March Madness Feature No. 3: Brad Stevens
It was a cold March morning the first time I interviewed Brad Stevens. I was in my college dorm room when I sent him an email at 7:30 am, hoping to do a piece on Butler basketball for my college newspaper. Seconds later, my cell phone rang. It was Brad.
I fumbled and ummed my way through a series of questions. He knew he caught me off guard, but he was gracious about it. That was Brad’s way, and the Butler way. About to embark on another NCAA Tournament run, yet the head coach of this Cinderella story made time for a 19-year-old aspiring sportswriter. And his story is one of my favorites to tell…
Brad grew up in Zionsville just outside Indianapolis. His father used to drive him down to Bloomington to watch Indiana games during the Bob Knight days. When he was five years old, he watched tapes of IU’s game film after kindergarten. No joke.
“It’s hard not to be in love with basketball when you’re a kid growing up in Indiana.”
Brad played high school basketball at Zionsville and set four school records, then he became a three-time Academic All-American at DePauw. Most coaches are smart, some are geniuses, but you’d have to come up with a new word to define a savvy hoops scientist like Brad.
After college, Brad put that degree to use for a few years, but basketball wouldn’t let him go. In 2000, he quit his job and volunteered to be an assistant with the Butler Bulldogs – an unpaid position with a program that had only made the NCAA Tournament twice in the previous 38 years, and lost in the first round both times.
Brad become a paid assistant a year later, then a full-time assistant, then thee assistant. In 2007, he became the head coach and led the Bulldogs to 30 wins and a No. 11 ranking – both program records. Three years later, Butler’s March magic unfolded.
They were a No. 5 seed when Brad’s Bulldogs made their historic Final Four run in 2010, taking down UTEP, Murray State, Syracuse, Kansas State, and Michigan State en route to a National Championship appearance. In doing so, Butler became the first-and-only team in NCAA Tournament history to hold five straight opponents under 60 points. Stevens became the youngest head coach (33 years old) to reach the Final Four since Bob Knight (32), and Butler became the smallest school (4,200) to reach the Final Four since the introduction of seeding in 1979. Most importantly, “the Butler did it again” became Bill Raftery’s go-to catchphrase (gotta love Bill Raftery).
However, that Cinderella story didn’t yield a fairy tale ending. In the championship against Duke – hosted in Indianapolis, of all places – Gordon Hayward missed a half-court game-winner off the front of the rim. The Bulldogs fell two points shy, 61-59, and they were three inches from the greatest basketball story ever told.
“It took one tournament for the tiny school with the charming old fieldhouse and the team that didn’t care about seeding or brackets or favorites to remind America why rooting for the underdog was so much damn fun.” — Zak Keefer, Indianapolis Star
In 2011? Well… The Butler did it again. This time as an 8-seed, it was Brad and the boys back for more, all the way to another National Championship appearance. That’s when they ran into Kemba Walker and the UConn Huskies – the No. 2 March Madness Underdog feature from last week.
Brad spearheaded a historic run of six seasons, five NCAA Tournament appearances, and two Final Fours. The result was a slew of records for a young and talented basketball coach at the helm of a dinky mid-major named Butler University.
Now, Butler’s success has thrust them into the Big East Conference – a quantum leap from their Horizon League days – and Brad Stevens is the head coach of the Boston Celtics. He doesn’t return my interview requests in seconds, now.
The abbreviated version of this Underdog odyssey? A small-town Midwest kid handed in his desk job for a dream; an unpaid, volunteer coaching position. Then, he led a small school Cinderella story, twice, and became the head coach of one of the NBA’s most storied franchises. Just another mind-blowing magic trick from the magician known as March Madness.