Butler has kindred spirit in tiny Milan High 

Small school. Big tournament. Young coach. Star player with Indiana roots.

Sound familiar, Butler?

It should.

If the upstart Bulldogs need any extra inspiration as the NCAA tournament darlings continue their remarkable run to the Final Four in their hometown of Indianapolis on Saturday, they need only look 80 miles to the southeast and the school that provided the David vs. Goliath story by which all others will be measured.

Nearly 60 years after tiny Milan High — enrollment 161 — knocked off Muncie Central — enrollment 1,800 — to win the 1954 Indiana state championship, an upset later immortalized in the movie "Hoosiers," the current batch of Indians find themselves hoping for a sequel.

"I'm rooting for Butler," said senior Alex Walter, a small forward for the Indians who will be the valedictorian of his class of 103 later this spring.

"They're actually playing smart," sophomore guard John Herzog added.

Hey, it's the Indiana way. Always has been, long before the Bulldogs and star Gordon Hayward — who is from the Indianapolis suburbs — knocked off top-seeded Syracuse and second-seeded Kansas State to move on to the first Final Four in school history.

Their somewhat improbable run has helped put the spotlight back on Milan and star Bobby Plump, who hit the game-winning jumper that lifted the Indians past the Bearcats and into legend.

Plump has been inundated with interview requests since Butler's win in the regional finals, and there's a bit of a buzz in Milan.

Roselyn McKittrick, who runs a museum dedicated to the 1954 team, says traffic has picked up recently as dedicated basketball fans make a quick detour to Milan to pay homage and separate myth and reality.

The museum, in a converted barber shop on Carr Street a couple of doors down from the town hall, is filled with memorabilia, everything from letterman's jackets worn by the players to pieces of the gymnasium floor.

There's a stack of "Hoosiers" DVDs for sale on a small table as well. And while McKittrick loves the movie, the truth is Butler has more in common with the actual Milan team than the one Gene Hackman made famous on the big screen.

In the movie, Hickory — a fictional Indiana town based on Milan — is coached by a middle-aged man with a mysterious past who took the program over when the previous coach died. The coach, Norman Dale, was nearly ousted a few weeks into the season after clashing with fans.

The Indians were coached by 26-year-old Marvin Wood, an age that makes 33-year-old Butler coach Brad Stevens seem grizzled by comparison.

In the movie, Hickory is an upstart team that used a series of thrilling victories to make it to the state championship.

The Indians were actually a veteran group who had made it to the state semifinals in 1953 and cruised through the 1954 regular season until facing Muncie Central in the finals.

Butler can make the same argument. The Bulldogs have made the tournament nine times since the 1996-97 season and have a respectable 10-8 record.

"People call (Butler) a 'mid-major,' but the truth is they haven't been mid-major for a long time," Milan coach Josh Blankinship said.

And that's where the story of Butler and Milan diverge.

The Indians went just 3-17 during Blankinship's first year, though he remains optimistic for the future, as tends to happen when you stroll past arguably the most famous state championship trophy in the country on your way to work everyday.

The community remains passionate. Blankship estimates the Indians attracted at least 1,000 fans for each home game — the town's population is around 2,000.

Blankinship is also keenly aware that his players, most at least two generations removed from 1954, are ready to create memories of their own. Telling stories they've already heard dozens of times can only take you so far.

Butler's success gives the Indians a much more contemporary reference for how to a program of modest means can rise to the top.

"They've heard it can happen, but now they know it can happen, they can see it," Blankinship said. "It's easier for players to relate to Butler than the '54 team. That was 56 years ago. This is now."

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Staff Report

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A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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