Building the Butler Brand

”Selection Sunday” has always been one of the most exciting days of the year for me and I suspect for millions of other college basketball diehards across the country. As a kid, I scrambled each year to fill out my homemade bracket as Greg Gumbel announced the teams that had been selected for the NCAA Tournament. With pre-filled brackets online, I no longer have to write furiously to keep up with the live announcement, but I’m filled with the same level of nervous excitement as I was back then.

Like others, I had no expectation that the matchups announced on Selection Sunday this year would be the precursor to the most unpredictable, thrilling Tournament in years – perhaps ever. As soon as the games started the following Thursday, the upsets started coming in waves. Georgetown, Kansas, Syracuse – some of the most storied programs in college basketball all fell to defeat much earlier than any rational person would have expected, and even fans of teams that had been upset – like me, a fan of first-round upset victim Georgetown – couldn’t help but be drawn in by the drama.

As the original field of 65 teams started to diminish, an intriguing story was developing. Butler University, a tiny school located in Indianapolis, was knocking out the giants of the college game. Going into the Tournament, Butler was branded as a ”mid-major” – a not-so-subtle euphemism for small schools without major resources and the accompanying media attention. Because it plays in a conference outside of the traditional ”power conferences” like the Big East or ACC, Butler was seen by most as a solid team that could win a few games in the Tournament, but certainly not as threat to win a championship.

As most know by now, Butler enjoyed a stirring run to the Championship Game, knocking out Syracuse and Kansas State to reach the Final Four, then defeating Final Four-regular Michigan State to reach the final game. The team’s underdog story and its Indiana heritage spawned countless references to the movie ”Hoosiers.” My bracket with my predictions for the Tournament’s 63 games was in shambles, but at this point, I didn’t care, because the story was so remarkable.

Only an excruciatingly close missed half-court buzzer beater in the Championship Game against Duke separated Butler from the most unlikely of championships in NCAA Tournament history. When Butler’s Gordon Hayward’s shot rimmed out at the buzzer – and the millions watching the game could finally exhale – fans took a step back to consider how impressive their run was.

As significant as the team’s run to the Championship Game was for the program’s long-term prospects, just as – if not more – important is what the Butler athletic department has done since then to ensure that the Butler brand emerges from its ”mid-major” chokehold and begins to be classified as a sustained college basketball power.

Butler clearly understood that the days following the Championship Game were crucial to seize upon rather than to passively bask in the glow of their achievements. The athletic department’s first task was to ensure that the program’s greatest asset – Brad Stevens, the team’s baby-faced 33 year-old coach – remained with the team for the long-term. Butler’s run vaulted Stevens into the position of hottest young coach in the country, and big-name schools were lurking to snap him up with the promise of more highly rated recruits, more money, and more media exposure. It took just two days for Butler and Stevens to agree to a 12-year contract extension, instilling confidence in the program’s future and striking a blow against the myth that Butler wasn’t ”big enough” for a coach of his stature.

At the press conference announcing Stevens’ contract extension, the coach laid out a long-term vision for Butler basketball, with the clear intent of elevating its status in the college basketball world. He announced that the school’s athletic department hoped to solidify a regular season series against Duke, the team that had defeated them in the Championship, but also the gold standard of college basketball programs. Not only would this guarantee Butler more media exposure – a significant recruiting tool in their effort to attract talented players – but it would also place the school in the same conversation with Duke, with all of that associated elite branding.

Clearly, the Butler basketball program believes – with good reason – that it should be mentioned among the top programs in the country. As with any branding effort, being considered among the elite is something that has to be cultivated and sustained over time. Continued excellence on the court and high-level recruiting will help to eliminate any memory of the ”mid-major” tag in time, but the process is well underway.

Perhaps the best indicator that the Butler brand has undergone a remarkable alteration came on the day after the Championship Game, when Stevens appeared on ”The Late Show with David Letterman” – (a notable appearance given his team didn’t win the championship). In the interview, Letterman offered Stevens a year of his salary to coach his alma mater, Ball State. While Stevens deflected the question diplomatically, I couldn’t help but think that there was no way Ball State could compare to the strong, on-the-rise brand that he has developed at Butler – and he would be foolish to give it up now.

Posted by: Sami Ghazi, Account Executive