As he packed boxes yesterday for this month’s move to Hawaii, the incoming president of Hawaii Pacific University said the goal for the Sea Warriors is "to be as good in Division II as Butler is in Division I."
Most anybody else invoking the name of NCAA Final Four repeat Butler this weekend might have their comments dismissed as March Madness-induced hyperbole. The result, no doubt, of too much Dickie V. at high decibel levels.
But coming from Geoffrey Bannister, it is a message to be noted. A story to be followed.
The 65-year-old Bannister, folks around the Butler campus will proudly tell you, is the godfather of modern Bulldogs basketball. If he didn’t put Butler on the hoops map, he at least provided the inspiration and gave the critical directions. Perhaps as much as anyone who has taken a jump shot or scrawled a play on a blackboard, he started the Bulldogs on their remarkable road to renown.
When Bannister took over as president at the small Indianapolis-area school in 1989, its basketball claim to fame was that its home floor, Hinkle Fieldhouse, had served as the setting for the movie "Hoosiers."
That was about all that was memorable, since the Bulldogs sold, he recalled, 12 season tickets a year. They were on the way to a fourth consecutive losing season and 15th in 19 years.
But Bannister envisioned so much more, both on the court and far beyond. He saw basketball not only in an athletic context but as a marketing symbol for the school.
"In 1989, Geoff Bannister exhibited great vision when he committed Butler University to supporting a successful basketball program," said Barry Collier, the current BU athletic director and his first hire as men’s basketball coach. "He deserves great credit for today’s success."
The kind of following that has sent applications skyrocketing, donations soaring and Facebook fans growing by leaps and bounds.
Bannister said he figured, "if you are Division I in Indiana and you play at that level, no one is gonna believe you are good at anything else because they are not going to believe you are trying. So, we didn’t have much choice but to make the basketball program more competitive and (earn) some credibility."
It was a stroke of genius for several reasons, not the least among them the fact that as a native of New Zealand he’d seen barely a handful of basketball games before arriving at Butler. Even Bobby Knight questioned Bannister’s grasp of the situation. Bannister, legend has it, suggested Knight help advise on the choice for a coach — and ended up picking his own man, Collier.
But if Bannister was the lone ranger at the beginning, he was also a persuasive salesman to trustees and students.
It is similar to the tale of HPU’s retiring president, Chatt Wright, who in 1977 saw athletics as a way for the Sea Warriors, a largely unknown 500-student institution to help carve an identity well beyond its Fort Street Mall base.
Bannister spent 12 years at Butler before becoming the Florida-based president of the Study Abroad Foundation and Cultural Experiences Abroad. When he thought about returning to campus Bannister said athletics was a consideration.
"I wouldn’t want to look at a place that didn’t value athletics because I think athletics plays a very valuable role in educating young people," Bannister said. "You can teach a lot about sportsmanship, ethics, competition, drive and working as a team through athletics."
Just ask the folks at Butler.
Reach Ferd Lewis at firstname.lastname@example.org.