INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — The only thing missing was a championship trophy.
Less than 24 hours after Gordon Hayward’s buzzer-beating shot bounced off the rim, Butler and its fans — new and old — partied inside Hinkle Fieldhouse on Tuesday as if the Bulldogs had won the national title.
They didn’t win the final against Duke, but the Bulldogs won the hearts of this basketball-crazy state and captured the imagination of a nation that won’t soon forget Butler’s journey.
“I think it gives all of us more hope,” said Mark Montgomery, a 46-year-old history teacher from Beckley, W. Va. “I’m a middle school football coach and I will refer back to this (team) when we talk about how the team concept wins.”
It certainly felt like a victory party.
Roughly 4,000 fans came to Hinkle and provided an atmosphere that was as festive as it was a week ago when the Bulldogs were still celebrating their first Final Four appearance.
T-shirts at the bookstore were selling so fast that athletic department officials put up poles to organize the checkout line. Fans from West Virginia and Chicago, who had barely heard of Butler until two weeks ago, stopped by the fieldhouse one last time to take a couple of more snapshots. Coach Brad Stevens taped an appearance for the “Late Show with David Letterman” from the free-throw line, and the Bulldogs even got a not-so-customary phone call from President Barack Obama.
“I think his message was that he wasn’t just going to call the team that won today because of the way both teams played,” Stevens said.
The President later said he had told the Bulldogs they “played a great game, showed tremendous heart, and he hopes to get a chance to play with them.”
From the White House to Main Street, the Bulldogs opened eyes and turned heads.
“I loved when Butler slayed Syracuse, and I think Duke had a cakewalk into the finals,” said Steve Boghossian, a 47-year-old surgeon from Chicago. “I think they captivated the hearts of people because they don’t talk a lot, they don’t like a lot of notoriety, they have a quiet calm about themselves and I think they were underestimated. Every game they played, they were supposed to lose.”
Eventually Butler did lose, but not before the players and coaches went on the ride of their lives.
Butler took down two of college basketball’s best programs, Syracuse and Michigan State, along with Kansas State, before barely losing to the bluest of the blue bloods, Duke.
Tuesday afternoon’s rally began with a prolonged standing ovation, which continued until guards Ronald Nored and Shawn Vanzant did cartwheels, the Bulldogs traditional celebration of choice. Fans were still cheering when Stevens and 6-foot-9 Emerson Kampen did a back bump at midcourt.
Even Peyton Manning wore Butler’s navy blue Final Four shirt in a video message.
“I can’t say how proud the Colts are of you,” Manning said. “That’s all we’ve talked about the last couple of weeks.”
For the last week, college basketball fans have found the under-recruited kids and 33-year-old coach from the school with 4,200 students a compelling story, too.
Players and coaches embraced the biggest stage in college basketball without changing their principles, getting duped by the hype or letting the publicity become a distraction.
The only thing preventing a perfect ending was the bounce on Hayward’s final shot.
“It’s really hard because there’s nothing anyone can say or do to make us feel better,” Hayward said. “Only time can do that.”
But, clearly, the impact Butler basketball has made on campus is still being measured.
There’s anecdotal evidence that admissions applications and donations have increased over the last couple weeks, and student-athletes who share the fieldhouse hallways with these guys feel like they’ve been given a new perspective on life, too.
“Not only did this put Butler back on the map, it opened it up for everyone else to see that it can be done at a small school,” said a Jalesa Lee, a volleyball player for the Bulldogs.
It was so much fun everyone wanted a piece of the story — Letterman included.
“Ah, you know, you got to stop worrying about that (the score) because what you did for your team, for your university and for your community and the nation at large is a victory and just don’t ever forget that, by God,” Letterman said.
Letterman finished the interview by joking about Stevens’ baby-faced look: “OK. Well, my best to your team, to the University and to your family. Go get yourself some chocolate milk, coach.”
Back home, Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard, Horizon League commissioner Jon LeCrone, Butler president Bobby Fong and Bulldogs athletic director Barry Collier all came to the stage to praise the team that proved old-school principles like teamwork, defense and humbleness can still win in a college basketball world often dominated by one-and-done players.
Academics matter to them, too.
“Because of what you have done, Butler has become an example of academic and athletic excellence,” Fong said. “In the years to come, because of what you have done, many more students will aspire to come to Butler. Because of what you have done, more people will aspire to do things the way you have done them, by doing them the right way, by doing them The Butler Way.”
No, they didn’t win Monday night’s game or the national title.
Butler still won over fans with a run that will live on long after the memories of that loss dissipate.
“Forget the score,” Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels said in a video message. “America knows the true champions of 2010 are the Butler Bulldogs.”