Monday, December 6, 2010

What We Can Learn From The Butler Way

By now, everyone knows about Butler. The school's 2009-10 season inspired countless articles and blog posts, a book, and even all-access features by ESPN usually reserved for the blue bloods. Gordon Hayward's last shot in the national championship game has its own Sports Science episode. The word is out there, and the words haven't stopped. Last weekend, Butler played Duke in a rematch of last year's grand finale, which inspired loads of feature stories, Tweets, and commentary from the national media. It was clear that even though this year's Butler team had a different make-up, their story was still worth telling.

The way Butler goes about its business - The Butler Way, as it has been termed - is unique. Butler plays a magnificent brand of basketball which has been employed to beat the biggest of opponents despite a steep talent differential. Seeing it up close and personal, as I did just a few weeks ago, cements that concept. But perhaps the most alluring thing about The Butler Way isn't what happens on the court, but that which occurs around it.
As a fan of Oakland basketball and the university, I was interested to experience The Butler Way firsthand to see how they had done it and how it differed from OU. I quickly found out Oakland basketball is not heading in a direction to be like Butler basketball. Even though "the next Butler" might replace "the next Gonzaga" in the mid-major lexicon, I'm not sure any program out there can be like Butler. That becomes apparent when you visit the Butler campus, nestled in a peaceful neighborhood of Indianapolis, and its historic arena, Hinkle Fieldhouse. There is just too much tradition there to be replicated overnight. But mid-major programs like Oakland can still learn a bit from The Butler Way.

I voyaged to Hinkle Fieldhouse as a part of a mini-hoops road trip which also took a friend and I to a game at Assembly Hall in Bloomington, Indiana, and the Oakland-Purdue match in West Lafayette. The Oakland game was obviously the most anticipated of the three, yet the experience at Hinkle continues to stand out as the most memorable from that weekend. After parking on a neighborhood side street, the first thing that struck me as we made our walk to Hinkle was the sheer number of people who were doing the same. It seemed as if though every street was pouring folks clad in Butler Blue toward the fieldhouse for the afternoon basketball match. Butler basketball was an event. It was worth taking a few hours out of your day off to see something special transpire on the court (as the Butler basketball team rarely let folks down). Most importantly, it was something to do with your friends, family, kids, or whoever else desired to see such an event.

These fans weren't there because of the Final Four appearance. You got the sense the gray-haired man in the Butler sweater had been doing this for most of his adult life, and that he was grooming the 10-year old grandkid following him around to continue to do so for most of his own. There were young families, maybe folks who were new to Indianapolis, who had bought-in at some point. Drifting around the campus a few hours before the game, the few scattered student present were wearing their DAWG POUND shirts, presumably readying themselves for their student section duties that afternoon. And in the neighborhoods surrounding Hinkle, homes had Bulldogs banners hanging outside. There was even a vehicle driving by with one of those flapping car flags emblazoned with the Butler Bulldog!

All of this was for a tiny school in a city with three universities, an NBA franchise, and a perennial powerhouse in the NFL in a state with one of the most storied college football schools and one of the tradition-rich college basketball powers. Sitting there in Hinkle, I wondered how Butler basketball was able to rise above all of these competing sports interests to form the community it had. How was this team this important to this many people?

The answer to that question is complicated. A big factor is time, of which Butler has had a lot of to build a winning program and, perhaps just as importantly, a larger base of alumni and supporters. But I think another component is the character of the program. The players are touted as good students, the coach is incredibly likable, and the fans are great. The latter group is cordial, encouraging, and seemingly grateful for what they have. They want their team to win, of course, but it's almost as if the complete experience of attending the games and cheering the Bulldogs is the means of their fandom. At less lucky or more entitled schools, fandom is an end only achieved if the team is winning games. At Butler, you get the sense this will go on forever.

Oakland faces a lot of the same struggles that Butler has faced and maybe even more. After all, metro-Detroit also has an NHL franchise and loads of alumni from the state's two biggest schools which have both storied college football and basketball programs. Still, Butler has managed to build a supportive community of fans among the diverse subsets - students, faculty, alumni, and community members at-large. They can fill Hinkle Fieldhouse to the rafters, making Butler basketball an event. And it's not just an event that you show up to. No, you come fully decked out in your Butler Blue apparel or whatever you can manage to show you are rooting for the home team.

Over the past few years, Oakland basketball has been building to the point of becoming an event in the Rochester area. I was fortunate enough to be a student during this time period that featured growing crowds and, yes, a lot of winning. I'm bought in, probably for life. And my extended family has bought in, too. This trend among young alumni will surely continue to grow as students graduate from the active Grizz Gang to the Gold Zone. But where Oakland can really learn from Butler is in activating those at-large community members, the folks with no real connection to the school other than location. Mid-major basketball isn't the easiest sell in the world to a casual observer, but Oakland's basketball product is rather marketable. It just needs to be marketed.

That last statement isn't a condemnation of the university's efforts to promote Oakland basketball as much as it is a reminder that there can always be improvement. It's not just on the university, it also requires cooperation from the media, both print and television (and Oakland should have a great opportunity to sell itself on Saturday against Michigan State at The Palace). But the biggest effort can be made at the grassroots level by us as fans. As Coach Kampe noted after a recent game, we've got to spread the word about Oakland basketball. We can tell everyone we know to watch the team on Fox Sports Detroit this Saturday, and if they like what they see, we can bring them to the O'Rena later this month. I've been to Butler and seen what that atmosphere is like, and it's chilling. I believe Oakland's fanbase can get to the point where Golden Grizzlies basketball is an event and the atmosphere is consistently chilling. We each just have to do what we can to help it get to that point.


  1. I think the next logical step is for Oakland to make a run in the Tourney. It's an unfortunate and somewhat necessary evil that winning breeds interest. Winning gets you noticed. And on the mid-major stage you make your money in the NCAA's.

    If you build it they will come. OU and Kampe have built the house, they just need to finish that driveway and there's no telling what could happen from there.

  2. I agree with Ryan.

    In addition, the local community is going to be a tough nut to crack. OU's relationship with Rochester/Rochester Hills/Auburn Hills and beyond has been rather ad hoc for too long. I have only recently seen actual efforts to reverse what might be considered a 40-year stagnation.

    Despite our slow start, I am optimistic about OU's future.

  3. Last year I gained a level of respect for Butler that I probably will never lose. What they managed to do with who they were and who they had is something that any mid-major can look up to.

    I remember nervously watching that championship game and being heartbroken when they fell in the final seconds. I can honestly say I was 10 times more upset watching that loss then watching OU lose to Pitt.

    Every mid-major owes Butler a huge 'thank you' for what they have done not just last year, but the last few years, to legitimize mid-majors.

    On that note, I will be attending the Butler vs U of D game in January, sporting my Butler Bulldogs Final Four (wish it was a national champions) shirt.