the things weíve tried to emphasize is that being a champion does not necessarily mean winning a championship. Winning a championship means you played better, but being a champion is about respect, how you play, how you treat one another, how you respond to a coach, an official. So we like to talk to our young people about behaving like champions. If you behave like champions, championships take care of themselves and itís through our championship system that we are able to, we think, emphasize those platforms. Sometimes they are very small things. At a lot of our championships we hold banquets or luncheons and what we ask our staff to do is start with the academic awards. Letís not bring Bill up and say hey Bill, you were the leading rebounder in the league. Everyone knows that. But what I want them to know about Bill is what his GPA was or other achievements. So I ask our staff, start with the academic stuff first. Then we also added a community service award, in terms of things weíve done league wide. We added eighteen new awards this year. One for community service so as a league we awarded the team who did an outstanding service in the community. I went to a lot of those presentations and it might have been the womenís tennis team that went out and worked at Habitat for Humanity.

CigarBoy: Is that for each sport?

LeCrone: Each school elected one team for community service. And then we asked each school to give one league-wide award for academic achievement. So we added nine for service, nine for academics. So again, what we have to do is emphasize and re-emphasize these platforms. We work everyday on competition. The coaches do, the athletes do. Theyíre trying to be as good as they can possibly be. But where we try to help them grow is in the service area, the responsibility area, and the academic area to make sure they understand that we believe those things are important as well. They donít get that thatís important unless we change some things. So when you come to one of our championships, itís just not about going out on the field and seeing who wins and who looses. Also, we have speakers come in and talk to our young people about leadership and leadership development, discipline, diet and those kinds of things. Those are all learning kinds of opportunities. Thatís why we hope to continue just to make our championship different.

CigarBoy: What does the future hold for the Horizon League? I guess when you think of the future, everyone always thinks of expansion. Can you talk about the criteria for expansion and what else the future holds too?

LeCrone: Well, I think a really sound league is built on a couple of things. I think first and foremost is membership. You have to have a solid membership base with members who are committed to one another. You have to have members who like being together. You like to have members who have a purpose together and I think we have that. Thatís taken a long time to get together. Secondly, you have to have what I call equity. I think equity is in two phases. To me, equity means you have to have some money in the bank. Weíve been able to build our financial foundation. When I came in ten years ago, now Iím on my 11th year, we literally had no money in the bank, no money in reserve and we were in debt. Successful organizations canít do anything, I donít think, if they are in debt. Finally, thereís a brand equity here. Thereís building equity in these four platforms that we believe in. So as long as we continue to build equity and I think we are in the developmental stage right now, our league is going to be very, very solid for the future. As far as expansion goes, I think membership issues in most leagues are always at the forefront. Iíve put together a committee of Presidents and the chairman of our Membership Committee, who happens to be Mike Cusack over at Wright State. We are taking a real close look at what we are calling membership protocols. We want to make sure that we respond in a right way if there is a school out there who might be a member of another league, or an independent who might want to join us. There are certain ways to go about doing that. Then at the same time, we believe we are ready to expand and we want to go recruit a school. That school could be an independent or a member of another league. We want to make sure that we are consistent in those protocols. So it all goes back to our platform. If we would expand, it would be someone that has a geographic fit, academic fit, athletic fit, and really could help us build equity in our brand and that means a real commitment to those four platforms. Someone thatís going to help us competitively, someone that could help us academically, help us reinforce the values of community and accountability/personal responsibility. So we are in the middle of developing those protocols now and thatís pretty exciting and weíll see where that might lead us.

CigarBoy: Whatís the optimum number of schools that would work in this conference?

LeCrone: Thatís an interesting question because that is more easily answered if every one of your sports programs has the same numbers. For instance, take any one of our sports, people would presume that because we have nine members that in every sport we have nine schools sponsoring that sport. Thatís not the case. We are at nine for some, at eight for some, or seven at some. So pick a sport where you have eight. We add a team and go to ten, which puts them at nine. That may not be a good number for them. Take a sport thatís seven and now move it two eight. Well, that might be pretty good. So you have to look at the whole matrix and weíve actually developed a matrix. Any sort of expansion will be the right number for some sports and probably wonít be the right number for others. One of the goals might be, wait a minute, maybe we shouldnít be working on expansion, but maybe we should be looking at expanding programs within our membership. See what Iím saying? So now, we say to our schools, we have nine members and every school is sponsoring the same number of sports. Now, we probably wonít be able to get there because we have some geographic things. For instance, Green Bay, and rightly so, has chosen not to participate in baseball because itís problematic weather-wise for them. But Milwaukee has a pretty good baseball team so you think, hmm gosh if Milwaukee can do it, couldnít Green Bay do it? But then you have the issue of adding a menís sport right now in a time of Title IX, and you donít want to get out of balance, nor should we get out of balance from the equity standpoint. Itís a difficult question because eight wasnít necessarily the right number for all of our teams. Nine wasnít necessarily the right number, ten, eleven, twelve might not necessarily be the right number because we are all over the place in terms of the sports sponsorship matrix. If that makes even sense?

CigarBoy: Yeah, I think the way fans look at is they look at basketball and they think well, basketball drives everything. They donít necessarily think of tennis or cross-country or some of the other smaller sports. Everyone looks at this is a basketball driven conference and geez if we had 10, it looks like it would work out pretty well. The other thing that I think would be part of the equation would be how do you insure yourself against a defection or two?

LeCrone: Well, the way you insure yourself against defection is make sure that your league is solid in the equity area and that everyone has buy-in. Thatís what we have. I think thatís what really distinguishes our league right now is that these are the people that built this league. I didnít build it. They helped build it and I think that anybody that helps build a house is fairly hesitant to move out of it. So thatís one thing. We really donít talk about that much. We talk about expanding and growing and moving on in what we want to do. If you look at this just from a basketball frame of reference, the basketball player point of view, you could even argue that moving from eight to nine hasnít been that helpful because Youngstown coming in the league, although it provided scheduling help that we needed, resulted in our league RPI dropping. People might argue that is one of the reasons Butler didnít get into the tournament last year. That may have been one of the reasons. I donít think that was the main reason. If you look at just the basketball frame of reference, then you would have to look at the kind of game that would help us competitively, strength-wise or at least have the potential to do that. But then at the same time, thatís only one frame because we have men and womenís basketball, now we have sixteen other sports to consider and take a look at. Those are all the things we take into consideration.

CigarBoy: Is there a balance of private vs. public?

LeCrone: You know one thing that we recognize? When this grouping of schools came together, I think one of the big, big concerns was, oh my gosh, how are these state schools and private schools going to be able to compete. Well, when you get right down to it, the budgets are about the same and thatís why they are all able to compete. Look all over the country. The Big 10 has public and private. The ACC is public and private. The Big East, the Big 12, Iím not sure if the Pack 10Ö.does the Pack 10 have any private schools?

CigarBoy: Stanford

LeCrone: Yeah, Stanfordís private. There you go. Look across the country. There arenít many all-private leagues or all public leagues. I think league membership is driven more by geography, commonality, beliefs and budget. If the institutions are pretty similar in that way, they can find a way to compete with one another. Sure, thereís a big difference between tuition at Butler and tuition at Cleveland State but that hasnít seemed to be a big problem for us. Thereís huge differences in graduation rates. The overall graduation rate at an institution like Cleveland State, which is more of an open admit kind of institution and serves a very fine purpose, is probably 35-40% but Cleveland State doesnít need to be embarrassed about that. Thatís the kind of institution they are. Their student population is completely different than Butlerís. Now if Butler sitting there talking about a 35-40% graduation rate, when itís more of a typical residential institution thatís problematic, but Butlerís not. They are at 75-80%, which is where they should be. So those differences, weíve been able to embrace and understand the difference in the institution. Itís been real even competitively. I think that is always the bottom line. If thereís not a big competitive disconnect or a big geographic disconnect, where youíre travelling all over the place, then conferences usually stay pretty stable.

CigarBoy: So a criteria for membership in the Horizon League is based upon geography and a commonality with goals?

LeCrone: Yeah, and I wouldnít call it a criteria or requirement but what things would we look at in evaluating a possible member. Have to look at geographic because that impacts costs and scheduling. You have look at competitive strength and their competitive history. Have they been nationally competitive in sports? What do they bring to the table? You would want to take a real close look at their budgets. So thereís a financial lens you would have to look at, making sure they would be in our range of spending. Too low makes them not able to compete. Too high, puts them maybe in a dominant position that we donít want to get to. So you have to look at that. You have to look at the academic profile of the institution. We would want them to be in our ballpark with graduation rates, particularly their student athletes. Certainly we would look at the community service their athletes are involved in. Thatís a platform we believe in. Weíd look at their whole personal accountability. Do they have NCAA violations? Are they major or minor? Do their teams have any history or reputation of problems? Or their coaches? Again, what kind of people are we dealing with here. All these things are really, really important.

CigarBoy: Now let me do one other thing. So the Horizon League is not necessarily looking to expansion out, but they are open for it when the time is right?

LeCrone: As I said before, where we have to be is we have to be mindful of the issues, which we are. We have to be aware of the issues and then we have to be true to what we believe in. We are in pretty good shape right now after number nine so thereís no rush here. Thereís not a huge rush to just run out and get another member. Weíve got to make sure we are ready for that. Weíve just come off the Youngstown State expansion and theyíve been with us a year now. We need to help them grow and develop their program. Thatís one of the things Iíve always believed in, and as a league weíve continued to help one another grow our programs. That gets back to the equity because if our league continues to do what we believe in, there are lots of schools that want to be part of that. Youíd be surprised, on a monthly basis, the calls we get in our office about membership, and Iím not exaggerating, itís one a month. My answer is, I really appreciate your interest and weíd be happy to consider that but we have a process and it takes time and hereís the lenses we would be looking at, so on and so forth. The only thing of a definitive nature that I can say in regards to membership, itís something we do talk about but at this point, if there would be another member, weíd do it carefully and deliberately. We will do it in a delicate way to make sure it works for everybody. Those are the things we would look at.

CigarBoy: One thing I see when I look at a conference like the MAC, a very established conference, a pretty stable conference, a school may come or leave but their coreís been there many, many years. What is the difference between the MAC or MVC and the Horizon League?

LeCrone: Well first of all the Mid-American is a great league. Itís been around a long time, as is the Missouri Valley, as is the Mid-Continent, as is the Ohio Valley. We operate in the backyard of the Big 10 and Big 12 to some extent and those are all wonderful leagues. What we are trying to do is not compare ourselves to what other people are doing. We are trying to do what we believe in. If we do what we believe in, things will take care of themselves. Weíd love to compete with the Mid-Americanís, particularly in basketball. Weíd love to compete with the Missouri Valley, particularly in basketball. As you go back through the years, and look at the head-to-head competition weíve done very, very well against both those leagues. I think last year we had a winning record against the MAC. Iím not quite sure we were the Missouri Valley, but we were darn competitive. So those are two leagues we really love to compete with, why? The schools are similar, similar geographics, it makes sense. So for Wright State to be playing Miami or Cleveland State to be playing Ohio U, or Detroit to be playing Eastern Michigan or Western Michigan, and for Butler to be playing Ball State. The Mid-American Conference and the Horizon League should be playing each other in a lot of sports. The Horizon League and Missouri Valley should be playing each other as well in a lot of sports. If you look at our schedules we do. So we love to compete with them but at the same time we donít really compare ourselves to what they are trying to do or what the Valleyís trying to do, or the Big 10, or Mid-Conn, Ohio Valleyís trying to do, we just want to be ourselves. We are comfortable with being ourselves. Things will take care of themselves and thatís really what we like to be about. There are other leagues in our area that we really like competing against.

CigarBoy: Has thereís been talk about doing a Horizon League/MVC challenge like the ACC/Big 10 challenge?

LeCrone: We talked about it but one of the things that you may have read about recently thatís pretty exciting for us is weíve entered into an agreement with ESPN and the Western Athletics and the Mid-Americans and the Missouri Valley in what we think will be a really unique event on February 22, called bracket buster Saturday. The three teams competing from our league are Milwaukee, UIC, and Detroit. Two of our teams will be on the road and UIC will be at home. Theyíll be paired with a team from the Missouri Valley, the WAC, the MAC and maybe a Sunbelt school, Western Kentuckyís in and so is UC Santa Barbara, which is out of the Big West Conference. But we have great opportunity because it will be a total of 9 games, all televised on some ESPN property, whether ESPN 1, 2, Plus, Full Court (which is a pay channel), and hopefully will add some of the air clearances to those we can. Those that wouldnít be on the national cable. So thatís pretty exciting. That is a creative scheduling agreement, which is essentially what it is. Now the reason itís so creative is that weíve asked our teams in our leagues, on February 22nd, to take their league game, let us deal with it here in the league office. This is a critical part of the league season. Then we are telling these teams, oh by the way, weíll let you know three weeks before you play who you are playing. Everybody is going, WHAT? They allowed us to do that. Thatís pretty remarkable to get eighteen coaches and eighteen ADís to do that. Itís kind of a remarkable scheduling arrangement and thatís whatís driving it. ESPN thought it was remarkable enough to televise it. Those are the cooperative things we are doing with the MAC and the Valley. So this is our scheduling agreement and what I continue to work on right now before we have any other kind of event, a challenge series or anything like that, is I want to make Bracket Bustersí Saturday just really successful. We think it can be absolutely gangbusters. We think itís going to be a good brand. We think itís a very sellable property. We think itís great for the students and thatís why we are doing it. Because itís quality competition, a chance to be on television and kind of be on all day on a Saturday, and itís a chance for people to pay attention toÖ thatís why we are calling it Bracket Busters. Most of these team have had phenomenal post season success: Kent, UIC, Detroit, Tulsa, Gonzaga, you think the teams that are in the field, they are all outstanding. Theyíve all done very, very well in the post season so we are really, really excited about that.

Check back for Part 2 of CB's interview with the Commish next week.


Also check out www.cbsportsbeat.com CB's own web page where you can find all of his articles, pictures, games and a whole lot more. 

 

 

 

 
       
 

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