It always ends in a loss; that is cold fact. Back in 2008, on a warm Sunday afternoon in Birmingham, Alabama, Butler's season came to a close in the NCAA Tournament's Round of 32. That squad's terminal drop came in overtime, to a Tennessee team it was superior to, on borderline calls and bad breaks. This particular loss cracked the hearts of every single Bulldog fan who had made the trip from Indianapolis to the deep South. This was supposed to be the
year and the
team, a 30-win powerhouse full of seniors, one that returned intact after reaching the Sweet 16 a season beforehand.
I have walked through team locker rooms after some of the signature small-college losses of the past several years. I could never forget the stunned sadness beneath the old Hoosier Dome after George Mason's 2006 Final Four run ended at the hands of the eventual champion Florida Gators; all the heads buried in towels, and the slumped bodies and spent spirits, and the tears. Two years later, nobody in Davidson's team room in Detroit spoke above a soft whisper after Jason Richards' shot fell short. The only appropriate thing was to get quotes from head coach Bob McKillop and get out, and let his team be alone together, to resolve the differences between what was and what could have been.
Butler's locker room in 2007 was very different. Here was a starting rotation full of seniors -- guard tandem A.J. Graves and Mike Green, and rangy midsize men Julian Betko and Pete Campbell -- who would never play another college basketball game again, whose dreams were shattered. There were unfulfilled hopes after a long five-month season, longer four-year careers, all pointing towards this broken moment. But the mood was... happy. Players were holding court with reporters, their hands moving animatedly, some even cracking jokes. Um, season's over, guys?
Out in the tunnels, I asked Brad Stevens, then the Bulldogs' first-year head coach, what was going on.
"One of the first things that happened when we got back to the locker room, the seniors turned to the younger players," he explained. "They said, 'You have to keep this going. It's up to you now.' It was very inspiring, I'm very proud of them for doing that."
"To you with failing hands we throw the torch,
" I replied, the words spilling out of some lost quadrant in my mind. "Be yours to hold it high.
Coach Stevens looked at me sideways; I don't think he wasn't expecting old poetry in the bowels of the BJCC Arena. "The Canadiens," I said. "The wall of their locker room."
It's next to impossible for a mid-major school to achieve anything close to the kind of continuity that those Habs had, as Montreal
built the most successful franchise in North American sports history (24 Stanley Cup championships in 100 seasons). Aging legends showed rookies first-hand what winning looked like, and the young players became legends themselves; the tradition was woven into hockey's 20th Century with red, blue and white thread. It's a similar dynamic to the dynasties of Our Game, like UCLA and Duke and Kentucky -- the "atmosphere of winning" that sportswriters are always chasing the right words for. In Flanders Fields
, which was not written about sports at all, seems to work pretty well.
At our level, financial restraints always seem to get in the way of this kind of ongoing success. Star head coaches are lured above the Red Line with large salaries, great players move on to leave vacuums behind them, and the magic spells are broken. George Mason's core fractured after 2006, and the Patriots have had to scratch and claw to remain in the upper reaches of the stocked CAA. Davidson lost its point guard and inside presence after the 2008 Elite Eight run, and then magic-man Stephen Curry left early for the pros, and the Wildcats once again became just another mid-major team trying to make a name for themselves. ("We're going to be okay," McKillop assured me in the parking lot outside Butler's Hinkle Fieldhouse last November, after the Bulldogs dealt his team a runaway loss
. "We'll be good again by the end of the season.")
Davidson's continuum was broken this year -- the Wildcats finished 16-15 and lost in the Southern Conference's first round to Elon. The program couldn't replicate what happened after the 2005-06 season, when a giant outgoing class of seven seniors peaked with an NCAA appearance. The next year, Curry stepped in, and took the program to higher heights indeed.
Likewise, Butler had a couple of seasons like this too, in the middle part of the decade. The Bulldogs struggled to 16-14 and 13-15 records after losing six key pieces of the 2003 Sweet 16 to graduation. Todd Lickliter found the first few pieces of the next Sweet generation in those mediocre years (sharpshooter Graves, in particular). He assembled that next Butler generation with masterful player development and key transfers, and he would move up to the Big XII once he'd returned to the NCAA's second weekend in 2007.
But in Birmingham in 2008, in that senior-packed temporary locker room with an ugly brown rug, were freshmen like Matt Howard, a raw 6-8 rookie who had struck fear into the Horizon League with his wild hair and animalistic paint play. Zach Hahn was a first-year bit player, averaging a bucket a game in nine minutes. Shawn Vanzant couldn't shoot straight, and so he rarely got any playing time.
Now, all three juniors now play key roles on this third Butler Sweet 16 team in eight years -- Howard, now a full-fledged Monsterizer, won league POY honors as a sophomore (and gracefully yielded the title to sophomore Spankmaster Gordon "G-Time" Hayward
this season). Vanzant is the energy guy off the bench, and has developed into one the best defensive players the Horizon League has produced in the past decade. Hahn can now always be counted on for a key 3-pointer.
This version of Butler is full of sophomores and juniors again -- it is still in the process of adding the "page or two" to Bulldog history that the school's fight song refers to. Fans I've talked to during my many visits to Hinkle this year speak excitedly not only about the present, but the future... there's another talented class coming in this fall, and players like Hayward and Howard and sophomore Shelvin Mack will be one year older and wiser. Some even consider this team -- the only squad in the country to play undefeated basketball in its conference -- as a prelude to something bigger. With the exception of guard Willie Veasley, the fourth offensive option on this potent squad, everyone's back.
"This isn't the year," one fan told me last December. "However far we get this year is just gravy. Next
year is our year."
No matter how far that 2010-11 team goes, whether it's a sudden shortfall in the league, or a heartbreaking drop in the subregional, or even cutting down the nets at Reliant Stadium in Houston, there will be great loss. It may happen on the scoreboard, but it will definitely occur within the roster. At that moment, Howard, Vanzant and Hahn will address the younger players -- just as Graves, Green, Betko and Campbell did -- and they'll say, "It's up to you now."
And no matter who the coach is then, or who all those younger players are, it will continue. There will be the joy of being a part of something bigger, with a name and colors and a logo. There will be the satisfaction of passing along something special to the next generation, to whom they will trust its safety.Photo via Butler University