Let’s get the easy part out of the way first. There is no “Butler Way.”
*Pauses for collective gasp of Butler fans (or perhaps their eye roll)*
No, not in the way that some would have you believe anyway. There are no mystical powers here. No secret sauce. And if those ever were part of the formula, they were packed up and moved to Boston in 2013.
Butler doesn’t hide its “way” locked in a vault deep beneath Hinkle Fieldhouse. In fact, it’s right there on their website:
“The Butler Way demands commitment, denies selfishness and accepts reality, yet seeks improvement every day while putting the team above self.”
Basically, it is the formula used by every successful team in the history of competitive sports condensed down into a sentence.
The game of basketball really isn’t that complicated. No, what Butler basketball really is all about is a group of kids that buy into a system and play hard. That’s it.
For the most part, the Butler Way has led to the Bulldogs being just another good team on the college basketball landscape. Why? Because there are a lot of good coaches, with good players, that buy into team concepts to varying degrees.
Sometimes, however, it all comes together and begins to take on what seems like a life of its own.
During the 1970’s and 80’s you could have called it the Indiana Way. Today, perhaps you could call it the Duke or Villanova Way. It takes equal parts elite coaching and highly talented kids that are willing to play hard within a team construct.
When you have elite kids playing for elite coaches like vintage IU, present day Duke and Villanova, or 2010-11 Butler with Gordon Hayward, Shelvin Mack, and Brad Stevens — good teams seemingly become other worldly. But they are not.
They are simply really good players, competing for really good coaches, while adhering to a team over individual philosophy. You don’t have to venture beyond the Butler campus to see that it is a concept that has withstood the test of time.
If there was a mystical Butler Way back in 2010 and 2011, the Bulldogs have since lost that way. A common observation about Butler’s gaudy won/loss record during its heyday was that it was built on a foundation of cupcakes playing in the Horizon League.
To be sure, the criticism didn’t matter much when Butler was reaching the Final Four. But it wasn’t entirely misguided either.
Since joining the Big East in the 2013-14 season, the Butler Way is 47-43 in conference play. That’s hardly indicative of any kind of special formula for success. The rigors of a more difficult conference slate may have adversely impacted the Bulldogs’ post season mystique as well, as the program has failed to advance beyond the Sweet 16 since their second consecutive Final Four appearance in 2011.
Oh sure, some will immediately point to what felt like magical subsequent victories such as last year’s upset of No. 1 and eventual national champion Villanova at Hinkle Fieldhouse. In isolation, it surely was a special win. Placing any special emphasis on that win seemingly ignores last year’s 14 losses, including two to, well, the Villanova Way.
No, the Butler Way has lost its way. Don’t get me wrong. It is still a fine program. Disrespect it on the floor at your on peril. Ask Tom Crean about that.
But it is difficult to have the continuity of a “way” when in large part the Butler Way is really just a path to your next coaching gig. Whether it be Thad Matta, Todd Lickliter, Stevens, or Chris Holtmann, the coaching carousel is as much the story of Butler basketball as the wins and losses.
Truth be told, continuously losing high end coaches is more of the recent story than the move to the Big East. While the Butler Way has been chiseled into rock on the campus, It is understandably difficult to maintain any semblance of mystique when your program is largely just a stepping stone.
That’s where Indiana comes in.
Indiana isn’t a stepping stone job for Archie Miller. Despite multiple offers while the head coach at Dayton, he waited patiently for an elite destination job to emerge.
While many IU fans ironically longed for Stevens when Crean was fired in March of 2017, Indiana was fortunate to land the highly coveted Miller.
You can see every aspect of the so-called Butler Way in Miller’s approach — and he has built-in advantages that none of those highly talented Butler coaches have had.
Indiana recruits at a higher level than Butler. Indiana has deeper pockets than Butler. Indiana has a richer history and a more robust fan base than Butler. And it isn’t a stepping stone.
But none of that will matter unless Miller can get these highly talented players to buy in to his team concepts and play with the passion and spirit that have been the underpinnings of successful teams for hundreds of years. While there are plenty of reasons for cautious optimism, those attributes haven’t always been apparent with Miller’s first two Hoosier teams. But it is still early days in the context of building a program.
When the Indiana Way was a thing, and Butler was, well, just Butler, the Hoosiers dominated this series. IU still has a commanding 38-15 all-time margin. But lately, things have gotten sideways, with the Bulldogs winning three of the last five.
Part of the Butler Way is “accepting reality.” Indiana has gotten a large dose of reality in recent years, including at times at the hands of the Bulldogs.
If Indiana comes out and plays soft or passive on Saturday, they will surely get another serving of reality, because real or not, these Bulldogs still believe in their way, and they would like nothing better than to dish out another helping to IU.
If Miller truly is the next great coach at Indiana, and these recruits truly are worthy of all of the accolades, then it is time to play like it. It’s time to play with commitment, without selfishness, to accept reality, and seek improvement, while putting the team above self.
It’s time to show Butler their way, and restore order in the Hoosier State.
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