Butler, the small school with big aspirations, keeps on winning

Coach Brad Stevens has a 56-10 record with two NCAA tournament appearances in his first two seasons at Butler.
Coach Brad Stevens has a 56-10 record with two NCAA tournament appearances in his first two seasons at Butler. (Darron Cummings/associated Press)
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By Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The upgrades have come slowly to Butler's 71-year-old Hinkle Fieldhouse, and not all have been embraced by a coaching staff that believes a solid foundation has little need for improvement.

Take the new scoreboard that was unveiled during former coach Todd Lickliter's tenure, which for the first time listed individual players' points and fouls.

According to David Woods, who as a journalist and author has chronicled the Butler men's basketball team's improbable success, Lickliter balked at the idea because it was diametrically opposed to what's known as "The Butler Way" -- five principles intended to serve as guideposts for life as well as sport. Attributed to Tony Hinkle, the coach for whom Butler's storied arena is named, they are humility, passion, unity, servanthood and thankfulness.

More than any single player or coach, "The Butler Way" is credited with catapulting Butler from plucky mid-major to national contender in recent years. And it was paid homage by the 1986 movie "Hoosiers," which was inspired by tiny Milan High School's 1954 Indiana state championship and filmed partly at Hinkle Fieldhouse.

Ever since, Butler has been regarded as a modern-day Milan, with its victories over national powers cast as David-vs.-Goliath triumphs.

All of this forms the powerful mythology that No. 15 Georgetown (6-0) will tackle Tuesday in facing its first ranked opponent of the season -- No. 22 Butler (6-2) -- in the Jimmy V Classic at Madison Square Garden in New York.

After three seasons of sustained excellence capped by NCAA tournament appearances, Butler has arguably outgrown the label of upstart mid-major. But for many pundits, the Butler-as-Cinderella story line is too compelling to revise, particularly with the current college basketball season culminating with a Final Four in Indianapolis. The prospect of a local underdog contending for the NCAA championship is simply irresistible.

Georgetown Coach John Thompson III says he has seen too much of Butler on television and videotape to make the mistake of underestimating them. Moreover, Thompson argues that "mid-major" labels are overused and irrelevant.

"Maybe they're still a [media] darling," Thompson said of Butler. "But I don't think anybody looks at them as Cinderella. The world knows they're a damn good basketball team and not the uninvited ones to the ball."

Like Georgetown, Butler is a relatively small, urban university with no big-time football program to bankroll its athletic department. Its teams also have a bulldog mascot. But Georgetown boasts the more decorated basketball pedigree, as well as an undergraduate enrollment nearly twice the size (about 7,000 to Butler's 3,897) and an endowment nearly six times richer ($833 million to Butler's $140 million).

While Hinkle Fieldhouse won't play a role in Tuesday's first meeting between the schools, it reveals much about Butler, which has largely sat out the athletic department arms race.

In lieu of luxury suites, Hinkle Fieldhouse has windows near the ceiling that make it feel like a basketball cathedral when the sunlight streams in at daybreak, right about the time Coach Brad Stevens's 6:15 a.m. practices begin.

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