Offensively, Butler ran precise sets, especially on out-of-bounds plays. "I don't want to say they were flawless," says Cleveland State coach Gary Waters, "but Brad's teams were absolutely great in situational execution." Preparation was exceptional, but Stevens regularly scribbled up whiteboard plays during timeouts. In the Bulldogs' 2010 Sweet 16 win over Syracuse, Stevens designed an out-of-bounds play on the fly where four players ran in around the offensive circle and then simply cut wherever they pleased when the referee handed off the ball; Howard slipped loose for a layup. They were never better than on the final possession of the 2010 national championship game, when they ran a slick sequence off a missed Duke free throw, leading to Hayward's half-court near-miss, all without the benefit of a timeout.
Through it all Stevens's chill persona never changed. "When he was really getting on us, he would tell us we had to play with more moxie," says Hahn, "like that was the meanest, nastiest thing you could say to somebody." In Stevens's first season as coach, Butler trailed Ohio State at halftime after shooting 1 for 16 on three-pointers. Stevens placed a trash can in the locker room and handed the players wadded-up scraps of paper with which to practice "shooting," but more to help them relax. Butler outscored Ohio State 45--16 in the second half and won by 19.
When tough decisions had to be made, Stevens came armed with numbers to back his moves, such as in December 2010 when he moved Hahn from starter to reserve by showing him his stats in each role. But more than anything, he sold loyalty and team belief at every turn. In the 2011 Elite Eight, Butler trailed Florida by 11 with just over nine minutes to play. On a free throw Stevens called Howard to the sideline and told him, "Get the guys together and tell them we're going to win this game. I want you to do that. We're going get a couple of stops, knock it down to a small margin and then win it."
Howard recalled the moment (Butler won the game 74--71 in overtime) as a small piece in a bigger puzzle. "Brad expressed little things over and over," says Howard, "like being a good teammate and a good friend. So many games are decided by a few possessions. When you get to those situations, you don't want to let people down. We had that, and I don't think you can overstate it."
Yet even as Stevens turned aside college job offers to remain in this Hoosier Valhalla, he remained intrigued by the intellectual and technical challenge of the NBA. Ainge, who first met Stevens while scouting Hayward in 2010, called in late June. Stevens was intrigued on multiple levels. "There was certainly the Celtics' tradition," he says. "But there was also that intrigue with the NBA game." He welcomed Ainge and Celtics executives Wyc Grousbeck and Steve Pagliuca into his mother's home, where Brad and Tracy were living, having recently sold their house. Despite all the college job offers, Stevens had never met with any representative in person. On the morning of July 3, after talking with the Boston trio, and as Tracy sat in her husband's Hinkle Fieldhouse office writing checks for the camp payroll, Stevens walked in and said, "I'm gonna do it."
IN THE summer of 1994, the Trail Blazers hired P.J. Carlesimo away from Seton Hall, launching the modern era of NBA experimentation with successful college coaches who had no experience in professional coaching. (Rick Pitino coached the Knicks in 1987--88 and '88--89 but had previously been a New York assistant in the early '80s.) Carlesimo was followed by John Calipari (from UMass to the Nets, 1996), Tim Floyd (from Iowa State to the Bulls, '98), Lon Kruger (from Illinois to the Hawks in 2000), Leonard Hamilton (from Miami to the Wizards in '00) and Mike Montgomery (from Stanford to the Warriors in '04). Only Carlesimo was above .500 in his initial job (137--109), and he was also the only one to win a postseason game, going 3--9. (Calipari was 0--3, and none of the others made the playoffs.)
A creeping sense developed that college coaches are overmatched by the complexity of the NBA game and often steamrollered by wealthy, entitled players who treat them like substitute teachers. "I inherited a pretty good team," says Carlesimo. "I had Clyde Drexler, Terry Porter, Jerome Kersey. And those guys were accepting of me. Most of the college guys who have come in since me have had expansion-type teams. The NBA is all about the players. Some of those teams, you could have had Red [Auerbach] and Phil [Jackson] both on the bench and still won 25 games."
Stevens inherits one such team, gutted primarily by the loss of veterans Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. It's uncertain if point guard Rajon Rondo, who hasn't played since tearing his right ACL in January, will return, or if he'll be the next All-Star shipped out of Boston. It's almost certain that the Celtics will struggle to win consistently under any circumstances. "Look, Brad has the intellect and he's got a very good temperament, so he'll have a good way with players," says one NBA assistant coach who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "His head is going to be spinning, but that's O.K. He's working for the perfect guy, and he's got a six-year commitment. Danny has his back. It's an ideal place for Brad to coach."
There's little doubt Stevens brings ample brainpower to the job. "He's obviously a great tactician, and that translates [to the NBA]," says Vogel. During his visits to Butler, Fenlon had seen NBA executives in the stands, some of whom came over and asked about Stevens. One of Stevens's assistants is Ron Adams, who has 20 years of NBA experience and with whom Stevens had forged a friendship. Building trust through personal relationships with players—central to Stevens's approach—will be more challenging.
"There's no cookie cutter on player relationships," says Carlesimo (see: Latrell Sprewell). "Guys like Phil or Pat Riley, you might see more personal motivational stuff. The players will drink it up if it helps them win. If it's not helping them win, they will see right through it and check out on you completely."