BENNER: Butler players succeed at more than winning games

April 2, 2011

The best part of this Butler University run to another Final Four isn’t that the Bulldogs put themselves in position for a second straight year to win a national championship.

It’s that they already have won one. Well, kinda, sorta. It doesn’t count, though perhaps it should.

In mid-March, right after the brackets were revealed, a publication called Inside Higher Ed advanced teams in the tournament according to the NCAA’s Academic Performance Rate figures.

Under that formula, Butler was declared national champion.

No surprise to those of us locally. Butler’s players aren’t just passing through while they play college basketball. They are making progress toward legitimate degrees they will earn.

The team’s collective grade point average is well above a 3.0 (B average) at an academically demanding university.

The Bulldogs’ free-spirited spiritual leader, Matt Howard, has been named Academic All-American of the year for all of Division I basketball. Howard has a 3.77 GPA with a major in finance. Teammate Zach Hahn is all-district all-academic.

During the past few weeks, I have observed the Butler student-athletes—emphasis on student—doing dozens of interviews.

In formal sessions, they don’t slouch on the dais. They don’t mumble. They make eye contact with their questioners and engage them directly. Their use of the language is (mostly) spot on. Some, like Howard and guard Ronald Nored, are more outgoing and conversational than others, but that is more personality-driven than anything.

In short, they present themselves as bright, articulate young men who leave you firmly convinced that basketball will not have to be their meal ticket to successful careers.

It’s part of what makes Butler Butler. Basketball has been the spotlight that has reflected on the university’s other values and the fact that the school in general—and coach Brad Stevens’ basketball program in particular—will not sacrifice one for the other.

The recurring theme of feedback Butler received after last year’s Final Four wasn’t the basketball success, but praise that the players attended class on the day of the national championship game.

All of this is why I continue to believe, perhaps naively, that Stevens is more wed to values than victories and that he may be one of the few not to chase the lure of bigger money and brighter lights. The locker room and the coaches’ offices may be small, but the thought of going to work each day at Hinkle Fieldhouse, with the kinds of young men Stevens gets to interact with, has to be worth something more than a larger vault.

At New Orleans, a reporter said to Stevens, “People say you’re crazy for staying. Why don’t you leave and go to the bigger programs?”

“It’s not like I’m a guy who thinks the grass is greener somewhere else just because everybody says it’s supposed to be,” Stevens replied. “I think we are very fortunate to have really green grass in Indianapolis and at Butler University.

“Thus far, it’s just been an unbelievable run. Butler is a great place and Indianapolis is a great place, but what’s separated it for me is the people. My boss (Athletics Director Barry Collier), the players, the coaching staff, and all those people have made it just a great place to be.”

People. Relationships. Values. Do they count for anything? It seems, at Butler, they do. Stevens repeatedly has said he won’t stray from recruiting players who fit into “the Butler Way.”

Would he surrender those values at a so-called “big-time” program in order to compete at what is perceived to be a higher level than Butler’s? I have spent a lot of time around the guy, and I don’t think so. Are there institutions where values and competitive success are compatible? The answer is yes, I’m thankful, and Butler now has risen nearly to the top of that list.

It has been wonderful to witness, this notion of values and victories as one. I also believe that—outside the realm of some of the so-called “power” programs and the media-focused sports of football and men’s basketball—Butler, while exceptional, is not the exception.

It’s why I can look beyond the scandal-driven headlines and cynicism and still feel heartened by the enterprise. Not easy, but doable.•


Benner is senior associate commissioner for external affairs for the Horizon League college athletic conference and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at bbenner@ibj.com. He also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.


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