Butler’s decision to stay in the family and hire Brandon Miller to replace Brad Stevens deserves some praise.
It took some gumption for athletic director Barry Collier to avoid the temptation of chasing a more recognizable name. This isn’t the Butler that hired Stevens.
Success was expected when Stevens took over a program that had made six NCAA tournaments in 11 years. But, mostly, that success was expected on a regional level. Sure, the alums and anyone in Indiana expected Butler to continue to be good when Stevens was hired. On a national level, though, the Bulldogs were hardly relevant.
Fast forward five years and Butler has become a brand name in a recognizable conference—the new Big East—that’s going to get a lot of television time. Even Stevens would have been challenged by playing in a league that will be difficult to dominate. NCAA tournament appearances—and success once you get there—are now an annual expectation.
That made the timing of Stevens’ move to the Celtics a wise one, but that’s another story. Back at Butler, the story will be Miller and whether he succeeds or fails.
Following a Legend
Am I calling a 36-year-old who was a head coach for five seasons and never won a national championship a legend? You betcha. What Stevens did is unparalleled in the modern era. He took a team from the Horizon League to back-to-back national title games.
In the process, Stevens became one of the most recognizable names in college basketball.
"The Butler Way" was to not stray outside the family, and it’s hard to argue with the success rate. Collier started this run as a former Bulldog given an opportunity to be a first-time head coach. The same was true for Thad Matta and then Todd Lickliter. Stevens was actually a slight diversion from the trend as he did not play at Butler but, like the others, he had been an assistant there.
While this has worked remarkably well four straight times for Butler, it’s not a given that Miller will make it five. Take a look back at history from other name programs that have stayed in the family.
North Carolina replaced Dean Smith with longtime assistant Bill Guthridge, and that went rather smoothly. Guthridge won 80 games and took the Tar Heels to two Final Fours in three seasons and then he also retired.
Then Roy Williams turned UNC down, and the logical choice was Matt Doherty. Doherty had played at UNC, been an assistant for Williams at Kansas and had a successful first year as head coach at Notre Dame. The Heels got an up-and-comer and stayed in the family. After three years that included only one NCAA tournament appearance, Doherty was forced to resign.
Indiana went with a former Bob Knight assistant to replace Knight, and Mike Davis had a mixed bag of results in six seasons and Davis resigned.
The situation that Miller has inherited is a good one. The same could have been said for Doherty at UNC or Davis at Indiana. It’s difficult to predict how a coach will hand the pressure of following a legend when everyone is watching.
Be You, Be Stevens
Your players must be completely committed to the system. In my 11 years I've never had a player in our program that worked his tail off on the defensive end that wasn't a great teammate and student. Defense is about players that do their job on every play and that makes you feel proud to be part of the team.
That quote, transcribed by Texas A&M assistant women’s coach Bob Starkey, is from Stevens during a clinic at the University of Florida two years ago.
It says a lot about “The Butler Way.” Stevens succeeded by identifying under-recruited players who had ability. It’s important to recognize that the players he’s won with had legit talent. Gordon Hayward was a lottery pick. Shelvin Mack is in the NBA.
But more so than most coaches, Stevens was just as obsessed with finding good characters as he was great talent. Players had to fit in and had to buy in to how Stevens wanted to win.
Miller got hired because Collier is convinced The Butler Way—which has become "The Stevens Way"—is not just what it takes to win at Butler, but how Collier wants to win.
The temptation in a more competitive league at a program that has now become its own brand is to focus on stockpiling talent. The philosophy for a lot of programs—even the most successful ones—is to get a bunch of players and then figure out who fits and let the rest transfer.
That is what might be Miller’s greatest challenge because there was some luck involved with how well some of the players—like Hayward—developed under Stevens. He needs to find the gems and mix them with solid role guys who understand their niche.
Miller has the advantage of chasing higher-level recruits because of where Stevens has taken the program. Just because a player is talented at a young age doesn’t mean he isn’t the right fit. Even Stevens was recruiting Trey Lyles, the No. 5-ranked recruit in the 2014 class by Rivals.com. Getting players like Lyles would be the reward for what Stevens created.
For the most part, Stevens did win with players who were unknowns until they arrived at Butler. The perception of how he did that was simply: He was brilliant.
Stevens was one of the best in the country at making in-game adjustments, and his use of advanced numbers put him ahead of his peers. There’s some truth to that.
Stevens is a great X-and-O’s tactician with a great feel for situations. Watch the final minutes of any NCAA tournament game involving Butler for proof. He also used numbers to help him dictate what to do in certain situations. But there’s no secret number that can win you games or that led to Stevens’ success.
Miller needs to find what works for him. Numbers may not be Miller’s thing (We don’t really know at this point). He might not share Stevens’ ability to master the X’s and O’s. That doesn’t mean he cannot succeed.
Miller has had the privilege of working for extremely successful college coaches in Stevens, Matta and Illinois coach John Groce. The way to become a great coach is to take what you’ve learned and use those lessons to build your own coaching identity.
Collier saw something in Stevens that made him believe he could be a star. He obviously sees something in Miller as well. It’s hard to argue with his success rate. It’s also hard to argue that Miller cannot fail. His challenges are greater than any a new Butler coach has ever faced.