Jim Larranaga: Thanks to an established tradition of excellence, Butler is no Cinderella

The Washington Post's Dan Steinberg talks about this years NCAA basketball tournament and the proposal to expand the contest to 96 teams.
By Jim Larranaga
Saturday, April 3, 2010

There are no words that can describe it. Planning for it can take years, with no guarantee of ultimate success. And there is no better feeling for a coach or a player. Taking your team to the Final Four is like climbing Mount Everest and planting your university's flag at the top.

Butler University's ascent began in the early 1990s, and I was lucky enough to have been there when the journey began. Back then, I was a young head coach at Bowling Green and was looking for ways to improve our program, so I called Dick Bennett, then the head coach at Wisconsin-Green Bay (it was years before he moved to Wisconsin and took the Badgers to the Final Four). We had played his team the previous two seasons and were so thoroughly impressed that I wanted to pick Coach Bennett's brain. How did he get his players to execute as a team so well?

I called Barry Collier, a good friend and then Butler's bright head coach, and invited him to join me on my trip to Wisconsin. That trip proved to be invaluable for both of us.

Our meeting with Coach Bennett had less to do with Xs and Os and more to do with philosophy. Not just basketball philosophy, but a philosophy about life and a coach's responsibility to his players. Coach Bennett shared with us his philosophy of "humility, passion, unity, servanthood and thankfulness." After the meeting, Coach Collier went back to Indianapolis and built his program into a winner. He won so often that other schools started calling him and asking him to take over their programs. Although he loved Butler, he decided to accept the head coaching job at Nebraska in the Big 12.

When Coach Collier left, he recommended his assistant, Thad Matta, for the head coaching job. Instinctively, Coach Matta chose to adopt the same philosophy as his predecessor. He had so much success that just a few years later he was lured away by Xavier and now employs that same philosophy at Ohio State, where he led the Buckeyes to the 2007 Final Four. Thad was replaced by his assistant, Todd Lickliter, who after several strong seasons moved on to the University of Iowa.

Collier, in the meantime, left Nebraska and returned to Butler as athletic director. With the success that Butler was enjoying it would have been natural for him to conduct a national search to find a replacement for Coach Lickliter. Instead, he chose to elevate an unknown 30-year-old assistant coach with no head coaching experience. His name: Brad Stevens, who has built his own program based on the same simple philosophy -- "humility, passion, unity, servanthood and thankfulness" -- that was followed by the coaches who preceded him.

This Saturday in the Final Four, Butler will take on Coach Tom Izzo and the Michigan State Spartans, the same coach and program we at George Mason faced in the first round of the 2006 NCAA tournament. Tom has built a tradition of excellence that is the envy of every college basketball coach in the country. He has taken his team to the Final Four in six of the last 12 years, making it to the championship game last season before falling to North Carolina. Tom is at the top of the coaching profession. He is not only a great coach but a great person. He runs a first-class program and is the consummate role model for all the young coaches entering the profession.

But how can Butler possibly compete with Michigan State and move one step closer to becoming the first true mid-major program to win a national championship since Texas Western in 1966?

Well, the Bulldogs have already shocked the experts who predicted they would lose to Texas-El Paso in the first round, to Murray State in the second and to top-seeded Syracuse in the West Region semifinals. In addition to defeating those quality teams, they advanced to the Final Four by knocking off a strong, physical and extremely athletic team in Kansas State. How did they do it? They did it by playing stifling defense, outrebounding bigger and stronger players, and sharing the ball on offense against both man-to-man and zone defenses far better than even the most knowledgeable basketball analyst could predict.

Coach Stevens is just 33 years old but has shown poise and gamesmanship that would even impress James Naismith, our game's inventor. He has won more games in his first three years than any coach in college basketball history. Can you imagine? This young coach has built not just a good team but a great program. They are not the Cinderella team that we were in 2006. No, these Bulldogs are a No. 5 seed with a winning tradition that began long before this season.

So can Butler defeat Michigan State? The answer is yes. Coach Stevens and his players not only have a winning team but a well-established winning philosophy that gives them a chance against anyone.

The author is the men's basketball coach at George Mason. He led the Patriots to the Final Four in 2006.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company