Over the course of mere hours, as Butler Nation and ESPN converged in Hinkle Fieldhouse, Butler fans and athletes alike became yet again part of what’s been deemed both a magical and history-making weekend.
In what ESPN College Gameday analyst Rece Davis described to me as “something that we’ve wanted to capture and show for the last several years,” the cast’s tour bus finally arrived at Hinkle Fieldhouse last Friday afternoon to broadcast Gameday live from Hinkle for the first time ever. The following morning, onlookers – not just fans, but the analysts too – were stunned as Butler junior Kevin Schwartz hit a half-court shot on his first try, winning a check for $18,000 and snapping a 0-for-32 streak of failed attempts in the process. Fast forward to Saturday night, and you have the third buzzer-beater and heart attack-inducing Butler win over ranked opponents this season: down 63-62, a Butler turnover, a steal-back by sophomore Roosevelt Jones and the desperation shot with a tenth of a second left to defeat No. 8 Gonzaga in regulation. Through all this electricity, too, Butler head coach Brad Stevens appeared to me to be the calmest person in the entire arena for the umpteenth time.
At Butler’s side the whole weekend was a College Gameday staff, the stellar cast of Davis, Jay Bilas, Digger Phelps and Jalen Rose, and a massive ESPN production crew of nearly 100 people to help make the day what it was. Even with an interrupted production meeting – credit Butler’s football team for steaming hot showers that set off the Hinkle fire alarms, sending all of us in Hinkle out into the cold – and ESPN’s Director of PR forgetting her phone at the downtown Marriott, Saturday’s national telecast was, for lack of a better term, awesome. And it couldn’t have come at a better time.
Even with some key upsets and exciting games, for me, it had been for the most part a chaotic and relatively depressing week in the sports world. Lance Armstrong took to Oprah’s stage to publicly admit to doping, with some saying he appeared more upset that he got caught rather than apologetic for his actions. To add to that – and I’m a South Bend native – Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o was accused of orchestrating a hoax that included a fake girlfriend and her death, potentially killing his draft value. Both were caught in a tangled web of lies, intentional or not. The sports nation was reeling and desperately needed a pick-me-up.
Enter Butler Nation and College Gameday.
While the airwaves were riddled with commentary and analysis on Armstrong and Te’o, and my heart was shattering, ESPN’s production crew was hard at work preparing for their trip to Indianapolis. Gameday Production Operations Coordinator Patrick Abrahams told me the basic outline for Gameday setup is usually the same, but that “all sorts of random stuff is constantly going on.” For the crew, Thursdays are usually 12-hour days, Fridays start at 7am and go until one in the morning, and Saturdays can be 24-hour workdays. That’s a massive amount of work for a single event.
But Saturday morning, the Gameday cast and crew, and Butler fans too, were up with the birds to go live from Hinkle at 10am. The Gameday guys then took all afternoon to watch film of both Gonzaga and Butler, in preparation for the night’s dogfight. But even with the long workdays, it looks like Butler Nation might have managed to sway a few popular Blue Devil fans this past weekend. Jay Bilas, an ex-Duke hooper and analyst for Gameday, is one of them.
“I love coming here,” he told me. “I just think it’s great. (Being in Hinkle) is like being at Wrigley or Fenway. It’s got a special feel to it that you can’t put your finger on, can’t describe in words. It’s got a soul.”
While he was working on-set with the other analysts, I watched as ESPN staffers wound their ways up and around Hinkle’s ramps. Bilas told me he saw a sign that says ‘RUNNING IS DANGEROUS,’ and proceeded to run down anyway, while carrying scissors.
Classic Blue Devil, breaking all our rules.
Yet, Hinkle Fieldhouse was welcoming and slowly converting a Duke grad to a Butler fan. At the same time, Butler students and staff and the College Gameday crew were getting ready for the biggest event at Hinkle in years. But even with a multitude of logistics to deal with, both came through: a faithful, loyal Bulldog fan base rose to the challenge of making it to Hinkle early in the morning on what might’ve otherwise been a lazy Saturday. Hours later, they filled the fieldhouse to capacity and played as sixth man, in a nationally-televised game that would eventually catapult Butler men’s basketball into the nation’s top 10 rankings.
And it couldn’t have been done without the distinct combination of College Gameday, the steadfast Butler tried-and-true and historic Hinkle Fieldhouse (and of course, the university’s storied basketball team). Even a Syracuse resurgence after beating No. 1 Louisville on the road couldn’t top the magic or popularity of Butler this past weekend. Aside from media outlets running rampant, I heard both alumni and students of various schools talking about how great it is to finally have their own unbeatable memory in Hinkle. You’ve got to commend the university, athletes, fans and ESPN for that, no matter who you cheer for. Now, Butler fans continue to crop up in rival schools more than ever. And rightfully so.
After all these years, the magic at Hinkle continues to live on. Dick Vitale, a commentator at the Butler game on Saturday, even tweeted that his visit to Butler was one of his top five in 34 years at ESPN.
And what exactly does that say about Butler Nation?
In the words of Dickie V., “Awesome, with a capital A, baby.”