INDIANAPOLIS -- Here in Hinkle Fieldhouse -- the house that two Final Fours (and $36 million) refurbished -- the national championship runner-up memories still shine as if it was yesterday. Except, it wasn’t yesterday. Can it really be five seasons since Butler became a national fairy tale?
Yes. Now those names of the starting lineup that nearly brought down Duke in the title game are scattered hither and yon. Gordon Hayward to the Utah Jazz, Shelvin Mack to the Atlanta Hawks, Matt Howard to Europe, Ronald Nored to player development with the Boston Celtics, Willie Veasley to video coordinator for Illinois State basketball.
Meanwhile back on campus, the post-Cinderella age has had its challenges. Consider the past 15 months at Butler.• July, 2013: Coach Brad Stevens, the young and even-keeled architect of two Final Four trips, suddenly leaves for a gazillion-dollar contract with the Boston Celtics. Butler alum Brandon Miller is named to replace him.
• August, 2013: Roosevelt Jones, expected to lead the Bulldogs in their first year in the Big East, is lost for the season with a wrist injury.
• January, 2014: Butler begins its Big East era by losing the first three league home games. All in overtime.
• February, 2014: Andrew Smith, who played in both Final Fours, is diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
• March 2014: Butler finishes 14-17, the first losing season in nine years.
• April 2014: Elijah Brown, the third leading returning scorer, transfers. He is the fourth player to exit in three months.
• October 2014: Two days before practice begins, Miller suddenly takes a medical leave of absence, the exact details still unexplained. Assistant Chris Holtmann, former head coach at Gardner-Webb, is named interim.
“I tell my parents all the time, I don’t think another four-year player who’s stayed at the same school has seen as many changes as we have,” senior Kameron Woods mentioned of a career with three different coaches and three different leagues. “One thing I can say about that, starting from the top down, we’re a bunch of resilient guys now, because each year we’ve been hit with some type of curveball.”
Resilience. That is the new buzzword at Butler. Take what comes and move on. Once, it seemed all was enchanted here. Peaches and cream and upsets. Now there are obstacles to overcome, just like anywhere else.
“Some of those things are health related, so that’s always a concern about people you love,” athletic director Barry Collier said. “But there’s also so many good things here at Butler. You can look at things with a negative spin, or you can look at them with a positive. I just see so much positive, it gets you through those tougher times.’’
He spoke from a renovated Hinkle, with its new seats and modernized infrastructure and amenities and 5,000 redone windows. The team video room is now a plush theater, courtesy of Hayward. The basement area where Gene Hackman delivered a pep talk to his Hickory Huskers in the movie “Hoosiers” is now the women’s volleyball locker room, with a couch and flat-screen TV. Collier’s old office is a new restroom (jokes welcome, he’s heard them all).
Still, the famous charm from the past was carefully preserved. “The best thing I heard this summer on a tour was 'You kept the magic of Hinkle but you made it better,' ’’Collier said. “It’s like an old friend.”
Alas, the Bulldogs went 2-7 in Big East play in its old friend last season. They aim to do better with Jones healthy, and four starters back. But little has been simple lately at Butler.
“You can look at that negatively, like 'Man, it seems like the Lord’s coming after me,' ” leading scorer Kellen Dunham said. “But if we look at these curves in the road as challenges, we can become even better than we were before.”
Added senior guard Alex Barlow, “It’s been a lot of adversity. It’s been a whirlwind. But at the same time, adversity reveals your character.”
Holtmann, the man in the middle of it has a degree in psychology -- that might come in handy -- and a new supply of Tylenol PM to help him sleep. He is approachable and amiable, and has had to hit the court running. “There’s nothing I ever enjoyed more than leading a program,” he said of the days at Gardner-Webb, and hoped one day to do it again. But not like this.
“That’s a friend you care about. You know how much he loves this,” Holtmann said of Miller.
He recited guidance he heard from friend Clark Kellogg. “Be sure you are filled up with the necessary stuff to lead a group through all this.” Which meant? “I’ve tried to respond to everything with a players-first approach. These are different circumstances and I think you have to respect those circumstances. But you’re going to coach what you know and coach to your convictions.
“The whole idea of [players] buying in, that’s a day-to-day process.
“I think we know we’re going to experience some more adversity this year. We are ready for that and trying to brace ourselves for some great times and some tough times as well.”
About his sleeping habits ...
“When I was a head coach, my wife would always have Tylenol PM in the cabinet and basically from November to March, I’d take it pretty regularly. I could do a commercial for them. I didn’t take them at all last year. The first night this happened, I was like, where is that bottle?”
The Bulldogs hope to make a statement in the Big East. The one they couldn’t last season when they joined up. “We’re here for the duration,” Collier said. “We’re talking about this being a 50-year decision we made.”
And they hope to continue the legacy of those Final Fours. “I don’t want to say they put pressure on us to go back,” Woods said. “But they set the standard of how we want to play here. We watch a lot of clips still to this day of those teams, how they played offensively and defensively, how they conducted themselves off the floor.”
Five years after Fantasyland, Butler tries to keep the magic alive, in a world grown more real.