HOUSTON — The Connecticut Huskies will take the court at Reliant Stadium for Monday’s NCAA championship game with a Hall of Fame coach in Jim Calhoun, a surefire first-round NBA draft pick in Kemba Walker and two national titles.
The Butler Bulldogs, champion of underdogs everywhere, will counter with something more abstract: a defining principle.
It’s called “the Butler Way,” and it has served as the mission statement for the basketball team that has been the pride of the small university in Indianapolis for decades — informing the type of players Butler recruits, the way the Bulldogs practice and interact on and off the court and, ultimately, the way they play the game.
Monday, that guiding principle may prove as valuable against the favored Huskies as any single player on Butler’s roster.
The Butler Way is rooted in five principles: humility, passion, unity, servanthood and thankfulness. It’s as familiar to Butler’s players, and anyone connected with the Bulldogs basketball team, as strains of “The Victors” are to any rabid Michigan football fan.
“The minute I walked into the locker room, Coach [Brad Stevens] sat me down and talked about it,” said 19-year-old Michael Burke, a freshman manager for the team from McMinnville, Ore. “It represents doing the right thing all the time, putting the team first and not striving for individual success. It’s a culture. And it’s not just something we talk about; we embrace it. Even for someone like me — a manager — I’m part of the Butler Way.”
Slogans, of course, have no more to do with athletic success than fight songs or face paint. But in the case of Butler, players insist there’s a direct link between the Butler Way and victory on the court.
After last year’s loss to Duke in the NCAA title game, Butler wasn’t expected to advance particularly far in the tournament this year after losing its star player, Gordon Hayward, to the NBA.
But the Bulldogs, seeded eighth in the Southeast Region, have fought back from first-half deficits in three of their five tournament games to date, toppling top-seeded Pittsburgh, 71-70, on a game-winning free throw with less than one second remaining and vanquishing second-seeded Florida in overtime to advance to the Final Four.
Through it all, Butler’s players have maintained uncommon poise on court. The Bulldogs don’t panic in the waning minutes of a game. They respond to late-game leads and deficits with the same effort, just as they approach top-ranked opponents and Horizon League stragglers with the same respect.
“It’s not rocket science,” said Stevens, Butler’s 34-year-old coach who has the old-school mentality of someone much more advanced in age. “It begins with selflessness. Certainly, accountability is very important. Humility is very important.”
Butler’s players talk about the principles daily, they say. Their locker room is adorned with posters underscoring their core values.
Stevens didn’t coin the Butler Way but rather was entrusted with it when he was promoted to head coach in 2007. A former employee at pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly who quit his job to assume the lowest rung on Butler’s staff of assistants, he views it as perfectly logical — if not essential — that a basketball team be grounded in an ethic.
“It’s a values-based organization driven by a mission and a vision, like every other business in the world or every other collective group in the world,” Stevens said of Butler’s squad. “It’s hard to do, easy to talk about.”
Stevens starts talking about it even before prospective Bulldogs matriculate.
“When we have a recruit on campus, first thing I share is our core values,” Stevens said Sunday. “And then I share what we want from a prospect, whether it be a highly competitive student, ambitious person, a person who represents his high school well, his community well. They know that before we [talk about] what Butler has to offer. Some people hear it, some people don’t. But it’s kind of an opportunity for me to say, ‘Here’s what’s important to us.’ ”
It was important to Matt Howard when the prep standout from Connersville, Ind., was weighing his college decision.
“That’s one of the things I really liked about Butler — the way they approach things, the team’s selfless attitude, and accountability for your actions,” said Howard, Butler’s 6-foot-8 senior forward who hit the game-winners against Old Dominion and Pittsburgh in the tournament’s first two rounds.
“Those are a few of the values that really shape what we talk about and what we have on the walls in our locker room: passion for your teammates, being a servant. It’s a core value to becoming a great team and something we try to live by every day.”