Published March 21, 2011
INDIANAPOLIS – At age 34, Brad Stevens has already coached in a national championship game, won four straight regular-season league titles, beaten Bob Knight and reached the NCAA tournament's regional round in back-to-back years.
Most coaches would call that a pretty good career. People at Butler think it's just the start.
"I remember him speaking one time at an event because the head coach couldn't be there, and I remember telling his mom he's going to make it big one day," Butler women's basketball coach Beth Couture said Monday. "He just had that aura about him."
Stevens still has it, which helps explain why the Bulldogs are in position to reach the Final Four again.
They've already beaten Old Dominion on a buzzer-beating tip-in from Matt Howard and upset top-seeded Pittsburgh in one of the wackiest finishes in tourney history. Two more wins and Butler (25-9) can book that improbable ticket to Houston.
How has Stevens done all this with a program that's not supposed to be competing with college basketball's big boys?
His players say it's his style.
"I can say there's not too many coaches in the world who you can make jokes to or make jokes about or have shooting contests with," guard Shelvin Mack said. "That helps you out later."
Couture remembers Stevens taking time during last year's Final Four week, the biggest of his career and one taking place near Butler's campus, to ask her, a breast cancer survivor, to be his guest at the Coaches vs. Cancer dinner.
Players believe Stevens' cool demeanor inspires the confidence they need to excel in late-game situations — like the two last week — and school officials often cite their appreciation for the way Stevens represents the school in public.
Yet this baby-faced coach is mature enough to do all of those things and still not allow anything — winning, losing, speculation about his next job — to become a distraction to the rest of the team.
That's why, four years ago, athletic director Barry Collier turned over one of the nation's top mid-major programs to an untested 30-year-old.
"He's got a high level of character, a high level of intelligence, a high motor and his energy is great," said Collier, the former Butler coach who started the program's revival in 1989. "But he is an incredibly good communicator, and that might be the most important thing."
Stevens' players understand what Collier is talking about.
The day after accepting the Butler job, a sleepless Stevens jumped in his car, drove 50 miles to New Castle, Ind., and met with recruit Zach Hahn and his family. Then, it was off to Connersville, Ind., for a meeting with Howard and his family. In between, he made phone calls to out-of-state recruits like Shawn Vanzant, the team's starting point guard.
All Stevens wanted to do was make sure the recruits still wanted to play for Butler.
"It really wasn't necessary," Howard said. "I knew he was a Butler guy and he came from the Butler system and that's all that really mattered to me."
Looking back, it's understandable.
Howard's recruiting class has become the foundation for everything Butler has achieved during the Stevens era, and along the way, the coach has learned a few lessons, too.
Three straight losses in late January and early February had many writing off the Bulldogs as Horizon League contenders and their hopes of returning to the NCAA tourney.
So Stevens improvised.
"After the Youngstown State game, we talked about it in the locker room and starting the next day, we didn't mention it again except to talk about some of the lessons we had learned," Stevens said. "I was probably too hard on them at the time (of the losing streak)."
Butler responded by winning 11 straight, clinching a share of the regular-season title, taking the conference tourney title and setting up Thursday night's showdown between eighth-seeded Butler and fourth-seeded Wisconsin.
What may go down as their most implausible tourney run yet also has put Stevens' name back in the conversation at virtually every BCS school that is looking for a new coach. His current deal was recently extended by Butler for another year, taking it through 2023, and that's not even long enough for Collier.
"I'm smart enough to know good coaches when I see them," he said. "Each year we have a decision to make that allows us to extend the deal by another year, and boy, do we want to."
Who wouldn't want Stevens at this point?
He's gone head-to-head with the only two Division I men's coaches to win 900 games (Knight and Duke's Mike Krzyzewski) and produced Butler's first NBA first-round draft pick. There's still plenty of time to add more lines to the resume of one of America's youngest and brightest coaches.
"I've been around a long time and I've not seen too many coaches that are the whole package," said Couture, who has spent 25 years in the profession. "He is the whole package. He's very good with X's and O's, he's very knowledgeable and he also understands how to deal with the players and alumni. He's got it all."