It’s March and college basketball is on my mind. Unfortunately, barring an A-10 tournament miracle, my beloved UD Flyers will soon be watching games, not playing. So this blog is written with reluctant admiration for a team that looks to be a long-term nemesis for the Flyers and also very involved in this year’s NCAA tournament.
In January, my dad invited me to attend the UD-Butler game. It was an entertaining game, and we had a lot of fun watching two classy programs go at it. The result was a 79-73 defeat at the hands of the Bulldogs, a game Butler firmly controlled from beginning to end. After the game, my dad and I shared our usual pontifications about the game, style of play, etc. We both acknowledged Butler as the better team and expressed our mutual admiration for their coach, Brad Stevens, who is probably the single-most sought after coach in college basketball. I finished my assessment by saying to my dad jokingly, “It seems like I’ve been watching the same Butler team for a decade. Do these guys ever graduate? It always looks the same and their formula just seems to work, no matter what.”
Since that game, I’ve found a couple of Butler games while flipping through the channels. I’ve been watching them more closely now that I’ve seen them in person. I guess I’m intrigued by how a school of 4,500 produces a program that maintained a Top 25 ranking in most polls from 2006–07 to 2011–12 and again this year has found itself in the Top 10 for a good part of the season.
It dawned on me finally that their success is the perfect example of the power of brand. Here’s what I mean. There seems to be three kinds of players on a Butler team:
- Gritty, in-your-face guards, anywhere from 5-10 to 6-2 in height. Fast as heck. Play defense like they're fighting for the last piece of bacon at breakfast. Can shoot from anywhere.
- Athletic wingmen who can get to the rim but also kill you with a silky smooth jump shot. Defense? Totally committed. Block shots routinely.
- A big center. An oddity in today’s game, but Butler seems committed to the 6-11 big man. Smart defender, tenacious rebounder, willing to use all five fouls. Oh yeah, can shoot from anywhere.
I’ve not gone back and looked at each Butler team since 2006, but I’d be surprised if the team composition varies much from the above. Why did it seem like I was watching the same team from years ago? Because I was. They have a formula. They have a brand identity. I’m a casual basketball fan and even I recognize it.
Imagine if you’re recruiting for Butler. How easy is it to build a great team when you’re committed to your brand?
- Loves defense
- Can shoot from anywhere
- Fits one of the three holes above vacated by a recent or soon-to-be graduate
I imagine being a recruit for Butler is equally fulfilling. There probably aren’t many questions about your role on the team or the types of teammates with whom you’ll play.
In a sense, Butler has adhered to the three pillars of a powerful brand — unique, credible and compelling. They are uniquely old school, completely dedicated to defense, selflessness and shooting, with a big man on the inside. They are credible, never wavering from their approach, regardless of opponent. And they are compelling — extremely watchable due to the effort they expend and the results they deliver.
As I write this blog, Butler maintains a Top 20 ranking, ahead of most and on the heels of the biggest names in basketball. And in a year when no one program seems dominant, the power of the Butler brand may be on display in early April in Atlanta.
Afterword: After I wrote this blog, I did a quick search online to see if there was indeed a Butler basketball philosophy. I found an entry on “The Butler Way” which was originally forged by their legendary coach, Tony Hinkle, in the 1920s. It was resurrected by Coach Barry Collier in the late 1980s and has since served as the underlying team philosophy. Its five pillars are: Humility, Passion, Unity, Servanthood and Thankfulness.