Living up to its namesake
As aforementioned, this unique building started out with a very bland name -- Butler Fieldhouse. The more evocative moniker was bestowed in 1966, in honor of the university's Hall of Fame coach, Paul D. "Tony" Hinkle. If there was ever one individual who personified Butler athletics, Coach Hinkle was the one.
Tony Hinkle was born in 1899 in Logansport, Ind. He played his high school hoops in Gary, Ind., then stepped a few miles over the state line to the University of Chicago for his college education, where he played basketball on a team that was then a Big Ten powerhouse. He commenced his head-coaching career at Butler in 1929 and never looked back, leaving only for a three-year tour in the U.S. Navy during World War II.
Coach Hinkle's legacy at Butler is well-rounded. His 560 wins as hoops head man are impressive enough, but the gentleman also contributed 165 wins as a football coach and another 335 on the school's baseball diamond. His overall contribution to the athletic program at the little college in northern Indianapolis totals 1,060 wins across the three sports.
If that isn't enough, the entire sport can thank Hinkle for an innovation we take for granted today: It was his suggestion the dingy, brown basketballs of his era be made, instead, from a cheerier, more visible, shade of orange leather. Another influential Indiana native, a man by the name of John Wooden, called Hinkle, "The greatest coach that ever lived."
Lest anyone think the recent success of Butler basketball is unprecedented, it should be noted the Bulldogs are credited with two pre-NCAA national championships -- one earned in 1924, while Hinkle was an assistant coach, and a second gained in 1929, following the program's first full year playing in the Fieldhouse. The building was renamed in his honor in 1966 and Hinkle reluctantly retired from coaching in 1970, staying on as a special assistant to the university president until his death in 1992.
"The University was ill-prepared for his retirement," said David Woods, Indianapolis newspaper columnist and author of "The Butler Way." "They didn't have much of a recruiting budget, and they couldn't appeal to his name and the respect players had for him anymore."
At least they still had his beautiful building to show off.
Everyone who's anyone in Hoosier state hoops has played in Hinkle. As a sophomore, Larry Bird led the Indiana State Sycamores to an 80-65 rout of the Bulldogs, scoring 47 points and pulling down 19 rebounds. But Bird's effort falls three points short of the scoring record for visitors. That honor belongs to Notre Dame's Austin Carr, who dropped 50 in January 1970, during a game that set the facility's attendance record at an even 15,000.
The 15K mark is one that can never be broken, as it happens. Renovations made in 1989 reduced the cathedral's maximum occupancy to 11,043. Later, the installation of additional handicapped-accessible seating and adjustments to meet strict city fire codes left capacity closer to 10,000. The relatively small student body still struggles to fill the space, and the city's obsession with all things Colts and Pacers can limit the draw, even for important games.
Such was not the case when Ohio State raced onto the floor at Hinkle on that Saturday afternoon last month. Former Butler coach Matta stomped, roared and looked to the bench for help as the jam-packed home crowd chanted in unison:
The confidence of the crowd spurred the home team to a dominant closing run, during which the Bulldogs held their more athletic Big Ten opponent scoreless for more than seven minutes, finally winning 74-66. It was the first ranked opponent the then-No. 20 Bulldogs had beaten in four tries on the season. Not coincidentally, it was the only top-25 game they had played at home.
No place like home
At the postgame media session, Butler's Gordon Hayward grinned at a reporter's question regarding the comforts of playing at home after a long and challenging road trip.
"At one point, I was at the free throw line, and I looked up and it was packed, all the way to the top," he said. "I was getting texts from people who were camping outside all night. It's great to be back."
There is no athlete aloofness at Butler. There are no private tunnels from the locker rooms to the floor ... and it's entirely uncertain whether Bulldogs players would use them if there were. They seem to genuinely enjoy mixing with their classmates before and after games; most come back out after showering and chat with those followers who stick around. It's a very small-town feel inside the orbit of one of America's largest cities.
Perhaps that's because everyone here is from a small town. Two-thirds of the Butler roster is made up of players recruited from the state's high-school hotbeds, and they're not benchwarmers, either.
Hayward, the team's leading scorer and rebounder, is from Brownsburg, a town of about 14,000 near the center of the state. He lines up next to 6-foot-8 Matt Howard, the returning Horizon League Player of the Year, who hails from similarly sized Connersville. Head coach Brad Stevens was a star player for Zionsville Community High School, just down the road from Hinkle. They know this place, and it knows them.
This is not to say that Hinkle magic is just for native sons. Ashley Johnes, the general merchandise manager at the newly opened T-shirt shop near Hinkle's front entrance, said locals empty the racks of team memorabilia quite often, but fans of opposing teams tend to drop a pretty penny, as well.
"We have a whole line of mementos that just feature the Fieldhouse," Johnes said. "Those are very popular with visitors. They want to remember what it was like to be here."
Playing its part in history
Some buildings just have that effect on people. Hinkle Fieldhouse is on the short list for any hoops fan with a sense of history, alongside Penn's Palestra (built in 1927), Minnesota's Williams Arena (1928) and the endangered MacArthur Court at the University of Oregon (1926).
Modern construction in Indianapolis pays tribute to the grand old barn on 49th Street -- Conseco Fieldhouse and Lucas Oil Stadium both use the girders and windows setup -- but nothing new can provide the palpable thrill of heroic deeds that permeates the bricks and steel of Hinkle.
Perhaps that's what brings them back. Butler athletic director Barry Collier played and coached at Butler before succumbing to the allure of the head basketball job at Nebraska in 2000. He came home in 2006. Matta never brought his Xavier teams here, but has not shied away from visiting with the Buckeyes, to his recent detriment. Iowa head man Todd Lickliter hasn't brought his Hawkeyes to Indianapolis yet, but that may be because he had more success on the home bench at Hinkle (two Sweet 16s) than he ever has since joining the Big Ten (no winning seasons, yet).
Butler coach Stevens undoubtedly will face that same choice one day soon. At 33, he became one of the youngest coaches to win 50 games in his career, racking up 30 victories in his first season at the helm and 26 in the second. If he can get the Bulldogs to another Sweet 16, or beyond, the big schools will come calling with big money. Will he take it, or will he stay put and build a dynasty, like Gonzaga's Mark Few and George Mason's Jim Larranaga have done?
Of course, the money always will be tempting, but there's no doubt Stevens values what he has at Butler.
"What an atmosphere. What a game!" Stevens said in the aftermath of his big win over his former mentor Matta. "Who in sports has a better atmosphere than Butler?"
For the first time that afternoon, you could have heard a pin drop inside Hinkle Fieldhouse.
Eric Angevine is a freelance writer and editor from Charlottesville, Va. He is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com and the editor of the college basketball Web site StormingTheFloor.net. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.