An Interview with Basketball Legend Glen Butte.
by William M Graves Jr
(C) ALLISON14 | DREAMSTIME.COM
Almost four years ago, my fiancée, Ruth Rebecca Jackson, arranged for me to meet some of her family members at the Peabody Hotel in Orlando. Now, every man likes to think his girl is a princess, but I was about to discover I was marrying into royalty. Sports royalty.
When George Steinbrenner’s name came up, I related how, as co-owner of a Tampa metro Chrysler dealership back in the ’80s, I had taken a call at home from The Boss himself regarding a Plymouth Laser for his daughter. “I’ll take care of Iacocca, you just handle the delivery!” exclaimed Steinbrenner.
Not to be outdone, my fiancée’s first cousin offered a slam-dunk rejoinder.
It seems that close buddies Donald Trump, Lee Iacocca, and George Steinbrenner were sharing a plane ride when Steinbrenner became insistent that his guests watch his favorite sports movie. Lee Iacocca, who preferred to read, turned down the movie offer twice. Finally George Steinbrenner, by this time exasperated, bluntly told Iacocca, “This is my plane, you’re a guest on this plane, and I want you to watch this movie!”
My fiancée’s first cousin, Glen Butte, wasn’t in the movie. He was just one of the team members who inspired Steinbrenner’s favorite sports movie.
The film was “Hoosiers.” And it was about some farm boys from tiny Milan, IN, who rewrote the sports history books 60 years ago with a feat that will never be equaled. My fiancée should know: the team Milan fielded when she was a student there in the ’70s made it to the semi-finals twice. Close, but no Steinbrenner cigar.
Will Graves (WG): Glen, tell our readers what caused Sports Illustrated to name the 1954 Milan Indians “one of the Top Twenty Teams of the 20th Century.”
Glen Butte (GB): The short answer is that we won the 1954 Indiana State Basketball Championship by beating a team from a school ten times our size at a time when the I.S.H.A.A. didn’t separate schools into divisions. Any short list of the greatest professional basketball players ever would include Michael Jordan, Bill Russell, Bob Cousy, Wilt Chamberlain, and Oscar “The Big O” Robertson. Imagine having to beat Oscar Robertson and his teammates to even make it to the finals! Sixty years later, the media still refers to our feat as “The Milan Miracle.” Not bad for a group of humble, hard-working farm boys who loved to play basketball. As I told John Erardi of The Cincinnati Enquirer “We—you, me, everybody —is an underdog.” That’s why our team’s accomplishment resonates with everyone.
My favorite line in the movie is when one of the players says, “Let’s win this one for all the small schools who never had a chance to be here.” There were 751 teams in the 1954 tournament. Indiana had a one-class basketball tournament system at this time. The next day when we returned to Milan (population 800) it was estimated that 30,000 people were there to welcome us home. At the end of the celebration, Mary Lou Woods (our coach’s wife) told us, “It is nice to be important, but more important to be nice.” We all still remember her words. We have had a reunion every year for the past 60 years.
WG: How does it feel to know that a scheduling conflict caused Jack Nicholson to drop out of a movie on your team’s record-breaking accomplishment in favor of Gene Hackman?
GB: That was a humbling experience. We’re very proud to know that legendary sportscaster Marv Albert called Hoosiers “the greatest sports movie of all time.” Believe it or not, that’s not our greatest accomplishment.
WG: What is?
GB: When I look back now at all the recognition we’ve received from the media about our victory, I believe the most important thing our victory did was raise the education bar in 1954 in Milan. In 1954, only one of our parents had attended college. Ten of the twelve on the team attended college on either an athletic or academic scholarship. Six of the team members became boy’s basketball coaches. One team member, Ron Truitt, who died from cancer, had a school named after him in Houston. When our children graduated from high school, the question wasn’t if they’re going to college, but where.
WG: Not bad for a town too small for a traffic light.
GB: Actually, we do have a blinking light now!
WG: It sounds like team and family are intertwined….
GB: My younger brother, Bill, played for Milan and so did my Aunt Helen, your fiancée’s mother. My sister Ruth Ann has always been a supporter, and her daughter Lori played varsity basketball for one of our biggest rivals, Jac-Cen-Del, and in college. My mother played on a women’s basketball team at Milan along with two other mothers from our championship team. My mother never missed one of my basketball games. My dad never saw me play. Seven team members have been married for more than 50 years, including my wife, Dixie, and I. We’re the proud parents of Lesa and Jon, and count ourselves fortunate to have our wonderful daughter-in-law, Niki, and son-in-law Michael Worthington. We are also the proud grandparents of Karsen and Brayden Worthington.
WG: Glen, you mean my fiancée Ruth Rebecca never played?
GB: Her game was playing trumpet in the Milan High School Band half-time shows! But, we love her anyway!
WG: Incredibly, you were offered a scholarship to my alma mater, Rollins College, where current basketball coach Tom Klusman has put together well over 600 wins. What few people know is that Coach Klusman has his team watch Hoosiers every year. Also, Klusman was a standout on Coach Ed Jucker’s Rollins team in the ’70s, and Oscar Robertson was a standout on Jucker’s University of Cincinnati (my fiancée’s alma mater) team before Jucker came to Rollins. And, Rollins is where I met your cousin, my fiancée, who’s been with the school 30 years.
GB: It was hard turning down Rollins for Indiana University, but it turned out best for me. You mentioned very interesting connections. It’s a small world.
WG: You were quoted in The Cincinnati Enquirer as saying “How many of us are the top dog, best in our field? Not many. Everybody is Milan. That’s why everybody loves this story. They can relate to it.” Tiny Rollins had a David and Goliath moment when my classmate Wayne Grimditch trounced some of the world’s best athletes on “ABC Superstars” in 1978. But your incredible accomplishment, 24 years earlier, commands breathless headlines even today.
GB: When I Google “Sports Hollywood: ‘The Real Hoosiers’” ...USAToday.com: “Another Shot at Hoosier Glory for Milan”…People.com: “Milan, Indiana Still Weeps for Joy Over its 1954 Championship”…nydailynews.com: “Indiana State Championship team that inspired Hoosiers”:…WSJ.com: “Milan’s Miracle Still Grips Indiana Sixty Years After It Happened,” I’m overcome with emotion. I get teary-eyed every time I visit the Milan ’54 Hoosiers Museum. I can’t believe how lucky I was and how idolized we are 60 years after our victory in 1954.
WG: As a former teacher/coach at Moores Hill High School, Dillsboro High School, and Orleans High School and an Athletic Director at Batesville High School, Batesville, IN, you’ve emphasized academics over athletics. That flies in the face of the multi-million dollar coaching salaries and academic and legal violations that continue to plague some of the bigger colleges, in particular.
GB: Those violations are quite foreign to folks in and around Milan. Don’t forget that Hoosiers took liberties with the true narrative because all of us were too strait-laced for Hollywood.
WG: Glen, from your unique perspective as a sports icon, coach, and educator, what would you tell young people today on the subject of meritocracy in sports and in life?
GB: Meritocracy is on the ropes. Sadly, quantity means more than quality. Athletics trumps academics. Inactivity reigns over physical fitness. It’s a shame that sacrifice and hard work are traits found more commonly in parents and grandparents. Every year, I get a call from a sports memorabilia dealer. Several years ago, the annual offer topped $10,000 for my championship ring and jacket. Every year, I turn down the offer for some of the same reasons I’ve emphasized academic and amateur athletic excellence all of these years. Do you really think that a sports memorabilia dealer would make the annual offer for a participation ribbon? We couldn’t have become state champions without actually beating Muncie Central. Tell that to our digitally-obsessed youth. That is if you can get a word in edgewise between texts. Life is not about equal outcomes. The Indianapolis Star voted us the number one sports story of the century. A USA Today poll named Hoosiers the best sports movie of the century. We need to encourage our youth to reach for the stars, not follow the stars!