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It was a watershed moment for Stevens. "In team sports you have to overcome human nature to a degree," says Fenlon. "Anybody would struggle with what Brad struggled with. He was being asked to lead in a different way than he ever had previously. And, eventually, he got really good at it."
Two years later, in Stevens's first year at Butler, then assistant and future coach Todd Lickliter would introduce Stevens to Bill Russell's book Russell Rules: 11 Lessons on Leadership from the Twentieth Century's Greatest Winner. In it Russell sets forth the concept of "team ego," writing, "I was the most egotistical player they would ever meet. My ego is not a personal ego, it's a team ego. My ego demands—for myself—the success of my team."
Stevens says, "You have a choice to make when you're not playing: Either you're invested and a great teammate, or you're not. There were times, early on, where I wasn't a great teammate. It's a difficult concept, learning the we over me attitude. I'm glad I got to that point, because it really helped me as a coach."
THE STEVENS legend holds that he left DePauw with an economics degree and took a $44,000-per-year job as a marketing associate with the pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly, based in Indianapolis, and then a year later suddenly left for an unpaid gig as a graduate manager for the Butler basketball program, the bottom rung of the college coaching ladder. Those basics are true, but his career shift wasn't sudden. The coaching seeds had been planted during that transformative senior year at DePauw; even while working at Lilly, he volunteered at a high school and coached an AAU team. "He was talking about basketball that entire year," says Tracy, who met Stevens at DePauw.
In the spring of 2000, Butler coach Thad Matta granted him the graduate-manager slot. Soon the program lost its director of operations, and Stevens was elevated to that position at a salary of $18,000 per year. It would take him five years to climb back to $44,000, by which time the Stevenses were married. They had a little celebration to mark the moment.
At Butler, Stevens joined a basketball staff that included future Xavier and Ohio State coach Matta, future Butler and Iowa coach Lickliter, future Ohio and Illinois coach John Groce and former Butler player Mike Marshall. The gaps in Stevens's basketball knowledge were laid open, much like six years later at his first coaching retreat. "My first couple of meetings at Butler, those guys would throw on film, and I felt like I had gone from Spanish 1 to Spanish 4," says Stevens. "It was eye-opening." Stevens attached himself to Lickliter, who in turn assigned Stevens to put together instructional video packages that also incorporated statistical tendencies. These were the predigital days; Stevens would spend long hours in a small room behind the receptionist's desk, using a stack of three VCRs to create fresh tapes. Lickliter often kicked the videos back to Stevens with orders that the plays be sequenced differently to facilitate teaching. Lickliter took over when Matta went to Xavier in 2001, and when Lickliter went to Iowa in 2007, once again the Bulldogs' new coach came from within: Stevens.
He didn't have to rebuild. Lickliter had twice reached the NCAA Sweet 16. Yet Stevens climbed on Lickliter's shoulders and carried the program to absurd heights for a mid-major. Media seized on Butler's Hoosier charm and painted the Bulldogs as a latter-day Hickory High, which was a simplistic notion. In fact, Stevens's teams thrived most pointedly with a complex and punishing defensive system. As Duke assistant Steve Wojciechowski told SI in an interview about the 2010 national championship game, "We emphasized to our guys that when you study Butler, they look like choirboys, but they play the game incredibly physically and hard. That was a huge factor in the tournament. Butler took the fight to people, and people were absolutely not prepared for it."
Fenlon often drove from DePauw to watch Butler practices. "Their defensive schemes were so much more sophisticated than what you see in most of college basketball," he says. "It was stunning at times, the way those Butler kids were able to see things before they happened and communicate with each other."
Zach Hahn, a 6'1" guard from New Castle, Ind., was in Stevens's first recruiting class and played on both of Butler's Final Four teams. "Playing defense at Butler was the hardest thing I ever had to do as a basketball player," says Hahn. "Not really because there was so much thinking, but because we were moving for the entire 35 seconds. We zoned up certain people, we recognized tendencies in other people, and a lot of it was getting into gaps early and often, just to discourage a guy from making the next pass or trying to dribble into the lane after he catches a pass." As for playing a physical game, consider that Hahn played at 170 pounds and bench-pressed 280; all of the Butler guards could lift big stacks of weight.
Just as creatively (and as important), Stevens kept his players in situations—offensively and defensively—where they had a high probability of success. Shelvin Mack, a thick 6'3" guard, was seldom asked to guard an explosive dribbler (a duty that usually fell to Ronald Nored or Shawn Vanzant); Matt Howard, a 6'8" forward on both Final Four teams with a propensity for overplaying and fouling, was usually assigned to an opponent's weakest forward (while Hayward or Willie Veasley would guard more athletic players). Hahn, strong and slow, sometimes guarded players who were six inches taller but not highly skilled. "They were really, really good at cross-matching on defense," says Valparaiso coach Bryce Drew, who was an assistant under his father, Homer, during Stevens's Butler era. "They would play a one with a three, or a four with a two, just to limit your best players. They really knew who they were."