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No need for Hollywood to embellish Butler's Final Four tale

INDIANAPOLIS — The 73-year- old man is in a car heading to Hinkle Fieldhouse. The distance from Lucas Oil Stadium is 5.9 miles, but for Bobby Plump the journey goes on forever.

You see, Hinkle Fieldhouse is no ordinary gym. It is the venue where a tiny Indiana high school won a legendary state championship in 1954. And Plump is no ordinary visitor. It was his shot that won the game for Milan High all those years ago.

You might have seen the shot, and watched Milan High's story, somewhere along the line. Or at least Hollywood's version of it. Milan was Hickory High, and Plump was the basis for the character Jimmy Chitwood in the iconic film Hoosiers.

"Hollywood changed some things. They added stuff to make it more dramatic. That was fine because it made it a better movie," Plump said. "But real life was pretty good, too. It was better than Hollywood for me."

So, too, is the story of Butler University.

Covering the same 5.9-mile stretch from its homecourt at Hinkle Fieldhouse to the NCAA Tournament in downtown Indianapolis today, Butler is the smallest school (enrollment 4,200) to reach the Final Four since seeding began in 1979.

Butler's tale has little in common with the plot from Hoosiers, but that just means it has even more similarities with the story of Milan High than you might have guessed.

For the head coach at Milan High was no Gene Hackman looking for a second chance later in life and a romance with a school teacher. Marvin Wood was 26 when he took over and was married with two children. In his first practice, 58 of the school's 74 boys tried out.

And Milan High did not arrive out of nowhere at the state championship in 1954. The Indians had gone 25-4 and reached the Final Four a year earlier, Wood's first season as coach.

They were 28-2 the year they won the title and beat Oscar Robertson's team along the way.

How does that compare with Butler?

Brad Stevens is married with two children and was 30 when he was named the head coach at Butler in 2007. He has brought in players who were chased by bigger schools in bigger conferences and has 10 Indiana recruits on the roster.

And, like Milan, Butler is not some shooting star. Go back to 2000. Since then, Butler has more NCAA Tournament appearances than Purdue. It has more NCAA Tournament victories than Indiana. In a basketball-crazed state, Butler has been the most successful college program for more than a decade. The Bulldogs are 32-4 and beat No. 1 seed Syracuse along the way.

So does that make Butler an underdog along the lines of Milan High?

Sure, in the sense that No. 5 seeds rarely reach the Final Four. And that teams from mid-major conferences hardly ever get this far. And private schools with relatively small enrollments are not your typical national title contenders.

But Butler has been building in this direction for a long time. And it has not arrived by fluke or accident. Beginning with Barry Collier in 1989 and continuing with Thad Matta and Todd Lickliter, Butler has turned out an assembly line of successful coaches who recruited with a particular kind of player in mind. The coaches have come and gone — to Nebraska, to Xavier, to Iowa — but the program has always promoted from within to keep the philosophy alive.

Which means finding recruits willing to play defense. And guys who do not mind sharing the glory as much as the ball. It means recruiting character almost as much as skill.

"You've got to find your niche and find the right guys to fit your niche. That's what we've always tried to do here," Stevens said earlier in the tournament. "Recruiting is not an exact science. As you can see, mid-major, major, low major, whatever the case may be, we've got pretty darn good basketball players here."

Which is exactly the same way Bobby Plump is explaining his story. Unlike the fictionalized account of Hoosiers, which had the team manager Ollie coming off the bench to hit a pair of winning free throws in the state semifinals, Milan had a deep and talented roster. Six of the team's 10 players went on to play college basketball.

Plump went on to play at Butler — take that, Hollywood — and left as the school's all-time leading scorer. A longtime owner of an insurance company, Plump and his son Jonathan have a bar and grill a couple of miles from the Butler campus — called Plump's Last Shot — and he has watched this team grow.

"Everybody thought of us as underdogs, but we knew better. We knew how good we were, and Butler is the same way," Plump said. "You put those same players in Kansas or Kentucky or Indiana or Louisville uniforms, and nobody would call them underdogs. But because they're from a smaller school, that's what people say. Go ahead, and keep promoting that myth. That's how we like it."

A fictional reporter in another Hollywood production once suggested that facts were not always the most important part of a story. That when a legend became fact, you should stick with the legend.

Hickory High was a wonderful story on film, but Milan High was even better in real life.

Perhaps, one day, we will say the same about Butler University.

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

No need for Hollywood to embellish Butler's Final Four tale 04/02/10 [Last modified: Saturday, April 3, 2010 12:02am]

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