Tiny Butler’s NCAA tournament success provided a bounce beyond basketball

March 20, 2013

When Butler University made it to the finals of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament in 2010 — and again in 2011 — it was the smallest school to do so in the history of the modern tournament, prompting swarms of people to Google “Where is Butler?”

The Butler Bulldogs lost both marquee games, but experts estimate that the television exposure and media mentions were worth at least $1 billion to the small, private school here. Butler T-shirt sales skyrocketed, the school Web site had record traffic, and applications for admission increased 40 percent. Suddenly, Butler had more students from out of state than from Indiana — along with a nationally known name.

With the announcement Wednesday that the school will join the new Big East Conference this summer, Butler now will regularly be on the same court as basketball and academic powerhouses such as Georgetown University. This week the Bulldogs head into March Madness for the sixth time in seven years, A No. 6 seed, they are slated to play Bucknell on Thursday with hopes of making it to D.C. for the East Regionals.

Butler officials are thrilled with the recognition and hope that the conference change — along with a lucrative television deal — will transform the university, further building its national reputation. But there also are worries about the rapid growth and what it could mean for a school that had existed in near obscurity for more than 150 years.

“I worry that it’s a dance with the devil,” said Margaret Brabant, a political science professor who is chairwoman of the Butler faculty senate. “It’s multimillions of dollars, and money changes people. And if we don’t remain vigilant and ask questions, we will go the way of other institutions.”

Since the 2001 NCAA tournament, Butler has translated basketball success into greater visibility outside its home state of Indiana.

Many students say they were attracted by Butler’s small and quiet campus, tucked away in a historic, upscale neighborhood in north Indianapolis. Classes typically have fewer than 20 students, and most professors prioritize teaching over research. Star basketball players study, sleep and eat in the same places as non-athletes. On a recent tour, the student guide pitched Butler as being “a small campus with a big-campus feel.”

Recently, the boom in interest has caused a capacity squeeze; the number of undergraduates has grown about 8 percent in five years. The residence halls, university-run apartments and Greek houses are packed, with students sometimes living three to a room or in converted lounges. Parking is scarce. The university has struggled to staff all of its introductory courses without increasing class sizes.

“Right now it’s about perfect,” said Carley Thompson, 20, a sophomore pharmacy major. “I don’t want that to change.”

Right now, Butler operates much like a traditional liberal arts school. Its endowment sits at about $150 million, and it is highly dependent on tuition, making it one of the most expensive universities in Indiana, with graduates who have higher-than-average debt. There are only about 500 graduate students, and nearly all of its 4,200 undergraduates are younger than 24 and enrolled full time. More than 80 percent of the student body is white.

Though Butler continues to improve its academic reputation, it is not included in U.S. News and World Report’s latest national college rankings, but it does rank second on a regional U.S. News list of top Midwestern schools. (By comparison, Georgetown is ranked No. 21 on the overall national list, has more than 17,000 students and boasts a $1 billion endowment.)

Leading the change is Butler’s president of 19 months, James M. Danko, the former dean of the Villanova University business school. Like a growing number of presidents, Danko followed a nontraditional path. He ran a medical supply company for nearly 20 years, earned an MBA at the University of Michigan and then jumped into the world of academia.

Danko’s vision for Butler: Hire a vice president for marketing to pinpoint the “Butler brand” and then promote it. Launch an aggressive fundraising campaign to expand the endowment fivefold, to $750 million, in the next 12 years. Continue to offer the “luxury” of a traditional, four-year residential education, but also expand graduate program offerings, certificate programs and online education. And expand the “undergraduate market” to more than 5,000 in the coming years.

“We’ve got an unprecedented opportunity to move beyond what was once a local university, then regional, to more national prominence,” Danko said. “And we need to move aggressively on that.”

Basketball strategy

When Butler made it to the Final Four in 2010, it played the games at Lucas Oil Stadium in downtown Indianapolis, Butler’s back yard. That meant players could attend class on the same day as the biggest game in the school’s history — a feat captured by many of the reporters who descended on campus.

“The take-away has been, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s the place where the guys went to class,’ ” said Tom Weede, the vice president for enrollment management. “We couldn’t have planned it that perfectly.”

For more than a decade, Butler officials have invested strategically in the basketball program. That has paid off with 10 trips to the national tournament between 1997 and 2011, with back-to-back appearances in the championship game that busted brackets across the country.

Butler’s March Madness fame immediately provided results. Applications to Butler increased from 6,760 before its first Final Four victory to 9,522 afterward. Last year it was 9,683, and this year was in the same range, Weede said.

The history of March Madness includes many tales of relatively unknown schools with coaches on modest salaries doing well in the tournament and earning national attention, including Final Four appearances by George Mason University in 2006 and Virginia Commonwealth University in 2011.

In 1999, Gonzaga University in Washington state made it to the national tournament’s Elite Eight round, where it lost to the University of Connecticut, which went on to win the tournament. Gonzaga invested heavily in the basketball program, including recruiting top talent and building a new $23 million arena at a time of tight resources. This week, Gonzaga is making its 15th consecutive trip to the big dance. Though Gonzaga has yet to again make it as far as the Elite Eight, this year it is a No. 1 seed.

“The fact that we’ve been consistently in the brackets, now for 15 years, has really served us well,” said Gonzaga President Thayne M. McCulloh. “The real power of this is that it gives us a chance to say, ‘Hey, as long as your eye is on us, let’s throw you a little factoid.’ ”

The costs of success

Doing well at the tournament more than once can create an expectation that the team will continue to succeed. That can lead to spending more and more money on coaching salaries and facilities — or easing admission requirements for major recruits. It also thrusts tiny schools such as Butler into a megamillions race against perennial — and far wealthier — competitors.

Butler has nearly completed a $16 million fundraising campaign for the renovation of Hinkle Fieldhouse, an iconic shrine to basketball that towers over the campus and was made famous by the 1986 movie “Hoosiers.” The project will add more-comfortable seating for fans, a new scoreboard with more space for advertisements and more office space for coaches and administrators.

After Butler’s first Final Four win in 2010, Coach Brad Stevens began to receive offers from larger programs. He instead signed a 12-year contract with Butler. Stevens, 36, started at Butler as a volunteer coach in 2000, having quit a corporate marketing job, and became head coach in April 2007.

Stevens was paid more than $850,000 in 2010, according to the university’s latest public tax documents. By comparison, Georgetown’s John Thompson III made at least $2.2 million and the University of Kentucky’s John Calipari made at least $3.8 million.

Butler basketball has one of the highest player graduation rates in the country and for seven years has had a player named an academic all-American.

“I really try to emphasize: Don’t choose us because we’re on TV. Don’t choose here because you want the glory of what the past has experienced,” Stevens said of his recruiting efforts. “Choose it because it’s the right place for you to ultimately better yourself.”

The program has slowly begun to recruit outside the Midwest. An incoming class of recruits includes players from Rhode Island, Massachusetts and California.

Even before the Big East move was formally announced, Butler professors and students were dreaming about how to spend the new millions the school expects. If nothing else, they say, the money could allow the athletics department to more fully support itself, freeing up other funds for academics.

“There will be more costs,” Danko said, speaking on a cellphone as he boarded a plane after the Big East announcement in New York on Wednesday. “We will need to spend more on travel and things like that. There are more costs.”

Jenna Johnson writes about Maryland politics, including the General Assembly, the administration of Gov. Martin O'Malley and the 2014 election.
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