When Kyle proposed the series of fan essays about various schools in the Mid-Majority, I hesitated about writing about mine. It's not like Butler has been starved of column inches by the national media or TMM. Butler has almost reached a Gonzaga-esque point where some folks might prefer calling them UMPFTCOHN (Unnamed Major Program from the Capital of Hoops Nation). I even thought about writing about my surrogate team, Coastal Carolina, whom I followed for three years while I lived in Myrtle Beach.
But you have to be true to yourself, and like the Beach Boys, true to your school. It's not like I started being a Butler fan in 2003 when the Bulldogs made it to the Sweet 16. My fandom even goes back before my evil twin who now balls in the NBA made a last-second shot to send Butler to defeat in 2000 with ESPN's Erin Andrews on the sideline...as a member of The Dazzlers, Florida's dance team.
The journey begins when I attended my first game at Hinkle Fieldhouse. The date was November 27, 1993. It was my freshman year at Butler. The opponent was almighty Indiana, led by Robert Montgomery Knight, who was coming off a regional final appearance the previous season and was ranked 11 to start the season. Indiana had lost Calbert Cheaney and Greg Graham from that team, but still possessed a strong lineup that featured Alan Henderson and Damon Bailey.
For me, and a lot of Butler students, it was a day of mixed emotions. Yes, we wanted Butler to do well. But like me, the majority of Butler students grew up in or had ties to Indiana. We were brought up worshiping Knight, Uwe Blab, Steve Alford, Jay Edwards, Eric Anderson, and the like. I wore an IU t-shirt under my Butler sweatshirt and just hoped Butler would keep it competitive. Hinkle was sold out for the game, but about two-thirds of the folks in attendance were wearing red, not Butler blue.
But a funny thing happened that day; Indiana wasn't running Butler out of the Fieldhouse. Travis Trice, who was familiar with Indiana playing against them at Purdue before transferring to Butler, kept knocking down three-pointers. The Bulldogs played gritty defense, holding Indiana without a field goal for extended stretches. T.J. Perry, a redshirt freshman, tipped-in a miss with four minutes to go to give Butler the lead. Henderson bricked a few free-throws. Keeping it close wasn't the goal now, Butler could win this. It would make Butler's season, it wouldn't hurt Indiana that much. What the heck, GO BUTLER!
Indiana tried to claw their way back into the game, but it wasn't in the cards. The local newspaper columnist wrote that he saw a haze in the Fieldhouse that day. He believed it was the spirit of Tony Hinkle who had passed away a little more than a year before that game. At the end of the day, Trice knocked down two free-throws to give Butler a four-point lead with eight seconds left. It was time to storm the court and leave the allegiance to Indiana in the stands. Butler 75, Indiana 71.
That day put Butler on the map, but not in a major way. More like a tiny dot that indicates a small community around an intersection of two roads that has a population of 100. Besides the positive local coverage, most of the attention was focused on Indiana not living up to expectations. I even remember John Madden chiming in after a promo for the Kentucky-Indiana game the next week, "You can't be very good and lose to Butler." But the win did raise Butler's profile enough to get a higher level of recruit. Those who came to Butler the next couple of years would be a key part of the 1996-97 team that broke Butler's 35-year NCAA tourney drought. For a couple years, Butler played the role of the Washington Generals to teams above the red line in the first round.
The year 2000 ended up being a painful crossroads for the Butler program. Butler fought 5 seed Florida into overtime and had a one-point lead with seconds remaining. LaVall Jordan, who had just rejoined the team the previous day after attending the funeral of his great aunt, who raised him as a child, had two free throws to extend the lead to three. Jordan, normally a reliable 83 percent shooter, missed both shots and the rest can be seen on ESPN Classic. Coach Barry Collier decided he had done as much as he could at Butler and followed the sirens' song to Nebraska. Butler fans were left to wonder if this was as good as it was going to get.
Thad Matta took the reins and finally made the big time in the NCAA tournament in 2001 with a victory over Wake Forest, ironically the smallest enrollment school of the power six conferences. Since then, Butler has walked a fine line between big and small, a place to dream big. But that line is nothing new for Butler, it has always been a place where dreams and futuristic thinking came true.
Butler was founded as North Western Christian University in 1855 by noted abolitionist Ovid Butler. Butler was one of the first institutions of higher learning that women on an equal basis. It was also one of the first universities to have a female professor.
When Butler had outgrown its campus in Irvington, on Indianapolis' East side, it purchased a tract of land on the North side of town called Fairview. What was the first priority on the new campus? A 15,000 seat fieldhouse that would stand as the largest college basketball arena in the United States for over 20 years. The cost was a cool one million dollars, which would be about 103 million in today's money. Perhaps Hinkle was the first "Sports Bubble Stadium." The architectural stylings are similar. The funding was made possible by a consortium of local business and a long-term lease signed with the Indiana High School Athletics Association.
The first year of then Butler Fieldhouse was a memorable one. The first game played in Butler Fieldhouse on March 7, 1928 saw Butler defeat Notre Dame 21-13. The Bulldogs ended up finishing the season 19-3. The first Indiana high school championship game saw Muncie defeat a Martinsville squad led by senior guard John Wooden. Yes, THAT John Wooden. The first full season at Hinkle saw Butler defeat Pittsburgh, Purdue, North Carolina, Missouri and Notre Dame at the Fieldhouse en route to a 17-2 record and being named National Champions by the Veteran Athletes of America.
The Fieldhouse was the setting for many great stories. Jesse Owens competed in the Butler Relays at Hinkle Fieldhouse and set a record in the indoor 60-yard dash. Everyone who has paid attention to basketball knows the story of the 1954 Indiana high school champions Milan, and their star player Bobby Plump, who went on to play at Butler and owns his own bar and restaurant a short drive from campus. Before there was Texas Western, Oscar Robertson led all-black Crispus Attacks High School to back-to-back Indiana high school state championships in 1955 and 1956, the first all-black team in the nation to win a high school basketball championship.
While Butler may dream big, the players remain humble and true to their roots. How many college campuses would have some of the players fielding phone calls and helping sell tickets after reaching the Sweet 16? How many players would help a custodian pick up trash after a trash bag he was carrying split open? How many would do it after their season just ended? How many teams would demand the promotional schedule poster be redesigned because a senior walk-on wasn't included on it? How many teams would kill time the night before an NCAA tournament game goofing off with regular students in a Lexington hotel playing a horse-racing video game which actually involved riding fake plastic horses? (Watching a 7'2" center from Holland trying to ride a fake plastic horse is the highest of all comedy).
Willie Veasley is 6'3", 206 pound senior from Freeport, Illinois. His high school's nickname was the Pretzels. In some sort of pretzel logic, he essentially plays power forward in Butler's system. He is the fourth cog of an attack led by the more heralded Gordon Hayward, Matt Howard and Shelvin Mack. Veasley usually draws the assignment of guarding one of the two top players on the other team. His skills, other than the ability to jump out of the gym, are average. But the dude just wins games. Veasley's record as a Bulldog is currently 107-16. He will be the first Butler player to play in four NCAA tournaments. Despite only being a 61 percent free-throw shooter, there isn't a player Brad Stevens would rather have on the court at the end of the game. He doesn't miss in the clutch. Willie Veasley is the walking embodiment of The Butler Way.
The Butler Way demands commitment, denies selfishness, accepts reality, yet seeks improvement everyday while putting the team above self. It doesn't apply just to basketball, it applies to life. Brad Stevens often shares a story about his days working at Eli Lilly. A supervisor told him not to worry about the next job, do the best job you can at the job you have today and good things will come. After leaving Lilly to become a volunteer coach at Butler, Stevens eventually became the Director of Basketball Operations, then an assistant coach, finally replacing Todd Lickliter when he moved to Iowa.
Lickliter used to end many of his postgame press conferences with the saying, "We're just trying to play good basketball." While we may not play basketball now, or ever, we can try to do the best we can every day. Butler would love to complete the journey George Mason started the last time the Final Four was in Indianapolis and to quote "Hoosiers," win one for all the small schools who never had the chance to get here. Will we, or Butler get to that ultimate goal? Probably not. Like it was written in Season 5, everything ends with a loss. But to paraphrase a chant often done at the end of big wins, Am I a Bulldog? HELL YES!
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