Stevens out to prove Butler belongs among the nation's elite programs
Butler's title-game run last season was no fluke; this program has steadily risen
Stevens' career appears to be tracing the arc of Gonzaga coach Mark Few
Butler returns a solid core, including Shelvin Mack, Matt Howard and Ronald Nored
INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. -- Imagine how odd it would feel to walk into your house just a few hours after coaching in an NCAA championship game. That was Brad Stevens' reality around 2 a.m. on April 6, when the baby-faced, preternaturally poised 33-year-old Butler coach came home, said hello to his wife and checked in on his two young sleeping kids. Then he sat down to watch a DVR recording of the Bulldogs' 61-59 loss to Duke, which had been played eight miles from Butler's campus at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.
"I just wanted to watch it to put closure on it and move forward," Stevens says. He smiles and adds, "I was mad at my wife for extending the [save] time."
As he watched the game, Stevens was again taken not only by how hard the players competed but how properly -- no showboating, no trash-talking, no whining to the officials. When the game entered its indelible final sequence, however, Stevens hit the stop button. To this day he has never seen a replay of Gordon Hayward's ill-fated half-court heave at the buzzer. "I can't watch it. I already know what it looked like," Stevens says. "Just being that close to winning the whole thing is hard to swallow."
Sitting on a couch in his office earlier this month, Stevens recounted the evening at home with his usual, low-key good humor. But don't let the smooth taste fool you. While most of the world viewed Butler's run to the NCAA final as a magical tale straight out of Hoosiers, Stevens looks at it as a nettlesome piece of unfinished business. "He's a really driven guy," says Matt Howard, Butler's 6-foot-8 senior forward. "The one thing that really, really impresses me about him is that he's always looking for that next step. It's hard for us to let any kind of success get to our heads when our head guy is not doing that."
To the untrained eye, this program may feel like a one-hit wonder -- the proverbial "This Year's George Mason" -- but that is not the case. Over the last 10 years, the Bulldogs have been to the NCAA tournament six times, and since 2003 they have reached the Sweet 16 three times. During the last four years, they've been ranked in the AP's top 25 for all but 10 weeks. Reaching the NCAA championship game was a remarkable achievement for a No. 5 seed, but Stevens is on a mission to prove it was no fluke.
That started with his decision to sign a lengthy contract extension just two days after the loss to Duke. As his name was being floated in the press for various openings (Clemson, Oregon and Wake Forest were all vacant at the time), Stevens walked into athletic director Barry Collier's office and assured him that he didn't want to go anywhere else. Eager to cement that conviction in writing, Collier came back with an offer for a 12-year deal. Though Stevens later hired IMG to manage his corporate contracts, he does not retain an agent to handle his coaching agreements. His wife, Tracy, a labor and employment attorney, looked over the language and gave him the OK to sign. Brad Stevens, Inc. is literally a mom-and-pop operation.
"It was flattering to hear all the talk, but at the same time I think we have a really unique thing here," Stevens says. "I really do feel blessed to be a part of it, and I want to continue moving in this direction."
Since the extension was announced so soon after the loss to Duke, there is no way of knowing if a truly tempting offer would have come Stevens' way. But there is also no denying that those opportunities will eventually present themselves if he keeps winning at his current clip. (Under his watch, the Bulldogs have gone 89-15 in three years.) Though Collier would not discuss specifics of Stevens' contract, he did confirm that it does not contain a huge buyout clause that would make it difficult for Stevens to accept another job, which is the case with many coaching deals these days. "If it ever comes to a point where somebody doesn't want to be here, then they need to be able to go. That's just our philosophy," Collier says. "Brad is a special talent, but more importantly he's a great fit for Butler because of what he believes in and what we believe in. I think that's a big part of the reason why he's still our coach."
Collier was a major reason why Stevens decided to re-up. Four years ago, after then-coach Todd Lickliter left for Iowa, Collier promoted Stevens from his assistant's position even though he was 30 years old and had never been a head coach anywhere. "That was a risk, but fortunately for me it's one that Barry and Butler were willing to take," Stevens says. Stevens also recognizes the benefits in working for an athletic director who understands what he's going through. Collier graduated from Butler in 1976, he coached men's basketball there from 1989-2000, and he was the coach at Nebraska for six years before returning to Butler in 2006 to become the AD. "He understands the process, and he's always trying to help you grow and get better," Stevens says. "One of the things that is sometimes undervalued is feeling empowered when you go to work. That's how I feel here."
But aren't there schools out there that could double or triple your salary? "I don't know. We're fine," Stevens laughs. "We're really lucky to have what we have."
Seth Davis' Bubble Watch: BYU Cougars
SI Now: Who will claim the final top seed in the NCAA Tournament?
Canadiens put together big comeback to beat Senators 5-4 in OT
Bruins get their eighth straight victory with win over Hurricanes