The Yankee Way. The Lombardi Way. … The Butler Way? Yes, the mid-major Bulldogs have a way about them – and two consecutive national championship game appearances have garnered head coach Brad Stevens the media spotlight by which to promote how Butler goes about its business.
And right now, Butler’s business is preparing to face Connecticut in the national championship game at 9 p.m. ET Monday.
“It’s not rocket science,” Stevens admitted Sunday. “It’s a values-based organization driven by a mission and a vision like every other business in the world or every other collective group in the world.
|Michigan St.||1999-01, 2009-10|
|North Carolina||1997-98, 2008-09|
Note: Since 1985, when tournament expanded to 64 teams.
“The key in any endeavor is adhering to those standards and trying to live up to those standards, not trying to worry about anything else. It’s hard to do and easy to talk about. I think it begins with selflessness, and certainly accountability is very important, humility is very important. You kind of go through those founding principles.
“We always talk about it this way with the team. The only way we address the ‘Butler Way’ with our team is in this regard: People know they’ve seen and felt something special, they just can’t put their finger on it. That’s the only thing we ever talk about with regard to that phrase with our team.”
Following up on last season’s tournament run, the basketball community has seen a lot of what makes Butler special. And opponents – those who have fallen short in the past two NCAA tournaments – have felt it, too.
But what is “it”?
When dissecting the Bulldogs, camaraderie within the framework of the team is a good place to begin.
“I think this group really likes to be together. That’s really important,” senior forward Matt Howard said. “We enjoy every game we get to play with each other. I think that does help. It helps build a chemistry. You start to understand how you can put those guys in spots, be successful, and make plays for them. I think, you know, the more games you play the better that gets.”
Now in his fourth year at the Butler helm, Stevens pointed to his 2007-08 squad. “The core of my first team was as important for me in transitioning into coaching as any group we’ve ever had just because we had five 23 year olds, four fifth-year seniors and one fourth-year senior, and they were nothing but great to a young coach,” he said.
“I think when they left and turned it over to these younger guys, now older guys, they just continued to be great to coach and great to be around. It’s been collective all the way through. We’ve just had unbelievable people and it’s made my job a lot more enjoyable and a lot easier.”
That ease is bolstered by the talents of Howard and junior guard Shelvin Mack, the go-to Bulldogs.
“Trust what you’re doing, do what you trust” Mack said. “If you can improve, have people buy into your system, great things will happen because you all have faith in each other and you’ll have a lot of success.”
Indeed the Bulldogs are reaping the benefits of its sustained success. In fact, it’s getting more attention than the notable Indiana Hoosiers program; Butler is the first school from Indiana to earn back-to-back trips to the Final Four. This also is the program’s 13th postseason appearance in the past 15 years – and fourth consecutive NCAA tournament berth.
“I think the most important thing is adhering to the standards – whatever you deem to be the standards and values of your program – is clearly the most important thing,” Stevens said. “The second thing is you have to have people in your program all on one page that believe. It’s a lot easier said than done.
“Believing, anybody can stand up here and say they believe – but truly believing you can do it, and you can do it together, is a unique thing.”
Howard, one of five seniors on the Butler roster, holds the school mark for starts (132) and games played (140). He gets “it” but isn’t prepared to rest on his laurels – not on the eve of the national championship game.
“We haven’t ever changed what we do. You stay within your vision and your system, you get guys that buy into it, you can be successful,” he said. “I’ve been here four years, and nothing’s really changed. We’ve done things the same way. I think that’s really important, whether you don’t make it to the tournament, you lose in the first round, or you’re fortunate enough to make it to this game. It’s all about staying solid and staying within what you do.
“Hopefully we’re focused on the task at hand. All that takes care of itself. That’s essentially the way I’m approaching it. I think the rest of the guys are doing that as well. You let those things take care of themselves.”
“It” seemingly comes back to teamwork – and teammates, even the legacy of teammates.
“I think you have to have certain guys that believe,” said Stevens, who is averaging 29 wins per season. “I thought about when we went back to the Sweet 16 in 2007, we had a couple of seniors in Marcus Nellems, Brandon Crone and Brian Ligon. Brandon Crone played a couple years overseas, but Brian Ligon went to dental school and he’s a dentist now, and Marcus Nellems went and got his Master’s of Art teaching, and he’s an elementary school teacher.
“Those guys gave us a belief that we could do something if we all stayed together and did all our jobs as well as we possibly can. For whatever reason, we’ve kept those rose-colored glasses on and tried to continue forward.”
And move forward they have. The 2010-11 Bulldogs are only the 11th team to reach the Final Four in consecutive years since 1985, joining the likes of basketball bluebloods Duke, Kentucky, Kansas, North Carolina and UCLA.
“We kind of want to do it for ourselves, not for anyone else. We work hard every day, I think me and my teammates deserve it,” said Mack, who has scored in double figures in his past 12 NCAA tournament games, including a team-high 24 in Butler’s 70-62 victory against VCU on Saturday.
Regardless of how the national championship game plays out, Stevens knows Monday night’s showing is just another building block for success. “When we have a recruit on campus, first thing I share is our core values, and then I share what I want from a prospect, whether it be a highly competitive student, ambitious person, a person who represents his high school well, his community well. They know that before we get into what Butler has to offer.
“Some people hear it, some people don’t. But it’s kind of an opportunity for me to say, ‘Here’s what’s important to us.’ We’ve had guys that have given of themselves to the team and still reaped incredible individual benefits with regard to exposure and opportunities to play beyond because of their team’s success.”
After all, it’s the Butler Way.