Desert Debate Lingers After Coach Resigns in Victorville

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It is a hot, dry summer day in this desert town, but conversation lingers over the events of a December night and the following eight months.

In this city of 40,000, 90 minutes northeast of Los Angeles on Interstate 15, it is simply known as the Ollie Butler case.

It began with a postgame incident on Dec. 6 involving Butler, Victor Valley High's basketball coach, three of his players and two officials and has since affected every San Andreas League athletic program, the Southern Section's Executive Committee and the entire Victor Valley school district.

It also polarized the town, which was recently named the second-fastest growing area in Southern California, into pro- and anti-Ollie Butler factions.

From the beginning it was clear that neither side would go down without a fight. Butler and the five-member Victor Valley school board took on all comers. At one point, in May, the fight was receiving more attention in town than the murders of two Victor Valley High students.

Finally, after months of threats, suspensions and protests, it has ended, claiming victims on both sides.

No longer will Butler, 59, winner of 605 games in his 33 years of coaching, pace in front of the Victor Valley bench, although he will remain at the school as a history teacher. He was forced to resign as coach on June 19 after the Southern Section threatened sanctions against the school. Butler's two main opponents, district Superintendent George Davis and school Principal Julian Weaver, also chose to resign.

It is hard to picture Butler as the main character in any such drama. Could such a polite, gray-haired father of four really be at the center of such turmoil? He is described by backers as a sweet, lovable man, concerned about what's best for his players.

Or is he the vicious tyrant depicted by his opponents, who say that he was a rude, self-centered coach?

Butler anticipated last season would be a good one, what with several key players returning from a 19-8 team and Butler himself closing in on 600 victories.

After winning three of its first four games, Victor Valley appeared to be as good as its billing. But on Dec. 6, Butler's dream season became a nightmare.

Here is the sequence:

--Dec. 6. Three Victor Valley players--senior Thomas Wilkins and juniors Carlton Hyder and Michael Butler, Ollie Butler's son--were involved in a brawl with officials Al Jury and Dick Smith after a 53-51 loss to La Verne Damien in the Riverside tournament at Moreno Valley High School.

Ollie Butler had argued with Jury during the game, and Jury had called a foul against Victor Valley, giving Damien the two free throws that won the game with two seconds left.

According to witnesses, the officials stayed on the court after the game--they had another game to work--and an argument ensued between players and officials, grew into a shoving match, then a free-for-all.

--Dec. 8. Weaver, Victor Valley's principal, suspended all three players and Butler, and the Southern Section ruled the players ineligible until a hearing could be held.

--A week later, Butler was reinstated as coach by Weaver.

With three of its best players out, Victor Valley won only three of its next 10 games.

--Jan. 19. After hearing six witnesses during nine hours of testimony, the Southern Section's Executive Committee was unable to reach a decision and postponed continuation of its hearing for nearly three weeks.

--Feb. 8. The Executive Committee banned Wilkins and Butler for life from high school athletics and suspended Hyder indefinitely.

--Victor Valley won six of its last eight games and earned a playoff berth, finishing the season with a 12-11 record.

--March 20. The Executive Committee decided to censure Butler--which is its harshest form of punishment for a coach--and banned officials Jury and Smith from officiating Victor Valley games for three years.

--April 5. Weaver told Butler that he would be fired, effective May 1.

--Superintendent Davis resigned, partly because of the school board's support of Butler.

--May 7. The Victor Valley school board overturned Weaver's decision and reinstated Butler.

--May 8. The Inland Basketball Officials Assn. threatened to boycott Victor Valley games as long as Butler remained as coach.

--May 22. The Inland Football Officials Assn. agreed to support the basketball officials with a boycott of Victor Valley games.

--May 10. Victor Valley Athletic Director Ron Butts resigned because of Butler's reinstatement. (He decided to stay after Butler's subsequent departure.)

--May 29. The San Andreas League high school principals voted to suspend Victor Valley's basketball team from league play and all of the school's other teams from playoff competition for the 1990-91 season as long as Butler remained coach.

--June 6. Southern Section Commissioner Stan Thomas announced that the Executive Committee probably would support the San Andreas League's request to ban Victor Valley from the Southern Section.

--June 19. The Victor Valley school board voted to ask for Butler's resignation. He gave it.

--July 5. Weaver resigned at Victor Valley to become principal at Davis High School.

It is difficult to find a winner, although both sides claim victory. With Butler gone, his opponents say they won. But his supporters, claiming to have forced out Weaver and Davis, say they won.

For Butler, who grew up in Tennessee and graduated from the University of Oklahoma, coaching basketball has been his lifeblood. Butler maintains that his success and longevity have earned him respect in basketball, and he frequently drops names, from Jerry Tarkanian's to the late Adolph Rupp's. He is one of the winningest coaches in state history.

"Ollie Butler is the best high school basketball coach around," Weaver said, before leaving for his new job at Davis. "He is an excellent strategist and tactician. He knows the game of basketball."

Over the years, Butler, who also coached in Oklahoma and Idaho before taking over at Victor Valley in 1962, has gained the reputation as a coach whose teams never give up. In 33 years of coaching, only once did he have consecutive losing seasons. Victor Valley finished 7-19 in 1967-68 and 9-13 in 1968-69. But then, in 1969-70, the Jackrabbits won the Golden League title.

One might think that Butler must have had more than his share of outstanding players to win so many games, but that is not the case. He has sent only six players to Division I colleges, and only Tony Anderson, who played for UCLA in the late 1970s, was recruited nationally.

So, if winning was not a problem, and he had the respect of his peers, why did so many people fight to have Butler removed as coach?

"There was always another side to him," said Weaver, who played for Butler at Victor Valley in 1963 and became principal in 1981 after teaching 11 years in the school system. "He's the Bobby Knight of high school basketball. Yes, a lot of people love him, but at some point of time, people just got tired of his act. I see him as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

"When he is on the court he loses all perspective of what is expected of him as a head coach. There, he has no respect for the fans, the officials or the players. My perception is that winning is all that matters to him. I recall that the first comment from him after the suspension of his players was, 'There goes my 600th win.' "

Butler's opponents also have claimed that his aggressive style of coaching during games is no longer accepted, and that he lacked control over his players. After the incident Dec. 6, Alan Hollosy, president of the Inland Basketball Officials Assn., criticized Butler for not restraining his players.

Butler's former players deny that.

"The funny thing is that he was a lot harder years ago than he is now," said Al Hume, who played for Butler from 1968-70. "The people who talk about him just don't know the man. All the players who've played for him stick by him, no matter what. He taught you the game--and about life."

Butler denied that his coaching style is a problem.

"I coach aggressive basketball where my players go all out at all times," said Butler, who played as an off-guard in his college days.

"I am the same type of coach as I was as a player. I stress discipline on the floor, and I correct mistakes when they are made."

But Weaver said that Butler went beyond aggressiveness in berating players and baiting officials.

"There were many times when I had to discipline (Butler) for his actions on the court," Weaver said. "Once, he had to write a letter of apology for berating officials. It had just gotten to the point where I could not reprimand him again."

Weaver also questioned Butler's relationship with the school board.

"I am a strong advocate that teachers are here to teach, but the board clearly made its position known that it is pro-athletics," Weaver said.

"Here is a coach that has over 20 years of disciplinary problems, and they just want me to ignore anything that he does. I just could not work under a board that doesn't support its principal any longer."

Butler sees a different picture.

"(Weaver) has always been excessively jealous of me because I've always been in the press," Butler said. "But I've never asked for the attention. . . . I've never scored a field goal, blocked a shot nor grabbed a rebound.

"I think that he had nothing but a personal vendetta against me, and one of his objectives when he became principal was to get rid of me. It might be because he was not good enough to play for me, and I had to drop him down to junior varsity when he was a junior."

Ollie Butler still believes that he did nothing wrong, blaming the officials for the fracas.

"The thing that everyone misses is that I didn't need to control my players, but the officials needed to be controlled," he said.

"The CIF (Southern Section) knows in their heart that Al Jury was wrong. Everyone is afraid to take on Smith and Jury and the CIF. What upsets me the most is how the kids were punished and the officials really weren't, and they are responsible for the entire incident."

For now, Butler plans to concentrate on teaching history.

"I feel like their loss is our gain," he said of his critics.

"I may not be the coach next year, but we will get a new principal who is concerned with education and the school.

"I will not seek an another (coaching) job, but I will not rule a (comeback) out because I still have a lot to offer."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
58°