It’s the outlier in the South Regional, not that Butler can ever again be a true outlier. It’s the one team here that hadn’t won a national title or, more precisely, at least five national titles. But the Bulldogs did play for the NCAA championship twice, and in 2010 against Duke they were within Gordon Hayward’s banked 45-footer from authoring the greatest upset on the greatest shot in basketball history.
And yet: Proud Butler, which has moved up to the Big East and is a mid-major no longer, isn’t above feeling slighted. Last week some TV analysts dared to suggest that Middle Tennessee State — a mid-major, though a very good one — would upset the Bulldogs in Round 2. “You didn’t have to look hard to see people picking Middle,” coach Chris Holtmann said Thursday, a day before his team was to play North Carolina. “It did bother me because I felt like in a lot of ways our players weren’t getting the credit they deserve.”
Butler often appears meek — the doe-eyed Brad Stevens, gone to coach the Boston Celtics, remains the program avatar — but it takes, to borrow from Merle Haggard, a lot of pride in what it is. It’s a school that wins big without stockpiling McDonald’s All-Americans. It’s a mid-major that dared to get bigger while staying really good. The others gathered at FedExForum are Carolina, Kentucky and UCLA, which are among the first five names you think of when you think of college hoops. But Butler has become one of the first 10.
Much of that has to do with Stevens, who led the Bulldogs to those title games, but Butler started making the NCAA tournament in the late 1990s under Barry Collier, now the school’s athletic director. It made noise under Thad Matta, who left for Xavier. It crashed the Sweet 16 under Todd Lickliter, who left for Iowa. Stevens was promoted to replace Lickliter. When Stevens left for the Celtics in July 2013, his assistant Brandon Miller — who made the shot against fifth-seeded Mississippi State in March 2003 that yielded Butler’s first signature upset — was named as successor.
Butler went 14-17 in Miller’s one season. He took a leave of absence for undisclosed medical reasons in October 2014. He hasn’t coached again. (Neither has he given an interview.) Holtmann, who’d left a job as Gardner-Webb’s head coach to become Miller’s assistant, was named interim coach and then, in January 2015, the permanent one. Today he’s a guy everyone mentions when a Power Five job comes open.
Of Butler, Holtmann said: “I knew it was a resilient program, but I’ve learned that even more now. I’ve learned how incredible this community of Butler basketball is. Those that know us know that we went through some tough stretches. After we had some early NBA entrants in Gordon Hayward and (former Hawk) Shelvin Mack, we didn’t get to the NCAA tournament in 2012, and then we didn’t get to the NCAA tournament in 2014, our first year in the Big East, and we had a losing season for the first time in (nine) years.”
Then: “There were a number of people who were questioning, ‘Was the move to the Big East a good one? Was it the right one? Was it timely?’ As we went into our interim situation in 2015, we weren’t expected to be in the tournament that year. (The Bulldogs made it as a No. 6 seed.) So there were some really tough moments. What came out of that was a reminder to me that the core values and core principles that have helped Butler achieve success — that my athletic director Barry Collier began to implement 20, 25 years ago – have allowed us to be resilient and tough and come out of some tough stretches.”
Butler folks speak of “The Butler Way,” which can sound corny until you’ve been around them. Those “tough stretches” Holtmann mentioned? They didn’t just involve an overtime loss to Notre Dame in the Big Dance. In January 2016, Andrew Smith — who started at center in the 2011 NCAA final against UConn — died at 25 of cancer. His wife, Samantha, chronicled their struggle in wrenching detail on her weblog. Stevens gave the eulogy at his funeral.
Seven months later, Joel Cornette — the center on the Butler team that stunned Mississippi State and then Louisville in 2003 — died at 35 of coronary artery disease. His memorial service was held at Hinkle Fieldhouse, the gym once known as the site of Bobby Plump’s shot for tiny Milan High against Muncie Central in the 1954 Indiana state final, a game that would become the template for the movie “Hoosiers,” but now famous for being the home of The Butler Way.
After his Bulldogs beat fancied-by-some Middle Tennessee in Round 2, Holtmann told the media: “As the late Joel Cornette said, ‘We’re still here.’”
Yep. It’s March. As ever, here’s Butler, which has, in its understated way, become a blue blood itself.