Butler’s Bannister chose to chase an impossible dream

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Butler University can thank one man for its trip to the Final Four this year.

No, not Coach Brad Stevens.

Not former Butler coach turned Athletics Director Barry Collier.

Not even Butler President Bobby Fong can take credit for launching the initiative that gave birth to what now stands as a model basketball program for small schools coast-to-coast.

That honor, according to long-time Butler supporters and trustees, goes to Geoffrey Bannister, who served as Butler president from 1988 to 2000.

The long-forgotten Bannister (at least by casual observers. Actually, casual observers may have never heard of him) was the man who first came up with the idea to turn Butler’s static hoops program into a national contender. He wanted to hire a stellar coach and recruit top players. He wanted to pursue not only Horizon League (MCC before that) titles, but compete nationally.

Former Butler trustees admitted the latter sounded a bit preposterous in 1988, but no one dare scoff at the persuasive Bannister. Remember, this period was a long way from Butler's salad days. The team was 11-17 during the 1988-89 season, Bannister's first year. And was a woeful 6-22 in 1989-90, Collier's first year.

Collier began to turn the program around, but it took time to gain much of a fan following. During the 1995-96 season, the Bulldogs drew only 43,120 ticket-buying spectators to 12 home games, averaging 3,593 paying fans per Hinkle Fieldhouse outing. The team that year compiled a 19-8 record, but against mostly second-tier teams. It was a huge coup to get Purdue or Indiana on the schedule.

Bannister persisted in his vision that if Butler's basketball program could continue to be seen in a better light, the entire university would shine brighter.

“Fundamentally, the decision to pursue excellence in basketball was a marketing decision, and Geoff Bannister carried the flag on this,” said Tom King, a 1966 Butler graduate who served on the university’s board of trustees for 24 years from the late 1970s through the 1990s.

The trustees quickly embraced Bannister’s vision, King said.

“There was no real dissidence to the plan,” King said. “I mean, you’re in Indiana, for God’s sake, the heart of basketball country. There was a proper amount of investigation and due diligence, healthy questioning. But it was so authentic. It was seen as an ideal way to distinguish this small school.”

It didn’t all go as planned. The original plan hatched by Bannister and the trustees was to have Hinkle Fieldhouse sold out (about 10,000 tickets) within five years.

Bannister moved to replace coach Joe Sexson with Collier. Following the 1999-2000 season, Collier departed for Nebraska and was replaced by Thad Matta, who coached one year before leaving for Xavier. Todd Lickliter coached Butler for six seasons before departing for Iowa and giving way to Stevens.

Along the way, Butler leaders realized they couldn’t keep bigger schools from mining their young coaching gems. They also realized attracting sellout crowds in Indianapolis' crowded sports-scape is easier said than done.

Despite a team that was ranked 10th in the preseason polls, Butler only averaged 6,953 in attendance this year. But the Bulldogs are at last on their way to reaching Bannister’s vision. Attendance is way up even over last year, when the team had a home attendance average of 5,516.

Butler officials said interest in season ticket sales has intensified during this year’s run to the Final Four, and they said bumping attendance to 8,000 per game is not unrealistic next season.

As for the marketing scheme, King said it couldn’t be going better. When Butler made the Sweet 16 in 2003 and 2007, enrollment applications went up 20 percent, and school officials think applications could increase more than 30 percent after this year’s run.

“What better way to position Butler than to make it to the Final Four with two academic All-Americans and a total team GPA higher than 3.0.”

Butler has indeed crashed the big dance.

And the school is leaving an indelible mark.

A mark that has roots tracing back to a visionary president and supportive group of trustees who chose to chase an impossible dream.

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