Brad Stevens is no longer one of the best unknown coaches in America. The secret is out now that he has guided Butler to the first Final Four appearance in school history, which just happens to come in the Bulldogs' hometown of Indianapolis.
Stevens has compiled an 88-14 record in three seasons since being promoted from his assistant's job when Todd Lickliter left to become the coach at Iowa. Butler has grown into one of the top mid-major programs with nine NCAA Tournament appearances in the past 14 years, first under Barry Collier, now the school's athletic director, then Thad Matta, now at Ohio State, and Lickliter, who was fired earlier this month, and now Stevens. However, at 32-4, and headed to the national semifinals to play Michigan State (28-8) on Saturday night at Lucas Oil Stadium, this Butler team has topped all the rest.
The most unique part about Stevens' ascendance to Final Four coach at the tender age of 33 is that he didn't start out as coach after graduating from Division III DePauw in 1999 with a degree in economics. Stevens took a job as a marketing associate with pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly and Company in Indianapolis.
During his first year of out of college, Stevens kept his hand in basketball by serving as a volunteer assistant coach at Carmel High School in suburban Indianapolis in the winter and helping his father coach the 17-year-old AAU Municipal Gardens team in the summer.
Stevens had just passed his one-year anniversary with Lilly in 2000 when Matta called and offered him a role on the coaching staff. A year later, Matta left for Xavier, Lickliter was promoted from assistant coach to head coach and promoted Stevens to full-time assistant.
Stevens readily admits he never could have dreamed of reaching the Final Four as a head coach less than a decade after leaving the business world.
"At the time, I just thought it was something that I really wanted to try, really wanted to do," Stevens said. "I was really fortunate at 22 or 23 years old not to have any responsibility beyond myself. I didn't have a family. I wasn't married up to that point. My long-time girlfriend at the time [and now his wife] and I both decided to kind of chase that dream. It has really worked out well for us in a lot of ways. We're incredibly blessed because of that."
Stevens thought about a possible career in coaching during his senior year at DePauw. However, he did not enter the profession with any specific timetable on when he wanted to be a head coach, a lesson he says he learned during his brief time working in the business world.
"I was told by a person at Lilly early on that the secret is just do your job to the best of your ability and don't worry about anything else," Stevens said. "That's what I've tried to do. So I've never put a timeline on anything. It's always just been about trying to do whatever job I'm assigned well."
Stevens has certainly done his job well. He has team within two victories of one of the most improbable national titles ever. However, despite his youthfulness, Stevens gave a very mature answer when asked if he wonders what his life had been like if he wouldn't have tried his hand at coaching.
"If everything else remained the same, I would have been as happy as heck," Stevens said. "I have a wonderful wife, great kids, tons of friends in Indianapolis that I've grown up with in high school and went to college with. You know, it's not like life was bad. It was just one of those things you wanted to take a shot and see what happens. But I think now as I've grown older, I appreciate what I had at Lilly even more than I did then. So I'd be perfectly content. Friends and family and faith, they're going to take the cake over all this stuff."
Izzo in Elite Company
Michigan State's Tom Izzo has reached a point where it is safe to mention him among some of college basketball's great coaches. This will be the sixth time he has guided the Spartans to the Final Four in the last 12 years. However, Izzo has a hard time comprehending the accomplishment.
"You know I don't want to sound like the most humility driven guy in America, but I don't think about it," Izzo said. "I don't think you do because you never look at things the same from the inside out as you look at them from the outside in. At this time of year, of course, you don't get a chance to sit down and think about it. That's not what this time of year is for. I'm not even sure the offseason is for that. I think that's the retirement season. I'm not near that."
However, that isn't to say Izzo isn't appreciative of getting back to another Final Four. He thinks of the many outstanding coaches who never made it that far, including former Purdue coach Gene Keady.
"I don't think you should be evaluated on Final Fours because I still put Gene in the top echelon of coaches that I know," Izzo said. "I think how lucky I am that I have had a chance to go to some. Some of the great ones never had the chance to go to any."
Izzo also believes getting to the Final Four has gotten more difficult in recent years because of a multitude of reasons.
"It is hard," Izzo said. "People get fat and sassy, whether it's your own players or the people around you or the doctors and trainers, assistant coaches, all the people that are important for you to get there to help your team get there. So that's what makes it tough. But at the same time, I think it is harder because there are so many teams that are better now. The mid majors are better. Conferences are deeper. I think it's easier to put more money into basketball since it's a cheaper sport to run compared to football. So we are getting more and more parity. And players want to go somewhere they can start and start immediately, so they don't mind going somewhere else if they get that opportunity. So all those things put together makes it more difficult. But once you've done it, too, at least you have a roadmap on how, and then you tweak it according to who you have."
Coach K Not Worried About Answering Critics
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski certainly doesn't need a roadmap to get to the Final Four. He will be participating in his 10th when the Blue Devils (33-5) face West Virginia (31-6) in the other semifinal.
However, Duke is making its first Final Four appearance since 2004 and has not won the national championship since 2001. Those droughts have caused some Duke fans to become critical of Krzyzewski in recent years, questioning if he had become distracted by coaching the United States Olympic team and criticizing his recruiting.
Krzyzewski, though, says he does not feel vindicated by this Final Four trip.
"Anyone who's successful over a period of time is not just going to have detractors in a few years, but throughout your career," Krzyzewski said. "That's just part of the game. Everybody has that. So I think you just go about your business. This isn't about my vindication or anything like that. It's about coaching this group of kids, who deserve your full commitment. And I think coaching in the Olympics has made me a better coach to these young men.
"Usually a lot of people have opinions, whether they be favorable or unfavorable, and they don't have all the information that's necessary to form valued opinions. I would rather listen to people who I trust and have them tell me the truth about how our team is doing, how I'm doing. I react to that, not to talk shows and articles."
Huggins Leads Alma Mater to Final Four
None of the four coaches might appreciate being in the Final Four more than West Virginia's Bob Huggins. He has won 670 games in 28 seasons but has only made it this far once before, losing in the semifinals with Cincinnati in 1992.
However, what really makes this special for Huggins is that West Virginia is his alma mater. The Mountaineers haven't been to the Final Four since 1959 when a Jerry West-led team lost to California in the championship game. The Mountaineers are kings in West Virginia, a state that has no major professional sports franchises, and they have never won a national title in basketball or football.
"They'd be crazy," Huggins said when asked what the reaction would be if West Virginia won it all. "They'd be partying in the streets in every town in the state. It's one of those things that if you're not from West Virginia, it's hard to get a grasp on how much it means to the state."
That is why Huggins began to tear up when accepting the Big East championship trophy after West Virginia beat Georgetown in the championship game at Madison Square Garden in New York earlier this month.
"We're in the most famous city in the world and they're playing Country Roads on the loudspeaker," Huggins said. "Who is not going to get choked up? John Denver probably would have cried."
John Perrotto is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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