Those plucky underdog hoopsters from little Butler University broke our hearts here in Western Pennsylvania, and ruined the brackets of bettors everywhere when they knocked Pitt out of the NCAA tournament last month.
The Butler Bulldogs beat the Pitt Panthers without their lucky charm -- a real, live bulldog named Butler Blue II. NCAA rules prohibit live animal mascots on the floor during the early rounds of the tournament. Rules were not bent for the mascot of the Indiana school, despite a massive "Free Butler Blue II" campaign mounted on Twitter.
The dog was allowed into the Final Four and championship games last year when Butler played on their home turf in Indianapolis. That's when so many people fell in love with the fawn and white bulldog, whose name and costumes incorporate the school colors. So this year when Butler U improbably advanced to the Final Four for the second year in a row, there was Butler Blue II in Houston, down on the hardwood floor of the court, wagging his stumpy tail and emitting an occasional bark as fans cheered.
As the name of each Butler player was announced, each of those big, tough athletes stooped way down to gently pat the head of the low-slung dog. Only then did they run out onto the court.
Butler Blue II, 7, the official Butler University mascot, attends all the home football and basketball games and at least one home game for each of the other athletic teams. He also appears at many community and fundraising events. Blue's main "job" is serving as the personal pet of Michael Kaltenmark, his wife, Tiffany, and their 6-month-old son, Everett.
The family wanted to go to Houston to watch their team play, but they wouldn't consider putting Blue in the cargo hold of plane where short-nosed breeds can overheat and die. They were thrilled when Southwest Airlines said Butler Blue II is an "emotional support dog" who could ride with the Kaltenmarks in the cabin of a flight chartered by Butler fans.
Blue was an even bigger hit this year. He had his picture taken with many fans, including former President George H. W. Bush and his wife, Barbara.
ESPN shot a feature story that showcased Blue's ball-handling skills. He hugged it with his legs, then used his paws to move the ball, much like a soccer player.
"Blue stole the spotlight in Houston, but his little brother Everett wasn't too far behind," said the proud papa. "Blue is very tolerant and gentle" with the new baby, "and Everett just cannot get enough of Blue."
Butler Blue II "is a ham and he likes the spotlight," Mr. Kaltenmark said. "This is the only life he knows. He's been a mascot since he was 7 weeks old."
The couple makes sure their dog has plenty of "down" time to take naps and chill out away from the crowds. Back home in Indianapolis, five days a week Blue accompanies Mr. Kaltenmark to his office on the Butler campus, where he is director of Web marketing.
"Blue's a rock star on campus! Everyone loves him!" one of the players told an ESPN interviewer during the tournament. Students think it's good luck to pat Blue before they take tests and exams.
Fans can follow Blue on Facebook and Twitter and see him on the Ustream live office webcam in his owner's office. Go to www.butler.edu to see pictures, notecards and wall clings with his image. They're selling like hotcakes, so Blue's image will soon adorn T-shirts and mugs.
Blue's fame and popularity is not diminished by the fact that the glorious, improbable ride of the Butler bulldogs ended in a loss to the University of Connecticut. Although the UConn Huskies won the national championship, they did not win the hearts of dog lovers, for they failed to bring a live, canine mascot to the big game that was dubbed "the dogfight."
Butler fans aren't the only people who love the wrinkled, flat-faced dogs. Bulldogs were the seventh most popular breed in Pittsburgh in 2010, tied with beagles, according to American Kennel Club registrations.
Bulldogs have a "lovable and gentle disposition," are "excellent family pets" and have a "tendency to form strong bonds with children," according to information at www.akc.org.
Pittsburgh pet preferences aren't that different from national trends, with one exception. Rottweilers tied for fourth on the Pittsburgh list but did not crack the AKC's top 10 national list.
Here's Pittsburgh's favorite purebred dogs in 2010, with the national ranking in parentheses:
1-Labrador retrievers (1)
2-Golden retrievers (5)
3-German shepherds (2)
4-Yorkshire terriers (3)
10-Shih tzu (10)
Pet Tales appears weekly in the Saturday Home & Garden section. Linda Wilson Fuoco: email@example.com or 412-263-3064. First Published April 16, 2011 4:00 AM