• September 1, 2015

How Butler Won the NCAA Tournament

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.


1. vaneblucas - April 15, 2010 at 09:28 am

Dr. Fong,

I never had the opportunity to attend college in the traditional manner. When I returned from Viet Nam on July 4th, 1970 I did however, begin an educational journey that has lasted a life time.

Over the years I have attended a number of colleges and universities and I have gathered a number of diplomas and degrees along the way. Even today, I am a doctoral student, pursuing a terminal degree,(Doctor of Business Administration) as I fulfill my duties as an assistant professor of insurance. I counted up the number of colleges and universities from which I have earned course credits over the years, and I can say, without a doubt, none of the 9 insitutions I have attended have ever advertised their value based on the caliber of the educational experience student atheletes will encounter & enjoy by attending their institution.

Whatever "The Butler Way" is, it needs to be documented and distributed to colleges across our country, without delay. If our nation ever needed an example of how hard work, discipline and integrity pays off, it needs it now. The greatest service you and your college could possibly provide to your students, and our country, is to make "The Butler Way" the common way in which colleges and universities in the USA engage their students.

Congratulations on the success of your institution. I hope you enjoy continued success in building characterand integrity into our future citizens.

And your basketball team is pretty darn good too!

Kevin M. Lynch
Bryn Mawr, PA

2. jbarman - April 15, 2010 at 11:05 am

Great story, and such a refreshing change from the schools that rent "one and done" players for a brief chance at a national champtionship.

The fact that both Butler and Duke graduate such a high percentage of their student athletes made this a gratifying tournament. Everyone won here.

My only disappointment in the aftermath is the Butler player who announced his early eligibility for the NBA draft.

3. 11220252 - April 15, 2010 at 07:03 pm

It would save subscribers embarassment if you would note that "share" (on Facebook, etc.) really means "Share with other subscribers." That's the Butler way!

4. tjohnsto - April 16, 2010 at 09:16 am

Please open this article to the world! What a shame that it would be locked away...

5. ais23 - April 16, 2010 at 09:50 am

For Google Reader users, this can be shared via the universal toolbar "Note in Reader," like almost everything else on the web. Explained here: http://googlereader.blogspot.com/2008/05/share-anything-anytime-anywhere.html

6. blueconcrete - April 16, 2010 at 10:46 am

Dr. Fong,

I congratulate you, your student-atheletes, and the Butler community for maintaining academic integrity! I sincerely hope that the recent national exposure will result in good things for the university.

7. arrive2__net - April 16, 2010 at 05:48 pm

Dr. Fong seems to have a way of knowing where he wants to lead Butler, and knowing how to get there. The team and university really provided an example of excellence and respectability that the entire NCAA and nation can take pride in.

Bernard Schuster

8. bap2512 - April 23, 2010 at 04:26 pm

Last time I checked...Butler lost the Final Game. Yes, Lost. It would be refreshing to hear the coach or the school President admit this without adding on that they should have won. In the age where every child receives an award, deserved or not, Butler is unable to be a good sport. Butler players were able to attend classes because their campus was 12 minutes from the arena. Duke players not only attend classes but graduate at a higher rate than most schools playing at that level. It is true that Butler lost by one basket. However, two Butler players committed blatant fouls at the end of the last two games.Does the Butler President believe in "winning at any cost"? Funny how he conveniently forgets about that. The Duke Blue Devils are the national champions. Deal with it.

9. markovchaney - May 02, 2010 at 12:48 am

Leave it to the partisan of a school with the snobbery of Duke, one whose basketball fans are notoriously obnoxious, to miss the point of the article. Fong never asserts that his team won the game. Or that it should have won. Or anything at all about the nonsense that "bab2512" is obsessed with. Try reading the piece again and recognizing the point: Butler won the hearts of the nation, something Duke is incapable of ever doing, not because of its classy coach and players, but because of idiotic fans who don't understand that sometimes winning not only isn't everything, it's irrelevant.

10. bap2512 - May 09, 2010 at 08:32 am

Bap responds:
Markovchaney is frustrated that Duke won the national championship. I get it. The love of Butler did not happen all on its on. The sports media wanted a David vs Goliath/Good vs Bad game. They built it up. The hatred of Duke has grown quite tiresome and borish. Several Espn commentators talked about the hatred of Duke. The all came to the same conclusion(just look up their comments)... They said in a word"Jealousy". Duke fans are not any more obnoxious than most if not better behaved. You did not see Duke students rioting after the win. In fact, most students went to class the next day. Butler was not an unknown team to anyone following college basketball. I believe they were highly ranked all year. Those fans who fell in love with Butler would have loved any team playing Duke. It had next to nothing to do with Butler and everything with the irrational feelings toward a great basketball program.

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