The Butler Bulldogs basketball program is unique. Securing eight bids to the NCAA post-season tournament in the past thirteen seasons and posting an impressive 134-59 record the past eight seasons as a mid-major are byproducts of something much greater than the performances of past and present Bulldog players: "The Butler Way." The "system" was first employed a little over a decade ago and has developed into a highly respectable culture within the landscape of college basketball.
The culture of Butler hoops, as a result of "The Way," is one that demands commitment, denies selfishness and seeks constant improvement while promoting the team above oneself. Although the philosophy is relatively straightforward, it has proven extremely effective. The core of the philosophy stresses five essential principles: 1) Humility 2) Passion 3) Unity 4) Servanthood and 5) Thankfulness. Team philosophies, motto's and statements of principles are nothing new to college athletics, but the degree of effectiveness and execution reflected at Butler are certainly rare.
"The Butler Way" is certainly unique to the Butler Bulldogs and has grown to be highly-regarded and respected by fellow Horizon League players and coaches. One head coach of a league opponent expressed his admiration for the operations of Butler hoops as he stated: "They (the players) believe in the system, in the coaching and the tradition, which is, bar none, the best in our league.".
The system has evolved into more than stated principles or team goals. It has become a tradition of excellence and respectability to be exercised by the young men on the floor and the elder coaches at the helm. Butler basketball is considered unique for the extent of commitment and dedication of the athletes to "The Way," and such devotion has been continuously exemplified over the past decade of dominance at the mid-major and major level.
So who are we to thank for the fruits of success Butler has enjoyed this decade? Aside from the players, the Butler coaching staff certainly deserves a little recognition. Under the guidance of Todd Lickliter the program rose to national prominence after establishing themselves as a consistent contender in the NCAA tournament. Since Lickliter left for the head coaching job at Iowa, there has been no drop off with young coach Brad Stevens. In his first two seasons at Butler, Stevens finished with a remarkable 56 wins to 10 losses and two NCAA tournament berths. Not too shabby for a 33 year old who began his professional coaching career less than a decade ago.
Stevens by no means is a new face on the butler campus. Despite being in only his 3rd season as head coach, he has been with the program since 2001. The continuity established by his internal hiring no doubt has largely contributed to the program's recent success. Most importantly, it has allowed the continuation of the philosophy that has not only allowed the Butler players to achieve success on the court, but also grow as men off the court.
The continuity Butler has been able to achieve since Lickliter's successful regime extends beyond Coach Stevens. Another common factor throughout the past eight successful seasons is former Bulldog standout and current assistant coach Matthew Graves. "The Butler Way" has been a vehicle for the success of Butler basketball and all of the players who have bought in to the ideals. Coach Graves can attest to this. As a senior, Graves led the Bulldogs' run to a conference title and second consecutive NCAA Tournament berth while being named the team's Most Valuable Player. More recently, he was honored by FoxSports.com in 2008 as a "Top-Ten" mid-major assistant, along with being named #2 in CollegeInsider.com's list of "Top 25" mid-major assistants. Needless to say, Graves has experienced the power of the system from both angles--on the court as a player and from the bench as an assistant coach.
For Stevens, Graves and the Bulldogs, this season proves to be no exception. Currently the team is 23-4 with a perfect 16-0 record in conference play. Their most recent victory was a 70-59 victory over Cleveland State, a team college hoops fans might remember making a splash in the NCAA tournament last year. Superior scoring efforts by Gordon Hayward and Mack Shelvin have largely contributed to the success of the Bulldogs this season. Hayward has been a dual threat averaging an impressive 16.0 points per game along with a team leading 8.3 rebounds per contest. Offensively, Mack Shelvin is not far behind averaging a respectable 13.7 points per game.
Despite mention of these strong individual efforts, it is imperative to note the Bulldog's winning formula has relied largely upon team play. Evidence is revealed by four players averaging at least 10 points per contest this season. Considering the Bulldog's philosophy stresses such virtues as humility, servanthood, and unity, it is no surprise that their success has been a product of unselfish team play. Ultimately, the players' ability to manifest "The Butler Way" through their efforts on the court has resulted in an impressive season up to this point.
The system may be an internal culture at Butler, however with the efforts and triumphs of players and coaches like Brad Stevens and Matthew Graves, the results and powers have been put on display throughout all levels of college basketball. Butler's "secret weapon" of a system is no secret at all. It is a culture and a lifestyle exercised with precision and commitment for the interest of the team.
The spread of similar systems and principles, with matched passion and commitment, could drastically change the levels of teamwork and competition in college athletics. Yet as great as it would be, with the individual emphasis and potential riches of the NBA and professional prospects knocking at the door, it is likely nowhere in the near future of college hoops. In the meantime, the Butler culture will remain its own and continue its reign atop the mid-major's.
As the Bulldogs finish out their regular season schedule and prepare for tournament play, they will rely on what has allowed them to achieve success up to this point for the remainder of the season: "The Butler Way."