Indianapolis Star photo
In the same spot, on the same night, along the very same sideline, two coaches could not have been more different.
National semifinals, 75,000-plus fans in the stands, close games.
Butler forward Andrew Smith blows a put-back. A point-blank put-back. A bunny. A gimme. A shot he couldn’t miss again on a bet. There are groans on press row. There’s a dead ball. He leaves the game, approaches the bench, and Butler coach Brad Stevens is there to greet him. He is clapping. “Good job,” Stevens says, slapping his hand. “Get another one.”
Game Two. Kentucky and Connecticut. Wildcat freshman Doron Lamb has missed a defensive assignment, and he’s coming out. Kentucky coach John Calipari, too, awaits the player leaving the court. He is shouting, a sarcastic litany: “Don’t get a rebound, get beat on a back door, jog up the floor.” By then, Lamb is well past him and onto the bench. Another time, UK’s Eloy Vargas has missed in close, and Calipari screams, an inch from his ear, “Why can’t you FINISH?”
It’s April, and Brad Stevens, a 34-year-old bespectacled former marketing associate at Eli Lilly, looks like a guy you’d get to do your taxes. In a game dominated by celebrity coaches in four-figure suits with seven-figure salaries, Stevens does not look the part, even if his salary did become the first ever at Butler to top seven figures last year. Nor when he is on the sidelines does he toe the line set by big name coaches. He does not rant and stomp. He does yell. He does direct. But sitting on the courtside stool provided by the NCAA, he watches much of the game the way a guy along Main Street in his hometown of Zionsville, Ind., might survey a checkerboard. The coach with an economics degree from DePauw University studies the game like a guy looking for one more deduction.
It’s April, and Brad Stevens, in fact, is working on a return. But it is a return to the NCAA championship game. In the proud history of basketball in the state of Indiana, no coach has taken a state college even to back-to-back Final Fours, let alone title games. That by itself would set Stevens apart. But that alone is not the heart of his story. He has done it without elite high school recruits, at least as far as the recruiting industrial complex now rates them. He has done it without playing in a power conference — defined these days as those with big-time football programs and the money that goes with them, as if a school’s football prowess should have anything to do with putting five players on a court capable of winning basketball games.
And when asked how he has done it, he serves up answers like this one, which could have adorned the wall of even John Wooden himself: “I think the most important thing is adhering to the standards, whatever you deem to be the standards and values of your program.”
At Butler, that entails “The Butler Way,” a code and philosophy of action that is to govern all aspects of the school. As it regards basketball, Stevens says, “It’s not rocket science. It’s a values-based organization.”
“I think it begins with selflessness, and certainly accountability is very important, humility is very important,” he continues. “You kind of go through those founding principles. We always talk about it this way with the team. The only way we address the ‘Butler Way’ with our team is in this regard: people know they’ve seen and felt something special, they just can’t put their finger on it.”
Selflessness. Accountability. Humility. Who let this guy into the Final Four? These are not the hallmarks of college sports today. In fact, they could be called the antithesis of big-time college sports, if you spend much time watching them at their highest level. For them to show up in the NCAA championship game, not just once as a novelty, but in back-to-back seasons, says something not only about the coach, but his sport.
If a sense of place helps define people, certainly two places lend perspective to Stevens. One of them is the driveway of the home where he grew up in Zionsville, a pleasant suburb of Indianapolis. There’s nothing special about that driveway, but that’s the point. Stevens, who watched tapes of basketball games as a 5-year-old before going to kindergarten in the afternoons, grew up there counting down the seconds and making one, last game-winning shot before heading in to supper, and many of his players grew up the same way. There’s a meeting of the basketball minds, in many cases, from before the time Butler players reach campus. Stevens loves the movie “Hoosiers,” though he tends to downplay its parallels with Butler. The ethos depicted in that film, however, of teamwork, of size not mattering, is one that embodies and emboldens his team.
“I was a kid that grew up 20 minutes outside of Indianapolis,” Stevens said. “Best birthday present I got when I was eight years old was a basketball hoop on my driveway. I think a lot of these guys share that. I know that there is a passion for the game and a passion for a team in a lot of communities that goes beyond the norm.”
The other place that fixes Stevens place in the coaching landscape is Hinkle Fieldhouse, historic home of the Butler basketball team. In his early days at Butler, when he wasn’t making much money, having the key to Hinkle in his pocket was something money couldn’t buy. It’s hard to walk into the place and not feel closer to the foundations of the sport. The way Butler plays is built on that foundation.
Early in his career, Stevens would hear people wander into the gym and shout, “Hickory!” recreating the moment from “Hoosiers.” They’d tell him their stories about the place. He’d tell them his.
Over the past two years, this young coach has written an indelible new chapter in its history.
For Stevens, basketball is a game of pieces. Chess masters learn the game in three parts — opening, middle, and endgame. Butler has become a master of the endgame, particularly in tournament play. Stevens takes delight in the details. And if anything, Butler has become the definitive contemporary program in illustrating that you don’t have to be the fastest player to get to the spot first. You don’t have to be the tallest player or greatest leaper to get the rebound.
“You know, the clips that we show our guys from teams past are all of those little details, our lead steps, closing out great off of a ball screen where you have to rotate, of getting a great hedge, getting back into play, coming over and taking a charge on a drive on the other side of the floor,” Stevens said. “I think all of those things go unnoticed and we want to make them important.”
In the 1990s, Arkansas played smothering full-court pressure and called it “40 minutes of hell.” Against Butler’s physical, tight, rotating defense, an offensive set is the longest 35 seconds of your life. Butler games can take any form for the first 35 minutes, but they normally end up at the same place. With four minutes left, you’re going to look at the scoreboard and the game is going to be in the balance.
Stevens talks about games being “possession games,” as in each possession being a game in itself, crucial. Those are the kinds of games Butler seems to excel in come tournament time. One reason — the Bulldogs practice it. Even when they’re just playing around. Stevens suggested that instead of playing to 12 in their pickup games, they think about playing to 8. “It makes the possessions more meaningful,” guard Shelvin Mack said.
But it’s also a game of numbers for Stevens, who was a promising employee at Eli Lilly for his math skills and his ability to synthesize a collection of numbers into effective proposals. Among his duties with the company were analyzing sales numbers to determine compensation for salespeople and plans for which drugs should be sold where.
He quit that job, which paid well, for an unpaid assistant’s job at Butler. He worked basketball camps to make money. He was about to take a job waiting tables at Applebee’s restaurant when the school’s director of basketball operations was arrested for soliciting a prostitute, and he got promoted.
Stevens left the corporate world, but he didn’t stop crunching numbers. You could hear it in his comments after beating Virginia Commonwealth in the national semifinals, when he described his rebounding goal for the game this way: “We tried to get 80 percent plus back on the defensive glass and tried to get 40 percent plus back on the offensive glass. We were 83-38, and that ended up being good enough.”
Of course, Stevens’ stock may now be the fastest-rising in all of American sports. There’s probably not a job that he couldn’t have, based on his success at Butler. Yet it’s generally acknowledged that there are only a handful that he could conceivably want. He says he’s amused sometimes to hear the speculation regarding him and other jobs when he catches it on television at times.
He seems to have a sense that he has found something special in a place that seems to fit his own style and approach so well. There aren’t many serious basketball schools that could look at a guy like Matt Howard — the eighth child (of ten) of Stan and Linda Howard of Connorsville, Ind., and think, “That’s the guy we want to build around in the middle.” But at Butler, the big man who teammates laugh at as he awkwardly navigates his bicycle around campus no matter how cold the weather is a perfect fit.
“Here’s the point,” Stevens says. “I think people always look at their job and you hear people say this all the time, that the grass is greener somewhere else. Well, I think we recognize that the grass is very green at Butler. Butler’s been terrific to us. Butler’s gone in a lot of ways out of their way for us. We recognize that.
“Certainly we appreciate everything that this place has done for us, even when I first got the job and was not making a whole lot of money but had a key to Hinkle. Certainly there can be green grass at other places. You understand that. You see people go through it. You see sometimes it works out for people and sometimes it doesn’t. . . . It’s such a personal thing for me. I’ve just been fortunate to be in a place that I consider to be consistent with where I want to be and who I want to coach.”
It’s not just a testament to the coach, however, that Butler is in this position, the first small school without a major-conference football program to make back-to-back title games since San Francisco did it 1955 and ’56.
Basketball, more than any other sport, can combat brute size and strength with team play. It doesn’t always happen. It takes a staggering amount of work and belief. Players at places like Butler talk about trusting each other, and it loses some of its impact because you hear players at places where they don’t really trust each other saying the same thing.
Indiana, in many ways, gave up on that belief in the game when it did away with its single-class basketball high school championship and split the state into smaller classes. It conceded that the small schools couldn’t compete. At Butler, they don’t concede. They believe. And perhaps the best thing to come of its dual championship game appearances is the restoration of a measure of faith in the game, in the belief that you don’t have to have McDonald’s All-Americans or marginal students to get to the highest reaches of college basketball.
“I’ve always said this — you can have three or four players who can play anywhere in the country and surround them with the perfect role players and you’ve got a chance,” Stevens says. “I think in the last two years we’ve at least, you could argue, been in that mix.”
But don’t forget to add a dose of coaching. It takes someone pretty persuasive to get a teenage player to buy into an old-school message like “believe.” But Stevens has done it. And every time his teams achieve the way they are doing in the NCAA Tournament, the next group of guys has all the more reason to believe it can be done again.
“I think you have to have certain guys that believe,” Stevens says. “And it goes back to that. I thought about when we went back to the Sweet 16 in 2007, we had a couple of seniors in Marcus Nellems, Brandon Crone and Brian Ligon. Brandon Crone played a couple years overseas, but Brian Ligon went to dental school and he’s a dentist now, and Marcus Nellems went and got his Master’s of Art teaching, and he’s an elementary school teacher. Those guys gave us a belief that we could do something if we all stayed together and did all our jobs as well as we possibly can. For whatever reason, we’ve kept those rose-colored glasses on.”
Whatever Stevens is doing, he’s enabling people to see college basketball in a new, or perhaps old, light.