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Ben Smith

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Final Four
Who: VCU vs. Butler, 6:09 p.m.; Kentucky vs. Connecticut, 8:49 p.m.
When: Saturday Where: Houston
TV: CBS
Associated Press
Butler’s Matt Howard signs an autograph for Angela Lovins before boarding the team’s bus Wednesday in Indianapolis.

The Butler Way is the way it should be

You root for Butler today not because of Matt Howard’s Hair From Hell, not because of Brad Stevens’ granite poise, not because of Blue II or Hinkle Fieldhouse or the Bulldogs’ less-then-authentic underdog rep.

No, ma’am. You root for Butler because of what happened in Scottsdale, Ariz., this week.

You root for the Butler Way because college athletics has lost its way, and what happened in Scottsdale is the latest Exhibit A. What happened was, Fiesta Bowl president and CEO John Junker got himself fired for apparently greasing employees’ palms in return for contributions to politicians cozy with the Fiesta Bowl’s interests.

That would not only be a violation of Arizona campaign finance law. It would also jeopardize the Fiesta Bowl’s non-profit status, which would in turn jeopardize its membership in the BCS rich guys’ club.

This would be a shame, because frankly it wouldn’t be the first time the main players in the BCS greased a palm; the exchange of dough for services rendered, after all, is pretty much the life’s blood of the whole rotten edifice. I pay you, you pay me. And if we all keep scratching the right backs, the cash keeps right on flowing into the right coffers.

And somewhere in all that commerce, the idea that athletics should enhance the larger mission of the university becomes as quaint as a buggy ride on a Sunday afternoon.

Which is where Butler comes into this.

Butler, where the Way is based on bizarre, antiquated values like shared sacrifice and a common mission.

Butler, where there really is no “I” in team, dopey as that sounds in a world where the standard response to that is, “Ain’t no ‘We’, either.”

“One of our core principles in our locker room is humility,” Stevens told David Haugh of the Chicago Tribune the other day. “If you don’t have that, you’re not here.”

Here’s something else you’d better have, if you’re there: Your butt in class.

It was viewed with amazement and an almost “aw, how cute” paternalism last year when it got out that the Butler players actually showed up for their scheduled classes the day of the championship game. Apparently, though, that’s how they do things there. It’s how every school ought to do things, frankly, but too often only says it does.

No surprise, then, that Butler’s already won the Final Four in one area: academic progress rate. According to the NCAA website, Butler comes in with a perfect APR of 1,000. Virginia Commonwealth is next at 975, Kentucky’s at 954 and UConn is at 930.

Roughly speaking, a four-year APR of 925 translates to a 50 percent graduation rate. So UConn’s close. And 10 schools who made the 68-team field came in below.

They’ll still pocket their fat tournament payouts, of course. That, after all, is the college athletics Way.

And the Butler Way?

Well, you can look at it like this: If they’ve survived four nail-biters so far, it’s because they’ve been smarter (See: 1,000 APR) at the end of games. That’s because they are, of course, exceedingly well coached. It’s also because they’re exceedingly receptive to that coaching.

Which alone will make the ’Dogs a tough out this weekend. And, for reasons that extend far beyond the court, one worth rooting for.

Ben Smith has been covering sports in Fort Wayne since 1986. His columns appear four times a week. He can be reached by email at bensmith@jg.net; phone, 461-8736; or fax 461-8648 or at the “Ben Smith” topic of “The Board” at www.journalgazette.net.

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