In 2010 and 2011, the Butler University men’s basketball team made back-to-back runs to the national championship game of the NCAA tournament—the smallest school to reach the final in modern history. A year later, Graham Honaker joined Butler’s Advancement team and began watching the University grow.
“I came to Butler just after those back-to-back Final Fours, and every year, I saw this transformation of what was, at one time, a small and relatively unknown school in the Midwest,” Honaker said in a recent webinar moderated by Jeff Blade ’83. “Butler saw growth in facilities, growth in applications, and growth in philanthropy. And I thought, ‘this is a really unique story.’”
So, he decided to write it down.
Honaker, who is now Butler’s Executive Director of Principal Gifts, partnered with Jerry Logan, the Director of Academic Operations at Gordon College who first visited Butler in 2017 for a PhD project about how athletic success can impact universities. The two combined their work to co-author The Cinderella Strategy: The Game Plan Behind Butler University’s Rise to Prominence. Released earlier this month, the book shares the story of Butler’s recent successes—both on and off the court.
Butler’s journey to the Final Four began as early as the 1980s, when a strategy emerged to devote more resources to the men’s basketball program. Leaders invested in a renovation of Hinkle Fieldhouse, higher coaching salaries, new marketing efforts, and other basketball-focused initiatives, hoping the team’s success would boost Butler’s overall reputation.
But that didn’t distract from the University’s dedication to providing high-quality learning experiences and building a strong sense of community on campus—instead, athletics and academics shared a unified mission. By the time the men’s basketball team was on its way to the championship game, Butler leaders were ready to make the most of the opportunity.
The Cinderella Strategy explains how Butler seized the national attention that came with its Final Four runs to elevate the University as a whole. Through marketing, fundraising, and other efforts, Butler saw its reputation transform over the next several years.
“Butler moved quickly and aggressively to take advantage of the opportunity and use the momentum to catalyze a number of existing initiatives and strategic choices,” Logan explains.
The number of students applying for admission to Butler University has more than doubled in the last decade. In 2009, the University received 6,247 applications. That number jumped to 9,682 in 2012—immediately following the Final Four runs—a 55 percent increase in just three years. By 2018, applications peaked at 16,430, an amazing 163 percent increase over 2009, the year prior to the first trip to the Final Four.
Butler received an estimated $1.2 billion in media coverage from the championship runs, Honaker says, and its endowment has risen by $100 million since 2011. The University has also seen an increase in significant gifts, allowing for new scholarship funds and major renovations to campus infrastructure—even during a difficult era for higher education. Annual fundraising totals rose from an average of $18.9 million per year from 2010-2015 to an average of $34.7 million per year from 2015-2020.
The back-to-back Final Four appearances also resulted in an invitation for Butler to join the BIG EAST conference for athletics, which has significantly increased national television exposure for the University.
Honaker says Butler’s story offers a case study of how complex organizations can balance risk and patience to multiply success while staying true to their core identities.
Interim Director of Strategic Communications