Hiring a young Stevens pays for Butler

Bulldogs athletic director had a strong sense about promoting 30-year-old to head coach

Posted: March 30, 2010
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The formal timeline shows Butler took less than two days to promote a 30-year-old Brad Stevens to head basketball coach.

Enjoying the spoils: Butler basketball coach Brad Stevens (center) revels in his team's West Regional championship last weekend in Salt Lake City. Stevens, in his third season as the Bulldogs' coach, has 88 victories, the most in Division I history for anyone coaching so few years. - Sam Riche / The Star

As far as athletic director Barry Collier was concerned, the interview process lasted eight months. The only candidates were three Butler assistant coaches: Stevens, Matthew Graves and LaVall Jordan.

"I was at practices, I was at games," Collier said in Salt Lake City, where the Bulldogs celebrated a victory that sent them to the Final Four. "I was watching them interact and communicate with the team. It took well over 36 hours to get (Stevens) hired.

"It was because we just knew he was the right guy. Didn't quite know we'd be standing here talking about this at this time."

Butler (32-4) will meet Michigan State (28-8) in an NCAA Tournament national semifinal Saturday at Lucas Oil Stadium.

Stevens, at 88-14, has more victories in his first three seasons than any coach in major college history. At 33, he is the youngest coach to take a team to the Final Four since Indiana University's Bob Knight, 32, in 1973. The youngest to win the NCAA title was Indiana's Branch McCracken, 31, in 1940.

IU connections don't stop there. Stevens' father, Mark, an orthopedic surgeon, was a redshirt freshman on the Hoosiers' 1967 football team that went to the Rose Bowl. Father and son often traveled from their Zionsville home to watch Knight's Hoosiers.

"Basketball was always my first love," Stevens said. "It's hard not to be when you're a kid growing up in Indiana in the '80s and '90s, because basketball in this state was pretty darn good at that time."

As has been often documented, he quit his marketing job with pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly in the summer of 2000 to become a volunteer in Butler's basketball office. He and girlfriend Tracy weren't married yet, and he didn't have family responsibilities.

"Now, it looks like a great idea," he said. "At the time, I thought it was something I really wanted to try."

Stevens soon became the low-paying director of basketball operations. This is his 10th year on Butler's staff.

When Todd Lickliter left Butler in 2007 to become coach at Iowa, Jordan followed him there. Graves stayed at Butler to become Stevens' top assistant coach.

The Iowa announcement came on a Monday in which former Butler coach Thad Matta -- Stevens' first boss -- sent his Ohio State team against Florida in the NCAA title game. Stevens interviewed Tuesday night, then was called back the next morning for a follow-up interview. Hours later, he was the head coach.

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"You take about four minutes to react to it," he said, "then you want to talk to your current team."

The next day, he met with incoming recruits Matt Howard, Connersville, and Zach Hahn, New Castle, who told him they were committed to Butler. Stevens made a phone call to another recruit, Shawn Vanzant, Tampa, Fla., who told him the same thing.

Stevens was promoted from within, as were predecessors Lickliter and Matta. Players met with Collier, urging the athletic director to select a coach who was already there. He did.

"As you can see, that was a great decision, the right decision," said senior Willie Veasley, who had just completed his freshman season when Lickliter left. "His age doesn't really mean nothing when he coaches because he's just a brilliant coach."

In his first weeks on the job, Stevens met then-Brownsburg High School junior Gordon Hayward. By June 1, Hayward announced he was going to Butler -- which was "a pretty important part of what we're doing," Stevens said. Hayward was the outstanding player of the West Regional.

Stevens inherited a team featuring five seniors. The Bulldogs were 30-4 before being eliminated by Tennessee 76-71 in overtime in the second round of the 2008 NCAA Tournament.

In Stevens' second season, the Bulldogs were so inexperienced -- three freshmen started -- that they were projected to finish fifth in the Horizon League. Instead, they went 26-6 and earned an NCAA at-large berth. They lost to LSU 75-71 in the first round, but momentum carried over into this year's historic season.

It could be argued Stevens will be overmatched in this Final Four against Duke's Mike Krzyzewski, West Virginia's Bob Huggins and Michigan State's Tom Izzo. The three other coaches have a collective 78 years of experience, 18 Final Four appearances and 1,900 victories.

Yet Butler players have repeatedly said they are so well prepared for opponents that they know exactly what will happen. Collier called Stevens "a great coach," then repeated the word "great" twice more.

Butler has trailed in the second half of all four of its tournament games and was behind in the final five minutes of the past three. If teams are an extension of their coach, the Bulldogs' poise can be traced to Stevens.

"He coaches to his personality and to his strengths," Collier said. "Obviously, he has great rapport and communication ability with his team."



Call Star reporter David Woods at (317) 444-6195.

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