That coach Brad Stevens coached the Butler Bulldogs—a mid-major team that had never made it past the Sweet 16 in tournament play—to Monday’s final game of the NCAA tournament is remarkable, to say the least. That he’s done it two years in a row is outright miraculous. Suddenly, the baby-faced 34-year-old former pharmaceutical rep is not just the hottest young coach in men’s college basketball. He’s one of the hottest coaches in NCAA sports, period.
How Stevens has achieved such notoriety without a team full of first-round draft picks has been the subject of much analysis and commentary. While Butler has its share of talent, there are no Kemba Walkers on this team, either. The last two teams to go to two consecutive final games were Florida and Kentucky (in 2006-2007 and 1996-1998, respectively), each of which had five or more NBA draft picks. Butler’s star guard Shelvin Mack is only expected to go in the second round.
As a result, much of the analysis and commentary has been on Stevens, and how he’s managed this seemingly impossible feat. He’s refreshingly humble, say some, seeking advice from big-name peers like Florida coach Billy Donovan after getting into a losing rut early in the season. He’s a master motivator, knowing what works for each of his different players and changing up his style accordingly. He has an innate feel for the talent on his team, knowing who to play at just the right moment and who to sit on the sidelines.
And he’s happy to stay where he is, apparently. Rather than perpetually looking to climb the celebrity coaching ladder to bigger and bigger schools—a fool’s game that can distract even the brightest and most talented coaches in sports—he doesn’t seem to think the grass is greener somewhere else. Not only did he sign a 12-year contract extension after last year’s near-win over Duke in the final game, he says he’s happy where he is.
I have no doubt that Stevens’ coaching prowess is a big reason Butler is playing where it is Monday night. But that same contentedness that helps Stevens stay focused on the game at hand could also surely be said of his players. Stevens is not coaching a team of all-stars who’ve been told since they were 12 they’d play in the NBA. He doesn’t have to manage clashing egos of players trying to boost their top-round chances. Instead, he’s leading a band of kids who are probably just happy to be playing at such a high level, and can give all their attention to winning each game.
The challenge for Stevens—if he does stay at Butler, of course—will be hanging onto that humility, both in himself and his team. The more he wins games this big, the more likely it will be that an offer will come from a major hoops powerhouse that he simply can’t refuse. And the more he leads his team to games this big, the more he’ll have his pick of hot-shot recruits who believe a first-round draft pick is a birthright. Striking the right balance between recruiting hot talent and finding humble, focused players could be a much harder challenge than winning an NCAA championship if Butler goes all the way Monday night. To the victors, it might be said, go the spoiled.
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