Friday, July 05, 2013

The Good Witch Takes His Act to Beantown

Legitimately cutting down nets
We've joked before that Brad Stevens is a "good witch," because of the magic he was able to sprinkle onto his Butler University basketball program for the past six seasons, which included back-to-back national runners-up in 2010 and 2011.

Stevens, as you know unless you've been in a drunken stupor the past few days (and if you have, good for you for celebrating our independence in true American fashion), took the head coaching job with the Boston Celtics on Wednesday. People were shocked, mainly because Stevens seemed to be a Butler lifer -- or at least he seemed committed to Butler for the foreseeable future. Stevens had been linked to jobs at UCLA, Illinois and other places over the past few years, but he and his family love Indianapolis and always felt more at home there than anywhere else. Add to that the fact that Stevens proved you can win at a smaller program like Butler (backed up not just by the two title game appearances, but the fact that he never won fewer than 22 games while compiling a .772 winning percentage and really, was within one rattled out heave from winning the 2010 national title over Duke) and it began to feel like that warm, fuzzy, feel-good story might continue.

Here was a guy who had nearly reached the mountaintop (and, really, in college basketball, the goal always seems to be reaching a Final Four -- national titles are, of course, the ultimate goal, but Final Fours are probably more frequently referred to when judging coaches) and who seemed to love where he was. Plus he was young, likable and seemed to say and do all the right things.

Then, jarringly, Stevens bolted for Boston. We've never made any secret of the fact that we like Stevens a lot. B-dowd's brother and sister-in-law graduated from Butler and I remember saying to them that I hoped Purdue could one day match the Final Four success of a big time program like Butler (the jokes write themselves sometimes!).

At the same time, he scared us a bit as Purdue fans. While we are unfailingly in support of Matt Painter and his approach, recruiting against Indiana and Notre Dame in the state of Indiana already meant the top players in the state were no easy feat to land. With Butler rising to levels of success IU hasn't seen in a long time (or ever, if you're considering back-to-back Finals appearances) and obviously far better than Purdue or ND basketball has seen, the idea that "mid-major" Butler could "steal" recruits away from the big boys took on serious life. After all, wouldn't you want to play for Brad Stevens? And what if you could play for that guy and be a national darling (like a Gonzaga but with actual substance and the ability to win big games)? And go to Final Fours? Well, hell, that sounds great.

So that was concerning enough. But again, liking the guy and what he was doing made it hard to be anything
but admiring of him and his own version of the "Butler Way." Butler had been sneaky successful for quite a while, under a number of coaches, but Stevens broke through to that proverbial next level.

As this all was happening, murmurs began in different parts of Indiana that maybe he was the guy who should be leading one of the more "marquee" national programs in the state. Painter is a likable guy and a very good coach, but did he have what it took to get to Final Fours? And what about Tom Crean? He can recruit like a mo-fo, but his in-game abilities as a coach have never been marveled at. Fans are restless. Naturally, people talked. What could Brad Stevens do with Purdue or IU's budget, facilities and name recognition?

For us, the more concerning thing was that IU would realize that pretty much anyone could recruit kids to IU -- what they needed (and still need) is a coach who can win tough games, instead of just the ones where his talent overwhelms opponents. Could that happen? We genuinely feared it. Because a Brad Stevens-coached Hoosiers team would be awful from a Purdue perspective in different ways. We'd still loathe them, of course, but they'd be a lot more difficult to hate with Stevens running things. And, of yeah, they'd surely be back in the Final Four on a likely regular basis, so that would be hard to stomach, too.

Now Stevens takes his act to Boston to coach the unlikable Celtics. People are already talking about him co-existing with Rajon Rondo. While I think Rondo is a jackass, I don't think it's fair to assume they can't coexist. Stevens is the type of guy who gets everybody on the same page and has a zen quality when it comes to keeping everyone calm and focused. Doesn't that sound like it might be a good quality to have for the NBA grind? As for Rondo, though, I think he'll be gone before the season starts, so Stevens will probably have a very mediocre team to build from the ground up. Maybe he'll mold them in his ideal shape. Or maybe he'll crash and burn like so many college coaches before him. If he does, what's the downside? He'll be markedly richer and he'll still be the hottest name in college coaching, even 3-5 years from now. In addition, he'll have been to the "promised land" of the NBA, which will undoubtedly help with coaching/recruiting college kids.

That's where my negative, Purdue-centric mind takes us. Three to five more years of Tom Crean's act in Bloomington might be just the right amount of time for a) NCAA infractions to come to light (not saying there are any, but if there are, they never stay in the dark forever) or b) IU to realize they'll be consistently talented and win games under Crean, but aren't likely to add to their musty collection of banners under him. What if that coincides with Brad Stevens becoming available again? Could the nightmare happen a few years down the road? That's the kind of thing that keeps a Purdue fan who has seen years of banana peels up at night.

Suffering from March Madness
In the meantime, we honestly wish Stevens well and, from a more narrow-minded and "now" thinking Purdue perspective, we're happy Matt Painter doesn't have to contend with Stevens either on the recruiting trail or on the court in the Crossroads Classic. For now, Butler's loss is the rest of the state of Indiana's gain, from that point of view. He's the rare guy who could make us pull for the Boston Celtics (at least a little).

In the end, I would suspect that it had nothing to do with not being unhappy at Butler. I think Stevens loved it there and wanted to coach at no other college or university. For those being cynical, I don't think it was an act on his part -- he believed in the Butler Way and his own way of doing things. However, sometimes in life new challenges become available to you that require getting out of your comfort zone. There's no shame in not taking on those new challenges -- especially if you're really happy with what you're doing -- but there's also a lot of people who would lose sleep wondering "what might have been," or wondering if they could have met those new challenges. The NBA is likely that for Brad Stevens -- a new challenge for an ambitious guy who is only where he is because of his gumption and confidence to take the leap and reach for new heights. How else to describe a guy who was working at Eli Lilly when offered the chance at a volunteer position at Butler, yet took the volunteer position and quit his paying job? This guy goes for it, which is just one more reason to admire him.

Happy trails, Coach Stevens. Continue to do what makes you happy.


boilerbugle said...

Could Stevens at IU bring about a Painter/Stevens rivalry similar to a Keady/Knight rivalry? Both programs would need to have some major success first, but it could be kind of fun, maybe?

zlionsfan said...

I, for one, would certainly feel better facing a Stevens-led IU squad then a Crean-led squad ... not because Purdue would have a better chance of winning (I suspect the exact opposite would be true), but from my vantage point, it's much easier to admire what Stevens does.

I would prefer not to see Purdue play a team with Stevens coaching Crean-recruited talent (not that Stevens had talent problems at Butler, but you know what I mean). To be fair, Painter and Stevens are in pretty much the same boat - yeah, you had a good run with one class, but can you do it again? - but Stevens getting farther in the tournament with a less-heralded team does make what he's done look better, even though any kind of elimination tournament produces really unusual results ... or "incorrect" ones. (See, for example, Butler-Florida.)

Still, I think you're right. Both guys had success elsewhere. If they can get to the point where they're reloading more than rebuilding, it could be fun.