Butler, Brad Stevens are on the verge of turning myth into reality in NCAA title game
By Mike Wise,
Brad Stevens is unemotional, undirty, unflappable, unbitter and unmoved by anything more than a rotating defender who takes a hard step toward the man with the ball. Boyish-looking in designer spectacles at 34, he is occasionally still mistaken for one of his Butler players, and reports of him owning a razor have yet to be confirmed.
“I just call him ‘Brad,’ ” Bulldogs senior guard Shawn Vanzant said. “What you see is what you get with him.”
Connecticut Coach Jim Calhoun, his counterpart in Monday’s national title game, is double Stevens’s age, eight times as jaded, crotchety, fiery and the only title game coach in NCAA history out on bail until he serves a three-game suspension next season for his program’s recruiting violations.
Breaking down the Final Four coaches earlier this week, Calhoun, appointing himself the patriarch, called Stevens “the perfect middle child.”
“I want him occasionally to at least cuss or just do something out of line,” he said Sunday afternoon.
Let the morality play in high tops commence. Let the untainted-vs.-unseemly narrative play out on the court Monday night at Reliant Center before what could be the largest title game crowd in NCAA annals. And let it begin with the coaches — the young, humble numbers freak from the mid-major program in the Heartland vs. the mumbling old-timer from just south of Boston, trying to hold on to what little power the big schools have left over the upstarts.
“I want to operate with as much integrity as I possibly can every single day,” Stevens said Sunday when asked about corruption in his sport. “I want our players to understand that when they move on. I’ve said before, the results don’t matter [more than] the process and the way you go about things.”
Unfazed by becoming the youngest modern-era Division I men’s basketball coach to take his team to two national championship games in a row, Stevens is unlike so many of his contemporaries, who need the next gig and next income level to validate their career ascent.
If Kentucky Coach John Calipari has been referred to as the next Jerry Tarkanian this week, it’s time for Stevens to be acknowledged as having the most in common with the greatest coach of all time, John Wooden, the pride of Martinsville, Ind., who believed that developing the person was the most important part of developing the player.
Stevens already is one of just nine coaches to reach back-to-back title games since Wooden won the last of his 10 championships at UCLA in 1975, a list that includes Dean Smith, Guy Lewis, John Thompson Jr., Mike Krzyzewski, Steve Fisher, Nolan Richardson, Rick Pitino and Billy Donovan — and Stevens is seven years younger than when Coach K and Donovan achieved the feat (both were 41).
“I know everybody wants him to have a dark side, but he doesn’t have one,” said his wife, Tracy. She spoke from the couple’s hotel room Sunday night as she distributed chicken nuggets to their son, Brady, 5, and daughter, Kinsley, 2. “I will tell you this: He’s an incredibly competitive guy. Golf. Board games. We must play Scrabble five nights a week. And he really gets into it.”
Whoa, a Scrabble habit. Sounds dangerous.
Shelvin Mack was thought to have unleashed a bombshell Sunday when he said his coach actually “smack-talks” when he competes with his junior guard in shooting games. But then Mack admitted that calling it “smack-talk” might be a bit of a stretch for a guy who says, “I bet you miss that shot.”
“I’d give you dirt if I had it,” said Eli Boyer, a team manager for Butler. “But he’s the most cleanest, pure man I’ve ever met.”
Because it almost dropped Duke a year ago in the title game, Butler has been mostly immune to too much of the “Hoosiers” schlock over the past month. But Stevens knows it’s part of their back story.
“I was a kid that grew up 20 minutes outside of Indianapolis,” he said. “Best birthday present I got when I was 8 years old was a basketball hoop on my driveway.”
What even some of the Hickory High buffs don’t know is, Butler’s two-year run is closer to the truth than the movie.
In real life, 162-student Milan High went to the state semifinals the year before it upset 1,162-student Muncie Central for the title in 1954.
When I spoke to Bobby Plump (the real-life Jimmy Chitwood and former Butler star) last week, he said the original coach wasn’t a last-chance lifer but a young guy named Marvin Wood.
“Brad Stevens was more like him than Gene Hackman’s character, that’s for darn sure,” said Plump, now 74.
Besides, you couldn’t make up Stevens’s story: That he quit a good job as a marketing associate at Eli Lilly, the pharmaceutical giant, to volunteer at Butler almost 10 years ago, or that he actually got a job at Applebee’s to make ends meet before fate intervened and he didn’t have to bus tables after all.
Or that his father, a former football player at Indiana, scolded him for just one thing: “When I didn’t play hard, I heard about it,” he said. “I never forgot this. When I came home from a game one time, he said, ‘I don’t know anything about basketball, but I know you’re not playing hard enough.’ ”
Uncontroversial, unjaded, unimpressed by the fame of his peers, bespectacled Brad Stevens has somehow managed to again traverse the unpredictable road of the tournament. He’s again one game shy of bringing unheralded Butler to the pinnacle.
So what if there is a joke going around that the 9:23 p.m. start for the national championship game is past his bedtime? If the young wizard and his team pull it off against the real or imagined sinister forces of big-time college basketball, the Butler Bulldogs and their coach will be nothing short of unreal.