Byrne: Butts will return to coach UA women’s basketball

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                </div>  “Coach Butts and her staff will return next year.” With those simple, direct-to-the-point words, University of Arizona Athletic Director Greg Byrne doused the flames of speculation that have continued […]<!-- AddThis Sharing Buttons below -->
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“Coach Butts and her staff will return next year.”

With those simple, direct-to-the-point words, University of Arizona Athletic Director Greg Byrne doused the flames of speculation that have continued to surround his women’s basketball program and his sixth-year head coach, Niya Butts.

But that doesn’t mean her seat on the bench won’t be just as hot come next November as it has been the past three seasons when her teams have been unable to post winning records and have been living on the bottom rungs of the Pac-12 ladder.

Byrne used his weekly Wednesday newsletter to the Wildcat nation to address the issue of a program that has been unable to return to the stature it once enjoyed under hall of fame coach, Joan Bonvicini.

Butts was hired away from Kentucky, where she was an assistant coach, and given the keys to McKale Center in 2008, with the expectation that she would turn around a program that had fallen on hard times.

She got off to a slow start the first couple of years, but won 21 games during the 2010-11 season.  However, that was the one and only winning season in six years.   The Cats finished 5-24 this season, won one conference game, and were eliminated in the first round of the Pac-12 Tournament.

“I know we are not where we want to be, from a performance standpoint,” Byrne said in his Wildcat Wednesday newsletter, “and Coach Butts and her staff are as disappointed as anyone.”

The current staff has been totally revamped from the one that started with Butts in her first season at the controls of the Arizona program.  Butts lost her associate head coach, Sue Darling, when she was hired away in 2012 to become the head coach at Northern Arizona University, and then Brandy Manning, who had been moved up the bench to replace Darling, left the following year to take a similar job at USC.  Both coaches had been part of Butts’ original staff.

Three of Butts’ players decided to transfer just about the same time that Darling left, so the 2012-13 season was anything but stable.  The result was a 12-18 season that ended with 13 losses out of the last 14 games and a first-round exit in the conference tourney.

It was also the last year the team could rely on its biggest offensive weapon.  Davellyn Whyte, the all-everything player from St. Mary’s High School in Phoenix, graduated after starting every game during her four-year career in Tucson and securing numerous honors in the school record books, including the second-highest career point totals in program history with 2,059.

Byrne realizes this and has been patient so far. He also acknowledges that the improvements that are coming with the renovation of McKale Center will be a help in Butts’ recruiting efforts, which have lately been reaping the rewards of some hard work by her and her staff.

That recruiting success is another reason Byrne is keeping his powder dry.  The incoming class is generally considered by the recruiting services to be a top-25 class, the best that Butts has been able to scare up since arriving in the Old Pueblo.

“Both of those things (infrastructure investments and recruiting success) give me hope for the future,” says Byrne, who also is aware that last season was filled with injuries and his head coach was going into battle with an active roster just seven players deep during the final part of the season, “and because of that, Coach Butts and her staff will return next year.”

Byrne, who was hired just four years ago this month, is painfully aware of the fact that an AD’s reputation – and his job security – depends in large part upon the success of his major sports programs.  There are all too often hard decisions that have to be made, based on the performance of their coaches.

In the case of his women’s basketball coach, Byrne’s predecessor, Jim Livengood, hired her before Byrne took over the job.  But her future is now in Byrne’s hands and he’s evidently decided to roll the dice for at least one more season.  His decision to announce her return is a sign of support that was a smart move on his part because it lets her program move out from under the cloud of uncertainty and back out onto the recruiting trail.

Butts got a contract extension during the euphoria of her 20-win season in 2011, stretching it into the 2015-16 season.  Whether she gets a chance to remain on the bench through those final two seasons is up to Byrne.

But the contract Byrne has to worry about is the one he signed with the university back in March of 2010.  He knows he can’t afford to give his head coach much more time.

And Butts knows it, too.

(Photo: Arizona Athletics)