Stevens out to prove Butler belongs among the nation's elite (cont.)
There is an even more basic reason why Stevens wanted to stay put: He is a Hoosier, born and bred. He grew up in Zionsville, Ind., which is a half-hour's drive north of Indianapolis, attended DePauw University in Greencastle, and he has worked at Butler since coming there in 2000 as a director of basketball operations under former coach Thad Matta. He and Tracy, whom he met when he was a freshman at DePauw, have a son, Brady, who is 4, and a 16-month-old daughter named Kinsley. "When my wife and I want to go out to dinner, we have no problems finding a babysitter," Stevens says. Can you think of a better reason to stay at a job?
Still, as Howard indicated, Stevens is first and foremost a competitor. He wouldn't stay at Butler if he didn't think his team could win on the biggest stage. In this respect, his career appears to be tracing the arc of Gonzaga coach Mark Few, who every spring turns down high-major opportunities to stay in Spokane, where he has guided the Bulldogs to 11 consecutive NCAA tournament berths and four trips to the Sweet 16. It should also be noted that both Stevens and Few followed coaches who left to take bigger jobs and flopped. Lickliter lasted three years at Iowa, and Few's predecessor, Dan Monson, coached just one NCAA tournament game at Minnesota before being fired seven games into the 2006-07 season. (Monson is currently the coach at Long Beach State.)
The one area where Stevens has most tried to copy Few's template for mid-major success is scheduling. Every year, Stevens tries to load up as many difficult nonconference games as he can, which is why Butler has been able to garner three NCAA at-large bids since 2003. While many mid-major schools play so-called guarantee games, where they are paid upwards of $75,000 to travel to an opponent's gym, Butler has not played a guarantee game since 2004. Ohio State, UAB and Northwestern are among the schools that have come to Hinkle Fieldhouse in recent years. This season the Bulldogs will host Stanford, and though they will play Xavier and Louisville on the road, those teams will return to Hinkle next year. Then there's the big nationally televised rematch with Duke in the Meadowlands on Dec. 4, which is sure to be a major event.
Such is the changing perception of Butler that it was Rick Pitino's idea to set up the home-and-home series with Louisville. He and Stevens struck up a friendship after meeting on line at a Starbucks several years ago while they were out recruiting. Pitino is an unabashed Stevens fan -- "All of us coaches wish we had the humility that he has when we were his age. I think he's very special." -- and he sees no reason why Stevens can't build a legitimate national power at Butler. "When Coach K got to Duke, it was in a top conference, but it was not a top-10 job. It wasn't even a top-20 job," Pitino says. "He made it a great job, and the same thing can be true of Butler and Gonzaga. They're top-20 programs every year and they go far in the tournament."
And yet, nobody knows better than Few that in many respects, the hard part for Stevens is just beginning. "Brad has a great thing going. They've shown that they can play with anybody in the country and beat anybody in the country," Few says. "I just know from what we've done that it's so much harder to continue success than it is to make that initial run. Everybody in your league wants a piece of you, they want to storm the floor, and then nationally everybody expects you to win every game."
For now, Stevens has the pieces in place to meet that challenge. Though Hayward left after his sophomore season to enter the NBA draft, where he was chosen ninth overall by Utah, the Bulldogs return three other starters. That includes their backcourt duo of Shelvin Mack, a 6-3 junior who spent part of his summer scrimmaging against NBA players who were trying out for USA Basketball's world championships team, and Ronald Nored, a 6-foot junior who led last year's team in assists and steals.
The linchpin up front will be Howard, the 2008-09 Horizon League Player of the Year. Besides being an invaluable asset who is not afraid to do the dirty work (it was Howard who set the possibly illegal screen on Duke's Kyle Singler to free up Hayward for that last-second attempt), Howard is an ideal posterboy for this program. He carries a 3.8 grade point average, and at the start of last season, when Stevens asked his players to vote secretly on who was the most humble player on the team, Howard received 10 out of 15 votes.
Stevens has also brought in three solid freshmen who will all vie for playing time, but the group does not include any names that can be found at the top of the rankings on recruiting websites. This, too, is nothing new. "We've probably tried to stick to our guns more in recruiting than any other area," Stevens says. "We need to find guys who will be top-100 players when their college careers are over, not when they're young." Though Butler is one of three schools (along with Indiana and North Carolina) still in the mix to land Cody Zeller, a 6-10 forward from Washington, Ind., who is ranked 20th in the Class of 2011 by Rivals.com, Stevens did not spend his summer chasing after would-be McDonald's All-Americans. "Those guys might be more interested in talking to us now, but ultimately the player has to pick your school. Finishing second in recruiting is not a very good thing."
The same can be said for finishing second in the NCAA tournament. "Ultimately, we were not the most successful team in the country last year, so there's some motivation that comes from that," Stevens says.
He's the right man at the right time to help Butler take that next step, and if he has to work overtime to make it happen, that's OK. At least he doesn't have to worry about finding a babysitter.