Stevens-to-Celtics a win for all but Butler
July, 3, 2013
By Eamonn Brennan | ESPN.com
AP Photo/Steve HelberBrad Stevens, 36, is headed for the Boston Celtics after six seasons as Butler head coach.
Is your jaw still affixed to the floor? Are you still processing the news?
That's OK. We all are. As overused as the term "shock" may be, it is the only acceptable, human reaction to Wednesday evening's news -- released on the eve of a national holiday and miraculously kept secret from the media by all sides -- that Butler coach Brad Stevens is now Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens, the 17th in franchise history.
Yeah. That happened. It's a real thing. Stevens and his family will be introduced in Boston on Friday morning, and a flabbergasted basketball world will have a chance to ask Stevens why he, after years of rejecting every open college job from Georgia Tech to UCLA, decided to take that fateful leap to the NBA.
In the meantime, once you get over the sheer surprise, you'll realize there's very little mystery here. Save for the school Stevens leaves behind, the move is a huge win for everyone involved. Here's why:
Why the Celtics win
Because they got a really good coach! That's the first and most important consideration: Stevens is a very good basketball coach. He will continue to be a very good basketball coach. This shouldn't be worth saying, but in the win-the-news-conference world of college basketball, and the retread carousel that is the NBA coaching phylum, the actual merits of the coach being hired can go overlooked. That is not the case here.
Of course there's more to it than that. The Celtics hired a quality X's-and-O's guy, sure, but Stevens is not merely a young dude with some interesting motion sets. For the past five years, he has done something much more impactful: He has helped revolutionize the way coaches see (or should see) themselves in the sport. In a college coaching fraternity filled with stodgy traditions and fuzzy maxims, Stevens has openly embraced advanced analytics and scouting techniques. In a sport where coaches treat their sidelines like theaters of emotive human distress, Stevens stalks coolly.
The cool isn't for show. His (usually) stoic demeanor is, in fact, of a piece with his overriding philosophy. After Butler's Roosevelt Jones stole a brilliant Hinkle Fieldhouse home win over Gonzaga this past season, Stevens was asked (not for the first time) how he was able to react so coolly in the center of such joyful chaos. Was he a robot? An alien? An alien robot? His response:
"What goes through my mind is, the hay is in the barn," Stevens said. "If a guy makes a shot like that or doesn't, it doesn't define who we are. It doesn't affect how I evaluate our team. It doesn't break our season. I'm a huge person on growth over prize."
In an NBA adrift in analytics revolution, where the argument about process versus prize is constantly debated, the Celtics have hired a 36-year-old coach who gets it. That doesn't mean he's a robot. You can't build out something called the Butler Way -- Stevens' classical all-for-one, one-for-all philosophy on team success at the college level -- and be unaware of how important the things we can't quantify (teamwork, communication, work ethic, generosity of spirit) are in this game we struggle so mightily to understand.
But Stevens realizes what many NBA franchises are still beginning to grasp: The heart and the head need not be mutually exclusive. Indeed, they're best employed in tandem. For the Celtics, then, Stevens is more than a hot young college coach with a book of killer out-of-bounds plays. He's the way forward.
Brian Spurlock/USA TODAY SportsThe timing of Brad Stevens' jump to the NBA could prove problematic for Butler.
Why Stevens wins
Money? Presumably there will be a lot of money. That's one thing.
But anyone who has followed Stevens' career in recent years knows money has never been a primary factor. Since his back-to-back NCAA national title game appearances, Stevens has had plenty of gold bullion shoved his way by just about every desperate athletic director in the country. Time and again, the Indiana native has reiterated how happy he and his young family were in Indianapolis, and why an extra $500,000 more than his already-ample reported $1.1 million salary wasn't enough to throw that all away.
There is also the matter of Dan Monson. Monson, the former Gonzaga coach who launched the Bulldogs into the college hoops stratosphere -- then took a job at Minnesota, failed miserably, and was left to pick up the pieces in the professional wilderness -- has become an archetypal example. Mid-major coaches like Stevens or Shaka Smart at Virginia Commonwealth are vastly better compensated than they were even 10 years ago. The financial impetus to leave has never been quite so weak.
But make no mistake: Coaching at Butler isn't easy. More specifically, coaching at Butler right now isn't easy.
The Bulldogs are on the cusp of a move to the new Big East; expectations have never been higher. Stevens probably could have spent the next 30 years at the school, but he would have spent much of that time recruiting. He has never been the recruiting type -- this is a compliment, by the way -- and his teams have never been built on top-20 prospects. The fact that he will have a chance to focus his hoops acumen without worrying about finding the next Gordon Hayward hidden away in Brownsburg, Ind. -- well, it has to be exhilarating, right?
And then there's this: He can always go home again. Even if his NBA foray goes as poorly as possible, there will always be dozens of college programs willing to take him at the first sign of interest. Rick Pitino and John Calipari have long since proved that a move to the NBA isn't the end of college desirability or college success. It isn't the end of anything. If you can coach, you can always come back.
Why Butler loses
It's impossible to overstate how devastating this is for Butler. It really is that bad.
Like Xavier, the Bulldogs have a reputation for being coaching incubators. Stevens got his start (after quitting his job at Eli Lilly, and applying for a job at Applebee's) in 2000 as a coordinator under now-Ohio State coach Thad Matta. He was named head coach in 2007 after Todd Lickliter, every bit as attractive as Matta before him, left to take the job at Iowa.
Despite that history, coaches like Stevens don't grow on trees. Before Stevens, Butler was your standard good mid-major. After Stevens -- and his back-to-back runner-up appearances, and his 166-49 record -- it is a member of the Big East. When Stevens turned down every flashy offer thrown his way, the idea that he might see out the rest of his career in the same place was tempting. The template Mike Krzyzewski carved out at Duke 20 years ago seemed totally within reason. Butler could be the new Duke.
Now Butler is just another team with an adorable mascot. Instead of a triumphal beginning to a new era of "major conference" basketball, the Bulldogs will enter the new Big East scrambling to replace the most sought-after young coach in America. What's worse, they have to find said replacement in July, long after the college coaching carousel has settled down, deep into the summer recruiting and individual workout periods. The short term is going to be a massive challenge. The long-term future already looks less bright.
Butler fans are classy types. They'll thank Stevens for the memories and the tangible successes, and they'll blink away tears as they send him off to the pros, proud parents sending their brightest child to the big city. But behind that good cheer, they will be devastated. How could they not?
And you thought you were shocked.