Like many college basketball fans, I have been smitten by the Butler Bulldogs over the last two NCAA tournaments. The team’s appeal to me goes deeper than their “Cinderella” success story that all sports fans love. As a basketball fan, whenever I watch them, I am struck by how disciplined and fundamentally sound they play, and how they always stay in games even when they are not playing well, consistently managing to pull out wins at the end by sheer persistence and determination. These qualities are often attributed to their mild-mannered coach, Brad Stephens (who incidentally is the same age as me!), who is one the most successful young coaches in NCAA history (he is in fact the youngest coach in history to reach two Final Fours). I appreciate the way he thoughtfully answers questions in between quarters and post-game interviews, giving substantive analytical answers about his strategy rather than patronizing, ‘no-duh’ responses many coaches give, and the humble attitude he conveys. For instance, after beating VCU to advance to the championship game for the second straight year (a rare feat for any coach), the CBS analysts asked him what the keys were to making the Final Four. He replied that they really should be asking the guys coaching out there right now, deferring to his older, well-respected peers John Calipari of Kentucky and Jim Calhoun of Connecticut, who were competing in the second contest of the evening.
My admiration for this team and coach prompted me to do a little research on how the Butler basketball program works and the kind of values it is based upon. I came across reports on what is called simply “The Butler Way,” a set of principles, pre-dating Stevens’s tenure, that the team is taught and strives to live by. These principles, as listed and defined, are posted in the men’s basketball locker room (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Butler_Way):
My purpose here, as with other writings I’ve done on sports, is to ponder what sort of belief system gives rise to such values that are so widely admired and extolled in the world of sports, though rarely exhibited. There has been a steady drumbeat of criticism lately of how the NCAA exploits college athletes, particularly men’s basketball and football players, generating billions in revenue, while sharing none of it with the students (aside from scholarships) and caring little about the quality of education these athletes receive. I do not wish to comment on this debate except to say that there is a growing cynicism toward these college sports that views the greed and power of the adults in charge as mattering more than the well-being of the students who entertain the crowds with their astounding athleticism and idealistic passion and determination. Thus, many top football basketball programs are beset by scandal over problems from illegally recruiting athletes to shamefully low graduation rates.
Such controversies should disturb us, but not surprise us. We live in a pragmatic culture that celebrates short-term success of individuals above the long-term, “common good” of society. Consequently, winning basketball games (and thus generating revenues) often takes precedent over educating young men to equip them for life-long flourishing. The ends of winning justify in the pragmatic mind the means of setting aside academic expectations for star athletes or bribing them to play at one’s school. Prioritizing educational ideals often comes at the expense of winning, so why take the risk?
In this climate, then, it is encouraging when programs that maintain commitment to ideals also achieve success on a national stage. What is forgotten, though, is how long a program has to endure failure, disappointment, and setbacks before such ideals bear the fruit of success. The origins of the “Butler Way” philosophy can be traced back to a basketball coach in the 1920’s. Prior to the last two seasons, the best Butler has done in the tournament is to reach the Sweet Sixteen a couple of times, and the only time they won a national championship was in 1929, when there was no tournament. The Butler Way has survived years of mediocre outcomes as the program has persevered to reach the national spotlight it enjoys today. Such values have to be grounded in something transcendent to endure generation to generation and eventually yield the fruit of success, especially considering that success is fleeting even when it is finally achieved.
I do not know enough about Brad Stevens to comment on his religious beliefs (though I did read a quote from him in a Fellowship of Christian Athletes devotional in which he says he strives to live out “my faith [in Christ] in everything I do”) nor about the beliefs of those who first formulated the Butler Way. But these values are undeniably biblical and are therefore grounded in a view of ultimately reality that views God, though all-powerful, as one who took on “the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death – even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:7-8). This humble servant, Jesus Christ, then calls his followers to live lives of passionate devotion to putting “team first” (i.e. the unity of the Church) and of thankfulness in all circumstances (1 Thess. 5:17). Thus, those who follow the way of Christ are also walking the “Butler Way.”