Butler U. Keeps Its Head, Even in the Spotlight

April 05, 2010

When Butler University defeated Kansas State to advance to the Final Four last month, thousands of students flooded the university's grassy mall and surrounded Bobby Fong, the university's president. A group of football players, concerned that the trim president would be knocked over by the boisterous crowd, promptly hoisted him into the air.

"Three players got behind me," Mr. Fong recalled in an interview. "A fourth said, 'On my shoulders, Dr. Fong,' and all of a sudden I was crowd-surfing. I call it my Peyton Manning moment. Somebody had my blind side."

Mr. Fong was covered that night. But in the nine days since then, Butler has been caught pleasantly off guard by the attention sparked by the success of its men's basketball team, the darling of this year's NCAA tournament. The university, with around 4,000 students, is among the smallest institutions ever to play for a national championship—and to suddenly be center stage, university officials and students have found, has been quite the surreal experience.

On Friday night here, after the men's basketball team finished eating at a corner table in an Italian restaurant downtown, they filed through the packed eatery to loud applause. "A month ago, we could go out to a restaurant and nobody would say anything to us. Today, we can't go out without getting stopped, taking pictures and signing autographs," Gordon Hayward, the Bulldogs' star player, told reporters on Sunday.

His take on the newfound fame? "My life is no different. I still go to school at Butler, still have the same friends and hang out with them all the time."

It's a familiar refrain these days as Butler gets a taste of the big time. While lapping up the attention, the Bulldogs are also exhibiting fierce pride in the fact that they do things differently than do most of their peers in the tournament.

Butler's athletics department, for one thing, has a budget of $11-million—far less than most Division I programs. (The athletics budget at Duke University, Butler's opponent in the championship, is $71-million.) The men's basketball program at Butler graduates 90 percent of its athletes. Athletes sleep in the same dormitories and eat in the same dining halls as other students, and their athletics facilities are modest.

On Saturday afternoon, leading up to the semifinal game against Michigan State, the university's manicured campus six miles north of downtown was abuzz with nervous excitement. Students clad in navy-blue T-shirts and beads lined up to board orange school buses that would ferry them to the festivities downtown.

Butler went on to defeat Michigan State, 52 to 50, before a deafening crowd of 71,000. And the fans in blue were on their feet till the final second.

'The Butler Way'

In the midst of the thrills, there has been a significant effort to maintain some semblance of normalcy—not least for Butler's basketball players.

At a news conference on Sunday, a reporter asked two players how they felt about possibly having to go to class on Monday, the day of the championship game. Butler's head coach, Brad Stevens, who famously required his players to still attend class last week, answered first.

"They don't have a choice how they feel about it," he said.

Said Mr. Hayward, who has four classes on Monday: "If he wants us to go, we'll go."

The no-nonsense approach trickles down from the top. Mr. Fong, a slight, bespectacled man with a warm, polite manner, speaks often about the "Butler way": Togetherness. Equal attention to academics and athletics. And, though he doesn't quite phrase it this way, an obligation to keep cool.

So the president fittingly takes the long view when it comes to the coaching carousel, one of the most contentious flash points in Division I sports. How will a university that can't—or won't—pony up a multimillion-dollar salary hold onto its star coach?

"We believe the Butler way is larger than any one coach," Mr. Fong said. "There will be no one person that will make or break a program or make or break a university. What we do best is be a chapter in a larger chronicle. And we're writing a pretty good chapter right now."

All the same, Mr. Fong and others acknowledge that Butler is entering uncharted territory. Mike Krzyzewski, Duke's head coach, told reporters he had given Mr. Stevens a heads-up of what's to come.

"I said, 'You'll be shocked at how much your school will change as a result of what you and your kids have done,'" Mr. Krzyzewski recalled saying to the younger coach.

Already a Surge of Interest

In Butler's admissions office, where officials are already in the thick of the busiest season, there has already been a glimpse of what's ahead.

"It's been surreal," said Tom Weede, the university's vice-president for enrollment, in an interview Sunday. "You cannot be ready for something like this." In a typical year, the university receives around 15 inquiries each day on its admissions Web site, Mr. Weede said. The day after the Kansas State win, it received 300. In the week that followed, the site crashed twice because of heavy traffic.

Mr. Weede says he is unsure of how this year's success will affect the size of next year's freshman class.

"Yield is always one of those guessing games. But students are pretty smart," Mr. Weede said. "They're looking for schools that have the major they're looking for, the location, the size. They don't just enroll because we have a good basketball team."

For now, Butler is savoring its moment in the spotlight.

When Mr. Fong got home late Saturday night after the Bulldogs' win in the semifinals, he checked in with his chief of security to make sure all was well on the campus. After the buzzer, several thousand people had streamed out of a viewing party at Hinkle Fieldhouse to revel on a blocked-off street. Everything was under control.

But there was one more thing, the police chief told the crowd-surfing president, who says he's open to the possibility of another ride if Butler wins Monday night. "They were looking for you."