How Butler Won the NCAA Tournament

April 15, 2010

I am not the first university president ever to crowd-surf: Penn State's Graham Spanier was one who experienced that particular thrill before I did. But I'll tell you that my moment was one of the more exhilarating of my nine years as Butler University's president.

Our men's basketball team, the Bulldogs, had just beaten Kansas State to earn a berth in the first Final Four in Butler's history. A crowd of students began to congregate in front of our union. My wife, Suzanne, and I gave a lot of high-fives, shook hands, and posed for pictures.

The crowd began to pack together. Suddenly I found that three football players were protecting me, watching my blind side. One of them, Ryan Myers, said, "Dr. Fong, get on my shoulders." Up I went. It was my Peyton Manning moment. Cheers erupted, and I raised four fingers on each hand to signify the Final Four. People took photos of me with cellphones and cameras and forwarded them around campus and to the team. The next week, sophomore guard Ron Nored was asked what was the most unusual thing that happened as a result of the victory. He said, "Getting pictures of the president crowd-surfing."

I was touched by the joy and affection that evening, which marked the beginning of a wild 10-day ride for Butler. Our small university of 3,900 undergrads and 550 grad students found itself in the national spotlight as we basked in the reflected glory of our team's success. It was in many ways as if the institution itself had caught a wave. Preparation and opportunity came together in a remarkable confluence of circumstances. Not only were we playing in the Final Four, but we were playing at home. The games were six miles from campus, in downtown Indianapolis, and interest in our university and team grew immensely.

The public wondered about this little university playing on the national stage. They heard that our players continued to go to classes, even on the day of the national championship game, and wondered whether that could be true. (It was.) Many were curious about whether the Butler Way, as we like to call it, could be replicated.

The attention was gratifying. Butler didn't just stand as a model for small institutions being able to compete in the tournament. For many people, we exemplified how a university could seek a proper balance between academic seriousness and athletic excellence—and without breaking the bank.

Internally, we have always positioned ourselves as a university with a basketball team, rather than the other way around. We take to heart our commitment to student-athletes. The overwhelming majority of them will never play professional sports. Get an M.B.A., yes. Go to the NBA, probably not.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association estimates that only 2 percent of college basketball players go pro. I tell potential Butler basketball recruits: "Your odds of going to medical school are better than your odds of playing in the NBA. If you understand that we'll ask you to work as hard in the classroom as you will on the court, Butler may be the right fit for you."

We keep in sight what Butler's approach to education is. We want our students not just to make a living but to make a life of purpose, where individual flourishing is intertwined with the welfare of others.

A fellow president wrote me: "When the announcers were pointing out that there were two academic all-Americans on the floor tonight and both of them were from Butler, and that eight of your players were in class this morning, I swelled with pride. This is what intercollegiate athletics is all about. I am a member of the NCAA Board now and we are struggling with what is appropriate for college sports. All we need do is look to Butler, and we have our answer." That was the image I wanted us to project during the Final Four, and I think that is what occurred.

Meanwhile, we received overwhelming encouragement from around the world—from a Butler alumnus serving in Iraq, from New Zealand, from Europe, and from a cruise ship at sea. We had former Butler basketball players come back from Sweden and Switzerland to attend an alumni reunion and pose for a picture with the team.

Our bookstore sold in one week what it usually sells in a year. T-shirts came in literally hot off the press—they were actually warm in the boxes as they were unpacked.

News-media coverage was abundant and overwhelmingly positive. After reading an article by the sports columnist William C. Rhoden of The New York Times, an Oakland Tribune reporter in California discovered that I grew up in Oakland. After the Tribune reporter wrote his story, I heard from old elementary- and Sunday-school friends from 50 years ago. I also suggested to Mr. Rhoden that our ballet program was as distinguished in its way as the basketball team. He proceeded to research the program, and Butler ballet became an item in the Times's sports page.

We saw increased pride in Butler from friends and alumni. On the day I'm writing this, we received a check from a man with no ties to the university and a note that said: "Here is a gift to your scholarship fund; a place represented by such a classy coach and students has to be a wonderful university."

A friend put it best, I think, when she said, "Duke won the game, but Butler won the hearts of the nation."

Now that the games are over, everyone wants to know what's next for Butler. I was asked in a Parents Council meeting: With the heightened attention, what do you see Butler becoming? I thought for a moment and said, "We've become an inspiration to other colleges—that they could do what we did. We don't want to be anything other than the best version of what we are. I think our future is continuing to be Butler."

Our men's basketball coach, Brad Stevens, was asked how such success would change his recruiting practices. He said he wasn't planning to change. "The guys we recruited got within one shot of a national championship," he said. "Why would we want to change our formula?"

The best news for us is that more people now know who we are. The Nielsen ratings showed that 134 million people saw some portion of our game against Duke. As Tom Weede, our vice president for enrollment management, pointed out: 100 percent of students who have never heard of an institution will never apply to it. We don't have to worry about that now.

Athletics has become the front porch to a university, and our front porch has been crowded of late. We're proud of the attention because our athletic achievement has been consonant with our academic mission. As the president of an educational foundation wrote, "It was a privilege ... to appreciate how the educational values of an institution can be so perfectly reflected in the accomplishments of its athletes."

Many college leaders are devoted to finding the right stories to tell that tap into our past and legacy, our present challenges and opportunities, and our hopes for the future. I hope this experience has helped us create more stories that get to the heart of what Butler is. Our basketball triumphs have become a metaphor, a trope, for the larger story of Butler University.

Bobby Fong is president of Butler University.