Butler University's Biggest and Most Unlikely Victory

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Butler University's Biggest and Most Unlikely Victory
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The Butler Bulldogs had a great run through the NCAA tournament, but their biggest victory of the 2009-2010 season didn’t take place on a basketball court.

Shortly after losing the title game to Duke by a couple of inches, it seemed imminent that Butler was about to suffer a much more damaging loss when their coach, Brad Stevens, would be lured away by a big time program offering big time money.

But on April 8th, in a somewhat surprising turn of events, it was announced that Stevens and Butler had agreed to a 12 year contract extension that would expire after the 2021-2022 season.  Although the terms of the contract were not released, it is assumed that Stevens received a raise from the $750,000 dollars he received in compensation from the university last season.

If Stevens had opted to leave the small Indiana school with an undergraduate enrollment of under 4,000 students, nobody would have been shocked and nobody would have faulted him.  It has become the norm in collegiate athletics for coaches who have success at smaller schools to be snatched up by the bigger ones; I look at it as kind of a coaching food chain, if the bigger school wants the smaller schools coach, they offer him more money and take him.

The two head coaches at Butler who preceded Stevens were lured away from the program by bigger schools after the Bulldogs had successful campaigns.  In his first season as Butler head coach in 2001, Thad Matta lead the Bulldogs to their first tournament win since 1962.   Matta would not return to Butler for his second season after a bigger Xavier program made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. 

Matta’s replacement, Todd Lickliter, would continue to build off the success that Matta had with the university.  Lickliter’s first season with Butler would see the Bulldogs ranked in the Associated Press Top 25 and his second would see the team advance to the Sweet 16 with upsets over power conference teams Mississippi State and Louisville. 

After a couple of rebuilding years, Lickliter had Butler in the tournament again in 2007, and again they reached the Sweet 16.  After the 2007 season Butler would see Lickliter leave to pursue greener pastures at the University of Iowa, a team from the Big 10 Conference which makes the Horizon League look like an intramural league at the Y.

A bigger school such as Iowa can offer; better workout facilities, a bigger fan base, more national exposure, more recruiting resources, and above all, more money.  With all of these advantages it’s no wonder that most coaches choose the bigger school and the bigger paycheck over their smaller current job, but then again, Brad Stevens isn’t like most coaches.

At only 33 years old and a mere three years as the head coach at Butler he’s already experienced more success than most coaches have over their entire career.  Stevens’ record over three seasons is 89-15 and he has already reached the 30 win mark twice. 

Despite their weak conference opponents, Butler was ranked in the ESPN/USA Today Top 25 poll for the entire 2009-2010 season, as well as spending the majority of the season in the Associated Press Top 25.  Stevens has also made the NCAA tournament in each of his first 3 seasons as the Butler head coach, culminating with their run to the title game this past season.    

Then there’s the story of how Stevens became the head coach at Butler.  In 2000 he was a 23 year-old marketing associate at Eli Lilly and Company in Indianapolis, when he decided to quit his job and pursue a professional career in basketball.  He started at Butler as the coordinator of basketball operations, a part time position which paid no money. 

After Todd Lickliter was promoted to head coach in 2001, Stevens was also promoted to a full time assistant coaching position.  Stevens would continue as one of Lickliter’s assistants until 2007 when Lickliter left for Iowa, and Stevens was promoted to head coach.  In just 10 years Stevens went from a 23 year old pharmaceutical marketing associate to coaching in the National Championship.

One of the biggest reasons Stevens has been successful is because of the way he assembles his teams.  He has continued the tradition of playing “the Butler way,” which is centered on team basketball and making sure his players know that they are part of a bigger picture than themselves. 

When recruiting potential players for Butler, Stevens looks for guys who will play unselfishly, have intangibles, and are proven winners in high school.  Stevens is looking for players who will fit into his system rather than going after the most heralded recruits in the nation. 

The fact that Butler was able to keep Stevens as their coach ensures that the Bulldogs will continue to be successful.  A college basketball coach is the most important part of that schools basketball program; they recruit players, develop the program’s identity, and bring together all of these different aspects to make the team a winner. 

With the reality of the one and done superstar, it means that more so in college basketball than any other sport, players will come and go, but the coach is the one constant.

Perhaps the next great coach in college basketball is Brad Stevens, and Butler has positioned itself to benefit from Stevens success by extending his contract.  Of course, there’s no guarantee that Stevens will be staying at Butler for the entire contract.  Although Oregon, Wake Forrest, and Clemson were unsuccessful in courting Stevens this year, there will be many other programs trying to do the same next season, and the season after that. 

For now, Stevens has resisted the temptation to go after the money and pageantry that come along with coaching a traditional college basketball power.  If you’re a Butler fan or a fan of the underdog, Brad Stevens has already given you more than most thought he would, one more year at Butler.

Trying to become a successful college basketball head coach is a lot like trying to become a famous actor.  First of all, it’s extremely competitive and you have to be very talented.  Then, you have to work hard and pay your dues for many years and maybe, just maybe, if you’re good enough and lucky enough, you’ll catch your big break and make it. 

For those lucky few that actually make it big, in either coaching or acting, it’s pretty much expected that you will move to New York or L.A. or the coaching equivalents of those cities. It’s very rare that those who make it big remember where they came from, much less continue to live in the small town they grew up in. 

For now, Brad Stevens has made it big and he’s still living in the college basketball equivalent of his mom’s basement, hopefully he won’t wake up tomorrow and want to move into a mansion.

 

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