Commentary

Spotlight continues to shine on Bulldogs

Originally Published: August 2, 2010
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

INDIANAPOLIS -- Two months after leading Butler to a surprising and memorable appearance in the national championship game, Brad Stevens got a new office.

Workers installed new carpet, hung pictures on the walls and moved his desk to a better location.

"The air-conditioning unit is right above my office,'' Stevens explained. "It drips a little bit pretty much every year. This year it flooded so they had to replace everything.''

[+] EnlargeBrad Stevens
Bob Donnan/US PresswireBrad Stevens and the Bulldogs are reveling in the glory of their NCAA tournament run.

What's changed at Butler since Gordon Hayward nearly pulled off the impossible with his thisclose half-court buzzer-beater attempt against Duke?

Everything. And nothing.

Interest in the university is up, alumni support has increased, pride has skyrocketed. Stevens has rubbed elbows with Peyton Manning, serenaded Cubs fans during the seventh-inning stretch and served as grand marshal of the Indianapolis 500 Festival.

And the very core of what Butler is -- and wants to be -- hasn't changed a lick.

"I got a new office,'' Stevens laughed. "Other than that, it's pretty much the same as always here. But that's the way we want it. I think our challenge going forward isn't capitalizing on this but how do we go forward without losing our identity?''

It's a tricky minefield, to be certain, but if anyone seems well-suited to traverse it, it is the grounded Stevens and the successful -- but unassuming -- program he leads.

For the casual fan, Butler's appearance in last season's title game against Duke may have signaled the team's arrival. But the Bulldogs have been coming for a while. Before taking center stage in Indianapolis on the last night of the season, Butler twice made the Sweet 16 in the last seven years and had been ranked in the Top 25 every year since the 2006-07 season.

Butler isn't some Cinderella suddenly thrust into the spotlight hoping for the cha-ching of its one shining moment; it's a proven commodity building something to last.

"Our goal is to get better but not change what we're doing and who we are,'' athletic director Barry Collier said. "That can be hard, but I don't think it will be here. We just need to find a way to get three points better.''


The good news: Some things have changed at Butler.

The admissions office has seen a 3 percent spike in its yield (the number of admitted students who actually enroll), with a freshman class up 120 students, and the number of people visiting the Butler table during various college fairs, while not quantifiable, has noticeably jumped. The university welcomed 245 families to its summer open house recently, up from 150 families a year ago, and alumni spirit and giving has risen significantly.

[+] EnlargeButler fans
AP Photo/Mark J. TerrillButler fever captured the attention and hearts of Bulldogs fans last season.

"Is it all due to the NCAA tournament?'' said Tom Weede, the vice president for enrollment management. "I don't know if we can say that for certain, but the interest in Butler has definitely changed significantly.''

Weede was sitting at a table at the Starbucks in the Atherton Union on a recent July afternoon. The place, like much of the campus, was empty.

I had been in that Starbucks before. On the day of the national championship game, I came to campus with a colleague to get a feel for the buzz.

It was a madhouse, with giddy salespeople in the bookstore trying to keep up the supply for the demand of Butler T-shirts. The fever extended to the rest of campus, where people walked around (some even in Duke shirts) or posed for pictures outside Hinkle Fieldhouse.

"It reminded me of a line from a Meat Loaf song, from "Paradise by the Dashboard Light" ... 'and all the kids in school were wishing they were me that night,''' Weede said. "For that one night, that was me. Everyone wanted to be Butler.''

To an extent, some still do. Levester Johnson, the vice president for student affairs, said his offices have been flooded with phone calls from students and alums practically gushing with stories. They talk about where they were during the Final Four and the random encounters they've had since while wearing their Butler gear.

Johnson recently spoke at a community event. Beforehand, he was handed his list of talking points. "It was your typical list of motivation, mentoring, things like that,'' Johnson said. "And then at the bottom it said, 'Please direct some of your talk about the Butler Way.' I had never seen that before, but I think I need to get ready for that from now on.''

The fever, it seems, is everywhere. Membership for the Dawg Pound, the dues-paying student group, is up significantly and even the pep band numbers have jumped, with 120 members signed up for next season.

Ticket sales are steady, and Collier said there's a bigger interest in corporate sponsorship as well. This year's Golfest, the department's annual golf outing, welcomed a record 64 foursomes.

The Bulldogs also just inked a new radio deal, moving to 1070 The Fan, which has a bigger signal and carries the likes of the Pacers and Colts.

Heck, Butler Blue II, the team's popular mascot, had 1,942 followers on Twitter at last count.

And he's a dog.

"People always ask me, 'How was it for you guys?''' Collier said. "I always say, 'You mean, how is it?' It's still happening. It's unreal.''


Days after the loss to Duke, Butler signed Stevens to a 12-year contract extension.

It was not for fear he would become a lounge singer.

If the 33-year-old former pharmaceutical sales rep was looking for The Moment to capture his whirlwind change in stature, he need only check out YouTube.

Wearing a Cubs jersey and ballcap, there's Stevens, leading the Wrigley Field crowd in "Take Me Out to the Ball Game."

Let it be noted he was not awful -- far from it. But while staid and stoic works well in the coaching profession, it won't win many Grammys.

People always ask me, 'How was it for you guys?' I always say, 'You mean, how is it?' It's still happening. It's unreal.

-- Athletic director Barry Collier

"I went to the mike and went for the monotone,'' Stevens said. "I was scared to death. It would have been a lot better if this was the '80s and there weren't any videos. That was a lot worse than throwing out the first pitch.''

If anything has changed for Butler basketball, it is the spotlight on its freshly scrubbed coach. Stevens has exchanged e-mails with Manning and become such an in-demand speaker, he's had to decline more requests than he grants.

His always well-attended basketball camps all boasted a waiting list of 200 kids, and on May 29 he and the Bulldogs followed in the footsteps of Jimmy Stewart, Walter Cronkite, Mickey Mouse and former President Gerald Ford as the Indy 500 Festival grand marshals.

"Usually it's to the victors go the spoils,'' Stevens said. "The amazing thing in all this -- we lost.''

But Stevens thinks there's a reason that his team and that particular game resonated so much with people. He pointed to the players on the court, "Ten guys,'' Stevens said, "and maybe three pros?'' and the way the game was played, a sort of throwback championship game that maybe people were hungry for.

"It was 10 guys playing so hard and so together,'' he said. "I think a lot of people found that game to be refreshing.''

Which is why Stevens has no intention of changing too drastically.

The attention, the newfound fans -- 30,000 of them at the Final Four open practice Friday despite just 40,000 living Butler alums -- and the improvements and upticks for charitable giving, admissions and campus pride are all welcome.

But that doesn't necessarily spill over to big changes in the business of actually playing basketball.

Blue-chip recruits aren't lining up to play for Butler nor does Stevens want or expect them to.

If Butler's run proved anything, it is that in a day and age of one-and-dones and NBA talent biding time in college uniforms, it can be done the Butler Way.

"Not every kid walks into an 85-year-old gym and thinks, 'This is cool,'" Stevens said. "And that's OK. The kids that do are the kids we want. We are who we are.''

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com.

Dana O'Neil | email

College Basketball