It’s 8:45 a.m. on a Friday in Indianapolis, and Michael Kaltenmark is whipping around the Butler University campus in a 2014 Ford Transit. He and his passengers have a busy schedule to keep, so he disregards the “permit required” sign in a parking spot adjacent to new student registration for the fall semester.
Unless the Butler PD is looking to be shamed on social media, officers will pocket their parking tickets and move along.
For understandable reasons, no campus police officer would want to be the one to leave a citation on a minivan with a certain smiling bulldog painted on the window.
The side door opens and the passenger waddles out, relieves himself on a tree and then starts nibbling on the campus foliage.
Butler Blue is going to work.
At 64 pounds and four years old, Butler Blue III — known more commonly as Trip — is in his prime as a mascot. He needs to be. Kaltenmark, Butler’s director of external relations and Trip’s caretaker, keeps the pup’s schedule booked solid.
The docket for this Friday in the heart of summer starts in an enclave near the line where incoming freshmen are signing up for orientation. At first, it’s the parents who are reduced to putty for the dog:
“I think he’s the whole reason my daughter’s coming here.”
“I am so in love.”
“He makes me want to register myself.”
Butler will have between 1,250 and 1,300 new students this year, the biggest freshman class in school history, and this is just one weekend in several for new arrivals. For an hour and a half, Kaltenmark invites students and parents to take pictures with Trip and post them to social media. As long as Trip gets a cup of water — promptly dribbled on the carpet — and a few hearty rubs of his backside, the dog handles himself like a pro.
“And, yes, I’ve had to wipe lipstick off of him,” Kaltenmark says.
Only 16 years and three canine generations into a live mascot program, Butler Blue has become an institution in college basketball. In some ways, the dog’s stature eclipses even Butler’s other cultural landmark, Hinkle Fieldhouse.
Appreciating Hinkle requires a sense of basketball history, Kaltenmark says; connecting with Butler Blue requires only an appreciation of dogs.
Yet Trip and Butler Blue II before him aren’t breaking new ground as far as live bulldog mascots go. The lineage of Handsome Dan at Yale goes back to the 19th century. Georgia’s lineage of Uga goes back to the 1950s, predated by Mississippi State’s Bully in the ’30s. Non-bulldog canine mascots such as Texas A&M’s Reveille and Tennessee’s Smokey have been in service for decades.
Those mascots are more associated with college football. Basketball has Jack the Bulldog (Georgetown), in service since 1962, and a handful of others. But few of them have the robust workload and travel schedule of Butler Blue.
When Butler asked Madison Square Garden if it could bring Trip for its first Big East Tournament in 2014, the administrators acted as if they’d never been asked the question before, Kaltenmark says. (And remember, Georgetown has played in the event every year.)
Meanwhile, the idea of bringing Blue to NCAA Tournament sites has been a matter of ongoing media interest (more on that later).
On this typical summer Friday — after new student registration in the morning — Blue’s schedule includes a photo opportunity with the Little Dribblers Basketball Camp at Hinkle before lunch, a visit to the Butler bookstore to meet with yet more new students after lunch and then finally an appearance from 6:30-8:30 p.m. at the Bulldog Crawl, a dinner event with the Central Indiana Alumni Association.
It’s a 12-hour workday for the pup.
“Trip seems to have the endurance for the job,” Kaltenmark says. “He needs that stimulation. Most bulldogs work in spurts for about 20 minutes and then nap. He’s sort of a freak.”
During the season, Butler started deploying Trip in student recruitment efforts. For example, when Butler basketball visited Omaha for a game against Creighton, Kaltenmark tracked down six high school seniors in the area who were set to be admitted to Butler. He arranged with their parents to have Trip deliver the acceptance letters to their doorsteps.
That happened about 120 times in the span of two basketball seasons. And it was effective: Butler found that seniors visited by Butler Blue were three times more likely to enroll than students who received their acceptance letters the old-fashioned way.
“You want this fierce, competitive mascot, but we also benefit from Trip being so approachable,” says Barry Collier, Butler’s athletic director, a former player and coach and self-professed dog lover. “You can imagine the different kind of people and different kind of smells that he encounters, and he handles it like a movie star.”
Sure enough, everyone wants a piece of Blue.
When Evan Krauss, then a Butler undergrad, applied for an internship in the marketing department, he fibbed on his application when it asked if he was allergic to dogs.
He checked the box “no.” In truth, without a regimen of allergy medication, he’d break out in hives around Trip. Krauss, who graduated in 2016, eventually took a full-time job in multimedia production for the marketing department. In essence, he’s second-in-command for the Butler Blue program. The reason he left out his allergies isn’t because he’s a Butler superfan. Or that he went to Gordon Hayward’s high school. Or because his sister was a Butler cheerleader.
Krauss points at Trip: “Just look at him,” he says.
Butler Blue’s celebrity status is such that even a digestive mishap is endearing — and more than that, it became Trip’s breakout moment as the Butler mascot.
In the frenzy before a game against Xavier in the 2015 Big East Tournament, Kaltenmark forgot to bring Trip’s harness that would attach to the leash. With just a leash around his neck, Trip pulled until he popped, throwing up in the free throw lane at Madison Square Garden during pregame warmups in front of a horde of assembled media.
By that time, Blue had garnered a sizable social media following, so even this (after a quick cleanup) became a moment for the dog to shine. “Puke and rally. Give me some water. I’ve got a #BIGEASTtourney game to win,” Trip (via Kaltenmark) tweeted. The moment became a viral sensation at a time when casual fans are just starting to pay attention to March Madness.
“You’ve got to turn vomit into lemonade,” Kaltenmark says. “You’ve got to make this work for you. It’s sort of funny.”
The Butler Blue lineage, short as it may be, has a knack of picking its spots to shine in March.
Blue II was already a veteran mascot when Butler reached its first Final Four in 2010. Duke won the championship that year, clinched when Hayward’s half-court desperation shot rimmed out, but Butler was the story of the postseason. Led by 33-year-old coach Brad Stevens and a future NBA Lottery pick in Hayward, the Bulldogs — from the Horizon League at the time — stormed the Final Four that was played less than 10 miles from their campus.
Collier called the confluence of events, including Blue II’s breakout, an “atomic explosion.” One of the team’s other star players, Matt Howard, further put Blue II in the spotlight by giving the bulldog a full body rubdown during pregame starting lineup announcements.
“Many more people were exposed to Blue’s personality and this beautifully ugly, slobbering, confident bulldog on national TV,” Collier says. “And to their credit, CBS gave him close-ups. He handled it with ease. Bulldogs have a bit of an ‘I don’t care’ to their personas.”
Collier at one point in his life or another has owned “a bird dog, a mutt beagle, an old English sheepdog, a Scottish terrier — the smartest dog ever — a yellow lab, a black lab.” He pauses for a moment to think about what he just said about bulldogs.
“I’m making him sound human, aren’t I? I really think they are, it just hasn’t been discovered yet,” he says.
Butler Blue III, aka Trip, (left) and Butler Blue II (right)
Before the run in the 2010 NCAA Tournament, Kaltenmark asked the NCAA, based in Indianapolis, if he could bring Blue II to tournament games. The NCAA cited a little-known rule saying the dog couldn’t go to a Tournament site until the Final Four. Local media got wind of the seemingly arbitrary rule, and thus began a Free Butler Blue social media meme.
Blue’s interview schedule, from morning and drive-time talk shows to ESPN to print media scrums, quickly eclipsed that of even Stevens, who four years later would be the coach of the Boston Celtics.
The “No Dogs until the Final Four” rule remains in place, but that didn’t stop Kaltenmark from bringing Trip to the first- and second-round NCAA Tournament site in Raleigh in 2016. North Carolina reporters asked if the dog would be at the game. No, Kaltenmark told them, Trip would be here just for pre-game events with fans, alumni and prospective students. Another round of Free Butler Blue free media exposure followed anyway.
“Part of me is like ‘Oh no,’ but part of me is like ‘Oh yes,’” Kaltenmark says. “The media and public can’t get over it.”
Like most of the epiphanies around the Butler Blue program, the entire endeavor started with a “Why not?”
In 2000, Butler was on its way to becoming a solid mid-major basketball program, making the NCAA Tournament three times in the final four years under Collier as coach. Kelli Walker, a staffer in Butler’s marketing department, floated the idea of a live mascot.
She tracked down Frank King in Lizton, Ind., 30 miles northwest of Indianapolis. King, now 79, worked as an engineer at General Motors but started breeding bulldogs as a hobby when his son was a football player at Brownsburg High School, whose mascot was — you guessed it — the Bulldogs. King was, and still is, an AKC-licensed judge for show dogs.
Walker purchased a female bulldog puppy, and the Butler Blue tradition was born. The prototype mascot program was short-lived, though, as Walker took a job on the West Coast three years later. Butler Blue I had some quirks that caused her to fall short of A-plus mascot material. Walker and the university arranged for the dog to go West with her.
Kaltenmark, then a new employee in Butler’s department of annual giving, spoke up about the new void in athletics.
“I raise my hand and ask, ‘Are we going to get another dog and can I be the guy who takes care of it?’” says Kaltenmark, a Butler graduate who grew up in Wabash, Ind., as the son of a high school athletic director and coach.
Walker took Kaltenmark to meet King, who donated to the university the pure-bred bulldog puppy who would become Butler Blue II. Unlike some other mascots, one Butler Blue does not need to be a direct descendant of another. It’s more important that the dog looks and acts the part. Nevertheless, Trip is a descendant of Cherokee Legend Rock, a two-time Best of Breed at the Westminster Dog Show.
Blue II, though, would set the template for Trip, and eventually, Butler Blue IV.
“Blue II was almost a perfect mascot dog,” King says. “He was almost born to the job. He was great with the crowd. He’d look at the crowd, and if people wanted to come pet him that was OK, too. He was a very cool, very poised dog.”
Blue II was popular enough that at least one overzealous local hoped to make some cash on the side. As Blue II became more popular, King noticed an advertisement in his local paper attempting to sell a litter of puppies that had been sired by Blue II.
King was aghast, but he easily settled the issue with one phone call and a threat of a lawsuit. Though Butler Blue dogs come from pure-bred show dog stock, all are fixed. Butler Blue has no descendants.
None of that was a concern back in 2003, though. Kaltenmark had little direction on how to establish a mascot tradition, but he had the ambitious goal to make Butler Blue as synonymous with the university as Uga is with Georgia and Handsome Dan is with Yale. Kaltenmark started blogging in the voice of Blue II, which led to a robust social media presence. Trip has more than 18,000 followers on Twitter (handle is Butler Blue III), 16,000 followers on Instagram and 9,000 likes on Facebook.
It helped that Blue II and Kaltenmark were inseparable. Kaltenmark and his wife, who was in grad school at Butler at the time, lived in on-campus apartments. Wherever Kaltenmark went, Blue II was always nearby.
“I took him to everything,” Kaltenmark says. “When we had some appearance in town or on campus, I made sure the dog got there, sometimes unasked. I wanted everyone to know who this dog was, that Butler had a mascot, and his name is Blue. This is legit.”
Eventually, Kaltenmark brought Blue II onto the court for starting lineups. Players eventually starting petting the bulldog as they made their way to the court, and one tradition was born.
Then, students in the front rows of the crowd began bringing rawhide bones. After starting lineups, Kaltenmark started to let go of the leash, and Blue II raced to the students to get the bones. Another tradition was born.
Around the time of Butler Blue II’s emergence on the Final Four stage, King called Kaltenmark with what seemed to be an unusual offer. Another litter of bulldogs would be on the way, and Butler should take a look. Kaltenmark was surprised. Blue II was in perfect health and had become a superstar. But he was also 7 years old. The life expectancy for pure-bred bulldogs is 8-12 years. King told him this was Butler’s best shot at continuing the mascot program uninterrupted.
King donated another puppy, Trip, and at the end of the 2012-13 season, Butler conducted a Changing of the Collar ceremony at Hinkle Fieldhouse. Blue II died less than sixth months later after nine years of mascot service. Blue II’s remains are in a mausoleum outside of Hinkle.
Like Blue II, Trip would be at home in a crowd, though the excitement is too much to allow players to touch the dog before games. When Trip got a little too spirited and nipped a player before a game, the pregame petting line was shelved.
Trip has been in service for four seasons, and fans still ask why players don’t pet him before games.
In the landscape of college athletics, Butler’s traditions are still young, but they’ve taken hold nonetheless.
“Part of me wishes we had those traditions in place [for decades], but it’s cool to be part of building those traditions,” Kaltenmark says. “It’s cool because I live here, I work here, I went here, this is who I am. To be able to install some of these traditions, it’s cool.
“I’m just the guy on the leash.”