Butler coach Brad Stevens meets media yesterday at Barclays Center for Atlantic 10 media day, and completely changed this writer's opinion of him in the process. (Photo courtesy of the author's personal collection)
He's easy to recognize wherever you happen to see him. You know, the man who, for all intents and purposes, looks like he just got out of high school.
Yesterday, if you saw him at the Barclays Center and mistook him for a young broadcaster or writer trying to get scoops from head coaches at Atlantic 10 media day, chances are you may not have been far off on your initial impression. However, just as he has done throughout his career, this unassuming individual has proven people wrong.
No introduction was necessary for this writer, but one took place anyway as I returned to the Barclays Center for the second portion of Atlantic 10 media day; when just as I was beginning to prepare another round of questions for head coaches, one walked right up to me and told me who he was.
"Hi, I'm Brad Stevens."
With those words, the head coach of Butler University started to change my mind on something. For those of you who are no stranger to my work or have had conversations with me in the past, you have probably heard me call Stevens overrated several times, or refer to him as the "golden boy" due to his reverence by my colleagues in the media. Many times people, and you know who you are, told me I was wrong. When Butler's move to the Atlantic 10 became official, I started to embrace the prospect of finally getting to talk to Stevens and possibly have a Mike Krzyzewski-esque change of heart. My 15-minute conversation with Stevens, who turns just 36 in seventeen days, led me to come away thinking that the game of college basketball was very fortunate to have this man as one of its ambassadors for the at least the next three decades.
From his introduction to actually sitting down and talking basketball with him, Stevens bears a striking resemblance in personality to Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin, who; like Stevens, is a fellow young Midwesterner that is one of the best basketball minds in the nation despite being a man of few words. When asked about his status among the all-time coaching greats by another person who interviewed him before me, the coach who left a well-paying job at pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly to devote himself to the industry he loved, remained humble as ever. "I try and do my job every day as well as I can," Stevens said without conviction. "To be mentioned in the same breath as them is very flattering."
At just 26, I share a characteristic with Stevens in that my looks are belying of my age, so our interview in Brooklyn may very well have looked like two kids talking in a school cafeteria. However, that didn't stop the coach from sharing his philosophies, all the while looking me straight in the eyes and giving me his full attention. "What I want to do is have a basketball program that can compete against anyone in the nation on any given night," Stevens said when I asked about how Butler's past success of two consecutive national championship games and last year's CBI semifinal appearance would shape this year's incarnation of the Bulldogs. "Some people just walk down the street and expect you to be in the Final Four. I just focus on 'What can we do today to be a little bit better?'"
Most coaches I have spoken to have said something like that and sounded cliched in doing so, but there was something different about Brad Stevens' answer, something that made me realize that his potential is far greater than anyone may believe, a potential that he himself may feel has yet to be reached. Honestly, I should not have been surprised by this display, because after all, in a sport where some of his fellow coaches are all over the sideline and consistently jumping around or tossing their blazers to the ground, Stevens is the epitome of the expression "cool as a cucumber," calmer than the eye of a hurricane. "Our guys are prepared," said the coach when I asked about his uncharacteristic composure, "so they stay calm. We're all out there for the same reason."
Finally, I had one more question for the man who is undoubtedly the future of college basketball and coaching, that of the "Butler Way" that was brought to the public's attention during the Bulldogs' first national championship appearance against Duke in 2010. "The best way I can describe it is when people walk out of the gym, they feel like they saw a team that played hard," Stevens intimated. "Maybe they can't put their finger on what they just experienced. They know it's unique, and they know it's kind of a brand in and of itself."
Just like the "Butler Way," Brad Stevens too is a brand in and of himself, one whose early years not only give off an aura of greatness and potential for a career that may outshine names such as Krzyzewski, Knight, Smith or Boeheim, but also one that has taught a valuable lesson to truly never judge a book by its cover.