By now, you have heard almost every imaginable compare and contrast cliche pertaining to the 2010 Butler Bulldogs and the 1951 Hickory Huskers (or the real life 1954 Milan High School equivalent).
Heck, I am sick of the comparisons, and I own “Hoosiers” on VHS, DVD, and Blue Ray!
Yet, there are only a few similarities between these two phenomenal, albeit very different stories, that are even worth mentioning.
The local and national media picked up on the premise that Butler is a small Indiana school (4,000+ enrollment), plays in Hinkle Fieldhouse (the same venue where “Hoosiers” was filmed and Milan won its State Championship), and seemingly came out of no where to make it to the semifinals, beating bigger schools along the way.
It took Butler making the 2010 Final Four in Indianapolis to bring “Hoosier Hysteria” back to the once-proud tradition of Indiana basketball.
Truth is, the Butler Bulldogs have been on the verge of this kind of success over the past 10 years, but few people in Indianapolis or the country took notice.
The severed ties between Indiana and its love for basketball can be traced back to the late '90s.
After the 1997 Indiana State Championship, the IHSAA did away with single-class basketball and implemented a class system, which divided the tournament into four sections based on school enrollment , thus ensuring there would never be a small school like Milan winning a “true” state championship.
This decision was met with controversy by traditionalists and it’s widely accepted that high school basketball in Indiana is not as popular as it once was.
The power shift in fans from the Indiana Pacers to the Indianapolis Colts have also taken a toll on basketball support with the retirement of Reggie and the emergence of Peyton.
The quarterback from the University of Tennessee has entrenched the Colts as a yearly Super Bowl contender, while Larry Legend has turned a once proud NBA team into a franchise that offers “College Night” discounts at every other game. The fans that do show up secretly hope the Pacers lose in order to better their Draft Lottery odds.
There’s no reason to blame the infamous brawl in Detroit or the “thug” reputation the Pacers were given from 2004-2007 for the lack of passion the fans currently have. The Pacers have gotten rid of every player from those teams, with little off the court problems since.
There is only one reason fans in Indianapolis choose to follow a team: winning.
The city only cares to support the teams during the good times. When the Pacers were good, few cared about the Colts. Now it’s vice-versa.
Hoosiers might be the worst “Bandwagon fans” in America. The Butler story is proof.
In terms of college basketball throughout Indiana history, Butler was always on the outside looking in. With imposing figures like Bob Knight and the tradition-rich Indiana University, Gene Keady and the success he brought to Purdue University, and even the relative success of Notre Dame, it is easy to understand why the Indianapolis private school was forgotten.
Forgotten, but not gone.
The Butler Bulldogs achieved their greatest success prior to NCAA Tournament development.
In 1924 they won the AAU National Championship with coach Harlan Page and in 1929 were given the John J. McDevitt Trophy (national title) under coach Tony Hinkle.
The NCAA Tournament began in 1939 and it wasn’t until 1962 that Butler made its first appearance under Hinkle, who stayed on until 1970. Hinkle coached Butler from 1926-1970, only missing time to serve in the Navy during WW II.
I can see why they named the Fieldhouse after him.
It wasn’t until 1997 that coach Barry Collier led the Bulldogs to a second “Big Dance” appearance. BU went on to make March appearances three of the next four years under Collier, highlighted in 2000 by the narrow loss to eventual runner-up Florida, on a Mike Miller buzzer beater.
The following year, Collier left for the head coaching job at Nebraska and top assistant Thad Matta took over.
Around this same time, Bob Knight’s tenure at IU was over and Gene Keady was nearing the end of his reign in West Lafayette.
In 2001, Matta led the No. 10 seeded Bulldogs to its first NCAA victory in almost 40 years when they knocked off Wake Forest in the first round, before falling to eventual runner-up Arizona in the second round.
After only one season, Matta left Butler for the Xavier coaching vacancy and was replaced by his top assistant, Todd Lickliter.
From 2002-2007, the Lickliter led Bulldogs made two Sweet 16 appearances and in 2006 Collier returned as Butler Athletic Director. After the Bulldogs lost to eventual 2007 champion Florida in the Sweet 16, a game in which they played the Gators close, Lickliter left for the Iowa job.
Once again, the University did not have to look far to find the next.
Brad Stevens worked at Indianapolis pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly until 2000, when he quit to become a volunteer coach at Butler. Under Matta, Stevens worked his way up to coordinator of basketball operations. When Lickliter took over as head coach, he promoted Stevens to assistant coach, where he would take part in skills instruction, game preparation, in-game coaching, and recruiting.
When Lickliter left for Iowa, AD Barry Collier promoted Stevens to the head coaching position.
In the 2007-2008 season, Stevens first, Butler finished the year 30-4, losing to No. 2 seed Tennessee 76-71 in the second round of the Tournament.
The 2008-2009 season saw Butler enter postseason play with a 26-5 record, but falling to LSU 75-71 in the No. 8 vs. No. 9 game.
With the Bulldogs bringing back talented sophomores Gordon Hayward, Shelvin Mack, and Ronald Nored, to go along with junior Matt Howard, they entered the 2009-2010 season as a top No. 12 team.
The Butler Bulldogs have been preparing for a kind of run like this for years. Over the last decade, they have put together incredible regular season records, only to have some bad luck in the NCAA Tournament. However, those losses in March came against the likes of Arizona, Oklahoma, Florida, Tennessee, and LSU.
Hardly a list to be embarrassed about, considering basketball power Kansas has lost to Bucknell, Bradley, and Northern Iowa during that same time frame.
This season, Butler put together a non-conference schedule that has ultimately paid dividends to their success in March. Some of the power conference teams like to beat up on borderline Division II opponents doing the early season. Not Butler. They played the likes of Davidson, Northwestern, Minnesota, UCLA, Clemson, Georgetown, Xavier, and UAB.
Over the last three years, the “baby-faced” coach has led the Bulldogs to an impressive 88-14 record, entering today’s Final Four.
The Butler Bulldogs will be playing in their home city, with new support from fans that should have been there for them all along.
During games this January, Hinkle Fieldhouse (with a capacity of 11,000) saw games where attendance was 6,754, 6,151, and 5,383.
These numbers are embarrassing for a city and state that prides itself on basketball “Hysteria.”
Butler plays basketball the right way, are well coached, and play in one of the great historical venues to watch a college basketball game.
It is a shame it took the city of Indianapolis THIS long to figure that out.
Not me, I have been singing the “Butler War Song” since going to Barry Collier Basketball Camp back in the day and have always enjoyed going to games at the Fieldhouse, only Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence trumps as greatest college basketball game experience.
At a public practice yesterday for the Final Four, Butler drew 25,000 fans. Where were these same fans in January?
Butler will be the sentimental favorite to win the Final Four for fans outside of the other three teams, and will have the city of Indianapolis behind it. Even though a lot of them are bandwagon fans, who would give you a glazed stare if you asked them who Brandon Miller, Darnell Archey, Joel Cornette, A.J. Graves, or Pete Campbell are.
I can’t see Mack or Hayward saying “Let’s win this one for all the small schools, who never had a chance to get here.” Butler has been working toward this for a long time.
It is the “Butler Way” and you could argue that the 2010 NCAA Tournament run is one of the most surprising stories in March history.
The truth is, Butler has been doing it for years—you just didn’t notice.