Like most coaches who lose a heartbreaking game, Butler Coach Brad Stevens had no burning desire to watch the tape of last year’s national championship game. He was fully aware of what people had said about the drama that had unfolded at Lucas Oil Stadium and knew how much inspiration people had drawn from seeing his Bulldogs reach the last game of the college basketball season — and come within a couple of inches of winning.
Heck, he’d been on Letterman.
Almost as important, the president of the United States had called.
“Letterman was cool,” Stevens said earlier this week. “But all kidding aside, having President Obama call was amazing. I mean, how often does the president call the losing coach?”
Of course, Stevens wasn’t just any losing coach and Butler wasn’t just any losing team. The Bulldogs were “Hoosiers” in real life, even if someone blew the last line of the script by having Jimmy Chitwood — as played by Gordon Hayward — fire up a 45-foot heave at the buzzer that just rolled off the front of the rim, allowing Duke to escape with a 61-59 win and the national title.
Even when he sat down in December to finally look at the game tape in preparation for his team’s rematch against Duke, Stevens couldn’t bring himself to watch the last shot.
“Actually watching the tape wasn’t that bad because it reminded me of what an amazing zone we had gotten into by then,” he said. “I knew our guys had given everything they possibly could, but it was good for me to be reminded of how prepared and focused we were that night. I’m not sure if I’ve ever been part of anything like that.”
Even so, he skipped the ending.
“It wasn’t as if I hadn’t seen it a hundred times or a thousand times,” he said, laughing. “Last summer, every time I sat down to watch a golf tournament and CBS would do a promo, there was Gordon and there was the shot and I’d find myself thinking, ‘Maybe it goes in this time.’ ”
If it had, Christian Laettner’s 1992 shot to beat Kentucky might never have been seen again in all the promos for the NCAA tournament each spring. Hayward’s shot would have taken its place as college basketball’s iconic shot now and, arguably, forever.
As it is, Stevens is probably in for another summer of seeing the shot again and again.
The good news is, it doesn’t keep him up at night. Nor does the fact that Hayward passed up his last two years of college to become the No. 1 draft pick of the Utah Jazz. If Hayward had been playing in Hinkle Field House this winter instead of the Delta Center, Butler would probably be in the conversation for this year’s Final Four.
“If you sit around and think, ‘What if Gordon had come back,’ you won’t be able to do the things you have to do,” Stevens said. “You won’t sleep so you’ll be tired and you won’t do your job well or be a good husband or a good father. I feel really good about the way this team has come together in this past month.
“We certainly had our struggles early but the kids have hung with it and, right now, I think we’re a pretty good team. I think we can be a tough out in the tournament.”
Stevens isn’t exactly Rex Ryan when it comes to making bold predictions, so that qualifies as one.
If the mega-stardom that came his way last March and April has changed him at all, it doesn’t show. He’s still only 34 and talks all the time about all he’s learning from other coaches. He doesn’t look at the nine losses this season as catastrophic, — after all his team was an absurd 89-15 his first three seasons — but as part of the process of growing up as a coach.
“It’s given me some perspective on our success since I got here as an assistant coach 11 years ago,” he said. “My first year we won 24 games [under Coach Thad Matta] and that was a school record. I remind myself of that when I look at this team and think about last year’s run. I mean, we won 25 games in a row. That just isn’t going to happen very often.”
As always, Butler played a brutal nonconference schedule this season.
It opened the season by getting blown out at Louisville and also lost to Duke and Xavier but managed wins over Florida State, Washington State, Stanford and Utah. Without Hayward, who could play all five positions on the court, those losses weren’t surprising. What did get people’s attention were the five Horizon League losses. A loss to Duke is one thing; falling to Youngstown State, Wright State and Milwaukee twice is another.
“Part of it is that the league is the best it’s ever been,” Stevens said. “I’m not saying that because we’ve lost five games but because of the players we’ve faced. There are good experienced guards and there are multiple guys who are going to play in the NBA for a while. Until Gordon, that hadn’t been the case for a number of years.
“All our guys had to adjust their roles and we’ve needed some of the younger guys to grow up. Right now, I feel very good about what these guys have accomplished so far.”
The last two words are the critical ones. Stevens knows his team isn’t going to be a No. 5 seed the way it was a year ago; in fact, he’s preparing for this week’s Horizon League tournament as if his team has to win it to be sure of an NCAA tournament bid. But he feels quietly confident (everything Stevens does is quiet) about the way Matt Howard and Shelvin Mack have taken on more of the scoring burden and about the way his team has matured.
The one person at Butler who probably doesn’t need to mature much is the coach who still looks as if he might get carded trying to order a drink but sounds like someone who became a head coach in 1975, — which Mike Krzyzewski, his opponent in the championship game did — as opposed to being someone who was born a year later in 1976. a seasoned coaching veteran, much like the ones Stevens turned to for advice during the offseason.
“I knew after it was all over last year that things were going to change in my life,” he said. “I tried to reach out to some guys who had been through it to ask what it was like for them. I talked to Coach Matta, to Billy Donovan and to Jim Larranaga. They all said the same thing: Be prepared because the magnifying glass is going to be a lot stronger — especially when you lose.
“They were right. But I’m really okay with it. The key is keeping things simple: I make one turn on my drive to work and one turn when I go to church. I’ve had a lot of speaking chances and I’ll do some in April and June but none in May and August. I want to keep that time completely clear for my family.”
It is a long way from here to the first week in April. Like any coach, Stevens wants to look ahead, not back — but he understands why people still want to talk about what happened last spring.
“I still remember when we flew in from Salt Lake after the regional,” he said. “It was about 3 o’clock in the morning and our bus went right past Lucas Oil. I looked at it and realized we were going to be playing there in a few days and a chill went right through me.
“On the night of the championship game, they played the anthem with 29 minutes on the [pregame] clock and we went out for it. When it was over, I looked around the building and the magnitude of the whole thing really hit me. I locked in after that, but I’m glad I took a moment to just take it all in and enjoy where we were. The whole experience was beyond belief.”
The last shot didn’t go in. But it can’t change the way it felt to be there — for Stevens, for his players and for everyone who watched that night.
For more by the author, visit his blog at www.feinsteinonthebrink.com.