Derek Schultz: Nick Gardner has had front-row seats to Butler’s rise

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Pulling up a chair to press row on another January night at Hinkle Fieldhouse, things seem routine for Nick Gardner. Forget that the opponent is defending champion and top-five-ranked Connecticut, and ignore the Fox Sports cameras, robust media contingent and an even larger crowd; this is the world where Butler University men’s basketball resides.

Now in his 18th season as color commentator for Butler broadcasts, Gardner is used to visits from national powers like Connecticut or Villanova and trips to New York City, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. It’s a far cry from his days as a player, when the Bulldogs were busing to Valparaiso or to Youngstown, Ohio, squeezing out any national relevancy they could as a plucky mid-major program.

To say this eventual reality for him or his alma mater was a dream for Gardner when he first stepped on the campus in midtown Indianapolis nearly a quarter-century ago would be a lie. With only a fistful of lower-division college basketball offers in his hand, the North Central High School product was just trying to prove he belonged on the court against UW Green Bay—much less UConn.

Butler’s fledgling program was in a similar position, having made three of the last four NCAA tournaments out of the Midwestern Collegiate Conference (now known as the Horizon League), but coming up empty in the opening round each time. Following an overtime elimination by eventual runner-up Florida the previous March, the Bulldogs, too, were trying to show their worth.

In the summer of 2000, Gardner and Butler were a perfect match of underdogs.

Betting on himself

Even nearing the end of his time at North Central, Gardner was still uncertain about his future. As a key contributor on the Panthers’ 1999 state championship team, he was confident he’d have a chance to play basketball on the next level—just not the level he had envisioned.

“I had opportunities to go to a lot of the Division III schools, places like Manchester and DePauw, and I thought I could play at a better level than that,” Gardner said. “But the interest never came.”

Eventually, the idea of pursuing a walk-on opportunity at Butler arose. Gardner parlayed the many connections of his high school coach, Indiana Basketball Hall of Famer Doug Mitchell, into a meeting with Butler head coach Barry Collier. Luckily, when Collier left shortly thereafter to take the Nebraska job, it was 32-year-old Thad Matta who honored the appointment and offered Gardner a spot on the first team he ever presided over.

Challenge accepted.

“I promised myself that, if I was going to do this and put the time and effort into playing college basketball, I wanted to see if I could do it at the highest level,” Gardner said.

“It was that or forget basketball and go join a fraternity at IU and just do my own thing.”

Nick Gardner, left, played for Butler from 2000-2004 before becoming a color commentator for the university’s broadcasts 18 seasons ago. (Photo courtesy of Butler University Athletics)

Gardner’s decision immediately paid off. The 2000-2001 Bulldogs won their league’s regular season and tournament title, and ultimately ended a 38-year NCAA tournament win drought with a breakthrough opening-round victory over Wake Forest. Even after Matta jetted for Xavier, the Bulldogs’ success continued under Todd Lickliter, with another league title in 2002 followed by a memorable run to the 2003 Sweet 16, led by seniors Joel Cornette, Brandon Miller and Darnell Archey.

As a senior in 2004, Gardner ultimately ended up earning the scholarship he originally coveted and wrapped up a Butler career with a trio of league championships, postseason appearances, NCAA tournament wins, and a winning record in each of his four seasons.

Getting behind the mic

Shortly after graduation, a different kind of spot on the team opened up for Gardner. In the summer of 2006, Bulldogs play-by-play man Chris Denari departed to become the television voice of the Indiana Pacers, and Joe Gentry was hired as his replacement. In the search for Gentry’s running mate, Cornette threw Gardner’s name into the ring, his talkative friend and former teammate.

“Joe Gentry called me one morning and asked me to come down to Hinkle [Fieldhouse] that afternoon to talk about it,” remembers Gardner. “I went down and introduced myself to him. We talked for 20 minutes or so and he goes, ‘So, you want to do this?’”

Like the meeting with Matta, it ended up being a life-changer. “I got a call at 10 a.m., and by 4:00 that afternoon I had signed something,” Gardner said. “I was on board.”

The 2006-2007 season was the perfect baptism by fire for a broadcaster. In Gardner’s second and third games that season, Butler defeated Notre Dame and Indiana in front of stunned crowds at Conseco Fieldhouse. The Dawgs capped his first month on the job by blasting a ranked Tennessee team and toppling Gonzaga in the Preseason NIT Finals at Madison Square Garden. Still young and barely removed from his time as a player, Gardner was so excited that he ditched his headset to run onto the court at the Garden to sing “The Butler War Song” with the players. Rising to the top 10 of the national polls in mid-February, Butler started that season 23-2 and returned to the Sweet 16, where the team fell short against eventual national champ Florida and its stockpile of future NBA Lottery picks.

Gardner called that first season a harbinger of things to come, as the pluckiness of the Butler program of old rapidly shifted to prominence. The Bulldogs turned in the first 30-win season in program history the next year (2007-2008) after Brad Stevens’ promotion to head coach. The consecutive Final Fours in 2010 and 2011 followed, as did the rise from the Horizon League to Atlantic 10, finally culminating with the team’s invitation to the new-look Big East in 2013.

‘The constant’

Although he would never admit it, nearly a quarter-century since stepping foot on campus as a walk-on, Gardner has become synonymous with Butler men’s basketball. Through the peaks and valleys, and the seismic shifts of the college sports landscape in between, he’s been front and center for each step of the program’s tremendous growth. Along with Mark Minner, his 10-year partner and play-by-play man, the on-air duo has built a connection and chemistry that is hardly matched anywhere else in the country.

While Gardner doesn’t pretend to be a completely neutral observer—most color commentators, especially ones who happen to be alumni, aren’t—those emotions don’t overtake the broadcast. However, it’s obvious to anyone listening that the love for his Dawgs runs deep, endearing him to Butler fans everywhere.

“Nick is the connection point for so many years of Butler players and fans—he’s been the constant,” said Butler Athletic Director Barry Collier. “I don’t know anyone who loves Butler Basketball more than Nick Gardner does.”

That early January night at Indiana’s basketball cathedral, the Bulldogs gave UConn all they could handle, but ultimately fell short to the defending champion Huskies in an 88-81 defeat. Still, the novelty of these mega matchups against blueblood opponents in amped-up atmospheres never fades for the 42-year-old.

“I remember we had games we called from a flip phone because of equipment issues,” recalls Gardner during those early years. “We were taking six-hour bus rides to go play the two Wisconsin schools and sneaking in a quick meal at Wendy’s on the way over to Youngstown.”

“So, I’ve had those moments where I look around the court and it’s like, man, it isn’t Wright State anymore, that’s for sure.”

These days, big-time basketball games with Nick Gardner behind the microphone are just another night at Hinkle.•

__________

From Peyton Manning’s peak with the Colts to the Pacers’ most recent roster makeover, Schultz has talked about it all as a sports personality in Indianapolis for more than 15 years. Besides his written work with IBJ, he’s active in podcasting and show hosting. You can follow him on X, formerly Twitter, @Schultz975.

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