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Butler’s Brad Stevens takes new league, new challenges in stride

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Even on a frigid February morning, Brad Stevens went for his morning run prior to meeting his team for a pregame meal. The bus would leave to make the short trip across the Potomac River to George Washington in a couple of hours, and he looked completely serene as he sipped his second cup of coffee.

“This will be our fifth Super Bowl since conference play started,” he said Saturday morning with a relaxed smile. “Sellout crowd, team looking for a signature win, target game for everyone. It’s not something you necessarily expect when you’re the new team in a league, but we know it’s part of the deal.”

It is part of the deal when you’re Butler. If you go to two national title games in three years and become one of the college basketball programs in the country, you become a target, a signature game on someone’s schedule. It also comes with the territory when you’re tied for first place in that new league — the Atlantic 10 — and have wins over Indiana, North Carolina and Gonzaga.

And on Saturday, the No. 14 Bulldogs held off a spirited comeback by GW in front of a frenzied crowd at sold-out Smith Center to score a 59-56 win, merely their latest with the bull’s-eye on their backs.

Stevens is fine with all that.

“At this point, our guys are used to playing in games like this,” he said before the game. “We’ve never taken the approach, even after the two championship games, that a season is about winning games in March. They understand that you have to win games like this and keep getting better. That’s how you win those games when March rolls around.”

Three years after coming within inches of what would have been the most memorable national title game upset since Texas Western beat Kentucky in 1966, Stevens, now all of 36, still looks very much like what he was not so long ago — a junior executive headed up the corporate ladder at Eli Lilly, one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies.

Except for the fact that he’s wearing a sweatsuit instead of a three-piece suit.

“Coaching was an experiment for me when I started out,” he said. “When I got the job at [Eli] Lilly, I was a junior in college and an economics major. I had grown up 20 miles north of Indianapolis and probably had 10 friends whose dads worked at Lilly and were doing very well in those days. A job there seemed like a great fit for an econ major.

“But I was a basketball junkie. Always. The day I started on the job at Lilly after my senior year, I had spent the previous month working basketball camps at Butler.”

Stevens had been a very good Division III guard at DePauw University in Indiana and had actually tried his hand at coaching while working at Lilly the summer between his junior and senior years — working with third- and fourth-graders. The following summer, the people running the program promoted him to coach the high school juniors.

“I really did like it,” he said. “I didn’t know if I was any good at it but I knew I liked it.”

Still, the job at Lilly was there, and Stevens started in August 1999. Nine months later, he quit. The coaching bug had taken hold.

“What was interesting to me was when I told the guys I was working for at Lilly, they didn’t get mad or tell me I was nuts. Several of them said, ‘You know, when I was 23, I thought about trying this or trying that and I’ve always wondered if I should have given it a shot.’ By then they had golden handcuffs on. I didn’t.”

He called Thad Matta, who had just become coach at Butler. He’d met Matta the previous summer while working the Butler camps. Stevens asked Matta if he knew anyone in Division III who might be looking for a graduate assistant coach. Matta had a different idea.

“He said: ‘Come on over here and work with us as a volunteer. That’ll buy you some time and you can figure out if you like doing this or not in the meantime,’ ” Stevens said.

Stevens accepted. His then-girlfriend (now wife) Tracy Wilhemy was getting ready to go to law school at Case Western in Cleveland, so the two of them had a combined income of zero. Actually, it was less than that, Stevens said: “She had school loans.”

On the day he was supposed to start work as a waiter at Applebee’s, Matta offered him a paying job as an assistant for $17,000 a year..

Stevens moved up the ladder when Matta left for Xavier and Todd Lickliter became the coach, and then got the head coaching job in 2007 — at the age of 30 — when Lickliter took the Iowa job. His record is a stupefying: 159-44.

For all the success and all the talk about where he will land when he leaves Butler — when, in fact, there is no evidence that he will leave anytime soon — Stevens remains low-key and self-deprecating.

“I probably don’t enjoy the job as much as I should,” he said. “Every once in a while I have to dial myself back and say, ‘Whoa, it’s basketball, don’t get too carried away.’ I think I’m pretty good at that, but I could be a lot better than I am.”

For all the winning Stevens has done, the game people most remember was one of the losses — the national title game in 2010 against Duke, when Gordon Hayward’s 45-foot shot in the final second hit the backboard and the rim before falling off, giving the Blue Devils a 61-59 win.

“What I remember about that game is the level we played at for 40 minutes,” he said. “That game was a freaking battle played with absolute respect on both sides. I loved being part of it.”

He felt almost the same way last month when his team beat Gonzaga, 64-63, on a buzzer-beating shot by Roosevelt Jones after a midcourt steal. When Jones’s shot went in and Hinkle Fieldhouse became a madhouse, Stevens merely unfolded his arms and went to shake hands with Bulldogs Coach Mark Few — a close friend.

“I reacted that way for two reasons,” he said. “One is that the shot going in didn’t make us one bit better than we would have been one bit worse if it hadn’t gone in. It was like the Duke game — great basketball, total respect.

“The second is that Mark’s my friend. I’ve talked to him a lot about how you handle success and I’ve learned a lot from him. When the shot went in, I thought about how he felt at that moment.”

He smiled. “I’ve been on both sides.”

Next thing. Next Super Bowl. And try to pause and enjoy it along the way.

For more by John Feinstein, visit www.washingtonpost.com/feinstein

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