Editorial: Lessons, inspiration, hope in Butler's NCAA run

Staff Writer
Mount Shasta Herald

Even if you're not a basketball fan, there was much to appreciate in the David vs. Goliath theater of Monday night's NCAA men's basketball championship game between Butler and Duke.

Alas, the "Hoosiers" ending we were hoping for turned out not to be, though a championship game classic it was, with the mid-major Bulldogs having their chance to win in the final seconds but ultimately coming up just short, 61-59, to a Blue Devils program that won its fourth NCAA title under coaching legend Mike Krzyzewski.

In short, Butler proved it belonged on the same floor with college basketball royalty. With any luck things will never quite be the same in the sport, in more ways than one. Coach K certainly seemed to recognize that: "It will become ... a benchmark game. Not just the way it was played, but who played in it and what comes about."

What comes about, we hope, is some recognition by the governing board of intercollegiate athletics, the NCAA, that there really is more parity - despite huge inequities in funding and exposure - that the little guys deserve more respect, and that overall it's good for the game. In fact five of this year's Sweet 16 were smaller schools from the non-power conferences. Along with a couple of other fresh faces at this annual spring dance, they added a certain underdog drama that arguably was reflected in significantly higher TV ratings. The championship game at its peak pulled in 48 million-plus television viewers, some 31 percent more than last year's.

Beyond that, it's great to see actual evidence that it's possible to have enormous success the right way, the so-called "Butler Way." The team's head coach, Brad Stevens, is only 33. Like the two Butler coaches who preceded him, he was groomed from within the program. He has a way of keeping things in perspective: "Whatever happens on the basketball court, we don't want it to be the highlight of your life."

Indeed, the "Butler Way" transcends just tenacity on defense - that bulldog mascot is about right - and an unrelenting focus on fundamentals like rebounding. On game day, many of Butler's players went to class. To be sure, the site of the Final Four being only six miles away from campus made that physically possible, but it still says something positive about priorities. Ninety percent of the team's players graduate (the same is true at Duke). Few worry about a player giving an embarrassing interview on national TV. Two of Butler's best players were academic all-Americans this past year.

There is no special dorm for athletes at Butler, not even a dedicated practice facility. Duke's basketball program spends more per player than Butler spends on its entire team. Yet the school still managed to recruit players of a quality and character necessary to make this March Madness run possible. Two-thirds of the 15-member squad hail from Indiana.

Meanwhile, Butler plays the best possible competition so they know how good they have to be to get where they want to go. The Bulldogs had the fifth toughest non-conference schedule in the country this past season. Stevens and those who came before him have constructed not just a team but a program. The three top players will be back next year, as will most of its core rotation.

Had Butler won, it would have been the smallest school to win the national title - with just under 4,000 undergraduates - since Holy Cross in 1947. (Bradley enrolls some 5,300.)

Absolutely Butler's success has implications for BU and other places like it. Certainly it proves great things are possible, and that you don't have to cut corners to make them happen. It's OK to have high expectations, we dare say mandatory. The sky is the limit. We'd bet more than a few are saying today, "If Butler can, why can't we?" Young people, including athletes, choose colleges for all sorts of reasons. The right fit is critical. It's important that teens know they're not settling for less just because they choose a school that's not on ESPN every night. Sometimes they're reaching for more.

And a nation of mid-majors owe Butler some thanks for showing them how again.

Journal Star