INDIANAPOLIS - It's not unusual to see downtown Indianapolis awash in blue, hosting a sea of sports fans. But when fans flocked to Monument Circle for a pep rally yesterday afternoon, they weren't decked in blue for the Colts, but for the Final Four-bound Butler Bulldogs.
Fans crowded the south side of the monument and spilled onto Meridian Street, waving blue and white pompoms, and peering through paper bulldog masks as they cheered on the hometown team. The school's bulldog mascot, named Blue, sported a Butler T-shirt as he laid panting in the afternoon sunshine.
Police estimated about 2,000 fans packed the streets. More watched from open windows and rooftops of nearby office buildings as the Butler band and cheerleaders performed on the monument's steps.
"I've been watching Butler forever, and it's just an inspiration. Any basketball game that brings the community together is a wonderful thing," said University High School student and basketball player Amy Strawbridge, 19. "I just looked around and so many people are crying. You never know their background or where they came from, but everyone comes here, and your heart pounds. It's a good thing."
Butler clinched its first ever Final Four berth with a 63-56 win last weekend over Kansas State. The Bulldogs will face Michigan State on Saturday at Lucas Oil Stadium, about five miles from their campus.
"Today everyone in Indianapolis is a Butler Bulldog," said Indianapolis mayor Greg Ballard, who wore a Butler T-shirt over dress clothes as he addressed the crowd. He later proclaimed yesterday Butler Bulldog Day.
University President Bobby Fong said that it had been almost 40 years since a hometown team had played in a Final Four. The last time it happened was 1972, when UCLA won the national title - a point that Fong emphasized and left the crowd cheering.
"We hope to pay back your faith with a national title," he said.
Athletic director Barry Collier also spoke at the rally, as did Butler alumnus Bobby Plump, who was a member of the high school basketball team that inspired the movie Hoosiers. Part of that movie was filmed inside the Bulldogs' home, Hinkle Fieldhouse.
Noticeably missing from the pep rally were its honorees - Collier said that the team was back at Butler attending class. But despite the team's absence, the fans still turned out in full force.
Justin Brady, 25, wore a Butler T-shirt, blue-and-white Mardi Gras beads, and a striped hat in the school's colors. He rode his bike to the rally with a Butler flag strung across the front of the handlebars.
"I was in the Butler band for four years, and went to pretty much every single game," said Brady, who graduated from Butler in 2007. "I traveled to all the tournaments, including the last Sweet 16. So I'm a huge Butler fan, and I'm really excited to see them make it all the way to the Final Four."
Ann Taylor, 54, held a large letter 'B' cut from blue posterboard. Next to her, her daughter, Hilary, held a letter 'U.'
The two alternated raising the letters, following along with chants of the crowd after the band played the school song to close the rally.
"We're big-time Butler supporters," said Ann Taylor, who went to Butler in the '70s. "She went to IU, but she comes to all the games. It's a Butler theme in the house."
Hilary Taylor, 23, said that even though she graduated from IU, her loyalty has always been with the Bulldogs.
"It's always been Butler basketball," she said. "When I was at IU, I still always rooted for Butler."