I cannot cast enough praise on Brad Stevens and his Butler team after their magnificent run in the NCAA tournament. What a fine coach. What a tenacious team. Clearly, Butler was as deserving of the national championship as my own alma mater, Duke.
Butler has arrived at a new level, and my experience tells me they will stay there. Our two schools share so much in common, I feel I can tell Butler fans what they can expect as they continue to succeed in basketball. Actually, it's a bit of a warning ... a warning about the fleeting nature of popularity.
First, though, you need to understand Duke's experience with success.
I first saw Duke play in person at the 1963 Final Four in my home town of Louisville. I was 14 and pulled for Duke. I'm not sure why. Eventually, I went to college there. I was the wildest Crazie there was. I have a letter from Coach Bucky Waters saying as much.
One of our wins over #2 North Carolina--an 87-86 triple overtime classic in 1968--left me bleeding and voiceless.
In 1969, I organized a 100-car caravan to a neutral-site game in Greensboro, actually delivering $2,640 in cash ($15,400 in today's dollars) to Duke's Assistant Athletic Director, Tom Butters, two weeks before the game. I asked him, rather naively, for "440 seats together.” Amazingly, Mr. Butters delivered. They took out two press rows and set up 440 folding chairs on the playing floor. I was a hero.
I helped with on campus recruiting my last two years there. I even hit the recruiting trail for Duke while attending law school at Michigan, doing ground work for Freshman Coach Jack Schalow and Assistant Coach Hubie Brown.
While I was at Duke, and for many years after I graduated, we were a great deal like Butler. We were a private school with excellent academics that was damn good in basketball. We had true student athletes. Our players had game and they graduated. But we could never break through. Like Butler, we lost in the title game. In fact, we lost four title games in a row before our magic moment came.
In the 1964 final, we lost to #1 UCLA. The game was played in Pauley Pavilion, their home court. Wonderful.
In the 1978 final, we lost by 6 points to #1 Kentucky, though we earned a measure of respect by forcing Joe Hall to re-insert his starters with a minute to play.
In the 1986 final, we entered the game 37-2 and ranked #1. We led for 39 minutes and lost when we missed a shot exactly like Hayward's 10-footer on our last possession. I punched a hole in my wall. I'm just thankful I missed the stud.
In the 1990 final, we got blown out by UNLV by 30 points.
The following year, we met undefeated and #1 UNLV--same five players--in the semifinals. We pulled a huge upset by 2 points. Two nights later, we finally got over that last hurdle. We beat Kansas and won our first title. I floated a foot off the ground for weeks. Finally, I had bragging rights with my Carolina friends--especially pleasing since Carolina had beaten us by 22 points in the ACC final three weeks earlier and had made it to the Final Four as well.
We were media darlings. Everyone loved us. People said “Duke deserved to win it,” "Duke was overdue,” "Duke did things the right way,” and "It's good to see a clean program with real student-athletes win.” When you Bulldogs win the title, you'll be media darlings too ... even more than you are today.
But we made a big mistake the next year. We won the 1992 title, too. And, in 1994, we finished a run of seven Final Fours in nine years. We were clearing too many hurdles. And here's what happens when you do.
Almost overnight, we became "elitists,” “snobs," and “villains.” A United States Senator from Kentucky told me, to my face, that “all Duke people are arrogant.” Opposing coaches proclaimed Duke a team of "five guys fouling all the time.” "Duke gets all the calls," people said. Every time Duke won a title, I heard the same mantra: "Duke got the easy bracket" and -- my personal favorite -- "college basketball is down this year."
I guess we got the easy bracket again this year too. We only had to beat the Pac-10 champion, the Big Ten champion, the Big East champion, Baylor 160 miles from its campus, and your Bulldogs in your home town. (Our 1991 and 1992 titles featured easy roads too. All we had to do is beat undefeated UNLV and Kansas in '91 and then a Damon Bailey-led Indiana team and Michigan’s Fab Five in '92.)
Amazingly, even when we "failed," the hate continued. After our 2001 title, Duke won only 7 NCAA games in the next five years, never making it past the Sweet Sixteen. Reporters asked Coach K about Duke's “meltdown.” Sports commentators said we were “just a name on a jersey.” Pundits suggested that "Coach K had lost his touch."
To show you how bad it gets with the criticism, consider this. During those five "meltdown" years, Duke averaged 28 wins a season, finished four of the seasons with final AP ranks of #1, #3, #6, and #9, won three ACC championships, and recruited the team that led us to the 2010 national title.
Then our worst nightmare came true. We were matched with David in the Valley of Elah. Magically, almost overnight, the press converted us from a meltdown team with a meaningless name on our jersey into a big bad Goliath ... this, despite the fact that no player on this Duke team had ever played in a Final Four.
We were to play Butler for the national championship in front of 70,000 Butler fans in the Bulldogs’ home town in the center of basketball-crazed Indiana. The game was billed as “Hoosiers, the Sequel,” the original movie (a personal favorite) having been filmed on Butler’s home court.
Butler even had its own Jimmy Chitwood, a handsome young kid named Gordon Hayward whose toughness and phenomenal skill is utterly belied by his boyish looks. Across the land, 70 million television viewers settled in to watch the game … probably 99 percent of them pulling for Butler. If I hadn't been a Dukie, I would have pulled for Butler too.
In the end, Duke outscored Butler 61-59. I cannot, in all fairness, use the word “beat.” Nobody beat anybody on the first Monday night in April.
Since the game, I have been possessed by seemingly conflicting feelings.
I am thrilled that Duke won. I love Duke basketball. My first question coming out of cancer surgery when I was 28 years old was, "Did we beat Clemson?" (We had.) I was so nervous when the Butler game ended on Monday night that I was physically shaking.
At the same time, though, I am disappointed that Butler lost. All of my Duke friends have said the same thing.
I think the reason for this conflict is that we Dukies see ourselves in Butler. We see a team from a small private school with true student athletes. We see a program that does everything the right way and plays really great basketball. We see a team that had trouble breaking through.
I know the Butler faithful are sick with disappointment over the loss. Even the Duke players felt badly for the Butler players after the game. They said as much in their post-game interviews.
These conflicting feelings arise because of our respect for your program and because we can so easily identify with your disappointment. We lost three national finals by failing to score on our last possession -- in 1986, 1994, and 1999. We lost a semifinal by 1 point to eventual champion Connecticut in 2004. It hurts like heck to lose one-possession games in Final Fours. We know. We've been there.
I understand that Duke is trying to schedule a game with Butler in the Meadowlands this fall. You may know that Duke plays a neutral site game in Chicago or at the Meadowlands each year. The game is an opportunity for Duke to play a top-level non-conference opponent in an NCAA setting. I cannot think of a better opponent, or a greater test, than Butler. I hope the game comes to pass.
And couldn't you imagine a home-and-away series someday? Envision Duke taking the floor at Hinkle Fieldhouse or Butler at Cameron. How would that go? I think I know.
Ten years ago, I was invited to give a talk at the Holcomb Observatory on the Butler campus. I was received with a frankly humbling level of Hoosier hospitality, the kind I have come to expect everywhere I go in Indiana. If Duke took the floor at Hinkle Fieldhouse, I think that Duke, the same Duke that everyone loves to hate, would be greeted with an unusual degree of appreciation and respect. That's how Hoosiers are. And if Butler took the floor at Cameron, I think you would be surprised by the welcome there too. In fact, I know you would.
You have Duke's respect ... respect forged in a titanic game on a Monday night in Indianapolis. You sure have mine.
Wherever we may play, Duke and Butler share common bonds--two smaller private schools that play in old traditional gyms, recruit honestly, value education, and play the game the right way.
As for that national championship that eluded you by inches, just tell Jimmy Chitwood, whoever he may be, to keep shooting. I know the script. I know how the story ends.
Eventually, that last shot goes in.