By Norm Wilkens
According to Webster’s Dictionary, the definition of SURREAL is “Having the intense irrational reality of a dream.” How else would you explain the last few years of basketball at Butler University?
As of this writing, this year’s adventure into SURREALISM has not been written in terms of the happenings at BU, but that really doesn’t make a difference. The past may only be the prologue to more of the same, or it might be that Cinderella will never meet the Final Four again. Truthfully, it doesn’t matter greatly. What matters is how and why it happened and what impact it has had on the greatness of a Mid-American University.
If you visit Butler University and spend a short time in the historic Hinkle Field House on campus, you will quickly become aware of two banners hanging from the rafters – one for 1924 and the other for 1929. These banners claim national titles for the Bulldogs. This was prior to the present formatted tournament that began in l939. The games didn’t hold the acclaim of today, but it was significant of the fact that under Tony Hinkle, Butler Basketball was always a team effort. And, the national power house teams of those days all came to Hinkle to play. To no one’s dismay, Butler beat them all.
The Bulldogs continued to be a powerhouse after World War II, but in the years after Coach Hinkle left the court in 1970, basketball took a backseat to other efforts to build a different reputation on campus. It wasn’t until President Geoffrey Bannister arrived in the l980’s and Bobby Fong in the early 2000’s that emphasis was once again placed on the history and the culture of Indiana’s favorite sport – Basketball. In 1985, Butler won the NIT Championship – a preamble to future accomplishments.
As a high school pupil, I remember only too well the days of travelling to the Hinkle Field House, to watch the high school teams perform in the ISHAA Sectional, Regional, Semi-state and Final Games. The arena would swarm with kids from early morning to late nights - particularly on Friday’s when city schools lost all of their season ticket holders to a full day of basketball. At that time, I didn’t realize the significance that Butler would hold in my life, but in four short years, beginning in l953, my college days began at Butler. Of course, I attended the games at Hinkle and watched the storied BU teams of the mid-fifties win over the likes of Purdue, Notre Dame, Indiana and Ball State, but nothing to compare with these most recent wins in the past few years.
You might ask, and rightly so, how did Butler achieve the huge successes of the past couple of years? My opinion is that it began back in the l920’s. It has become known as the “Butler Way.” It has to do with history, the Hinkle Field House, the community, campus, the coaches, and the dedication of special players. It didn’t happen overnight, but the seeds of greatness had been planted early on, and it just took the right group of young men and their leaders to bring them to fruition and full bloom. Coaches like Barry Collier, now Athletic Director, Todd Lickliter, Thad Matta, and Brad Stevens, picked up the mantle of Tony Hinkle and emphasized team play, sportsmanship and scholarship. It was there all along, it just needed the right atmosphere to grow.
Brad Stevens should rightly get the credit for putting all the elements together. However, each of his predecessors added his own touch to the final outcome. Butler was becoming accustomed to making either the NCAA Tournament or NIT on a fairly regular basis in the 90’s and early 2000’s. What Stevens’ brought to the mix, was a youthful talent that the aspiring players could quickly identify with. Stevens looked like one of the players himself, and was often taken for one. He was one of them from the beginning, but he knew how to teach the game he loved. He had played in college. He had given up a promising career at Eli Lilly to take a low-paying assistant position at Butler. He was a tactician and understood the importance of defense as well as offense. He applied all his knowledge and youthful enthusiasm when Collier tapped him for the head coaching position.
Brad Stevens studies his team’s opponents. He watches their every move on video tape – over and over again. He has become one of the most successful coaches in the past four years in NCAA history. Only a couple of legends have been able to top him, and he is just beginning. The fact that he could be making several millions of dollars at other universities doesn’t escape the players or fans. He loves his teams and the players. And, that love is translated in the fact that Butler is still, and will always be, an institution of learning. The media that visited the campus in 2010 and 2011, couldn’t believe that the players were in class on the day of the National Championship with Duke at Lucas Stadium in ’10 and were studying and preparing lessons the afternoon before playing against Connecticut in the final at Houston in ’11. Both games ended with Butler in the runner-up position. But how SURREAL is that? There hasn’t been a modern team, from a small school or not, who can brag about those accomplishment.
I mentioned the banners that hang from the rafters at Hinkle proclaiming the National Championships of 1924 and 1929. There are a number of other banners with NIT on them as well as the two most prominent new banners naming them Runner-Ups to the National Championship. The “Butler Way” is something we can all imitate when it comes to championing our way through the business world. Teamwork, knowing the competition, dedication to success, striving to do the best and hard work will pay off for all of us just as it as for Butler.