There are few NCAA basketball coaches, if any, that have a brighter career ahead of them than Brad Stevens, the head coach of the Butler Bulldogs.
The baby-faced Stevens, who turned 36 just a couple weeks ago, is beginning his 6th season at the helm at Butler, where he’s already had a historic run.
Stevens’ Historic Career Start
With an outstanding career record of 139-40, Stevens has set the NCAA record for most wins by a coach in his first five seasons (he also holds the record for most wins by a coach in his first three and four seasons).
But perhaps more impressive than his overall win total is the NCAA Tournament magic that has occurred for the Bulldogs under his watch. Butler, a perennial Horizon League powerhouse, has made the tourney four out of five years under Coach Stevens, with the highlight being back-to-back trips to the championship games.
The first run in 2010 was one that captivated the country and thrust Stevens into the national spotlight, as it gave fans (myself included) an underdog to root for. The Cinderella story ended up a desperation half-court heave short (which came so very close to going in), as Butler would be beaten by the nationally-hated (not my personal opinion) Duke.
The 2011 run was perhaps more improbable.
It began with a last-second win over Old Dominion in the 1st round (I vividly remember this game because I was one of only a couple in my bracket pool to pick Butler). They would move on to the 2nd round to defeat 1-seed Pittsburgh, a game which featured one of the great endings in recent March Madness history. Butler would march back to the Final Four, where they defeated another Cinderella in VCU. Unfortunately, the Bulldogs would come up just short again, losing to Connecticut in the finals.
With this unprecedented success, Stevens was courted by numerous bigger schools, most notably Illinois, but turned them all down to stay at Butler.
And now, Coach Stevens is ready to lead Butler into the Atlantic 10, and he’s just the man to do it.
Stevens Ready Keep Butler Rolling In A-10
If you don’t want to take my word for it, just ask one of his assistants, Michael Lewis, who was kind enough to let me interview him via e-mail for this article.
Lewis has a very impressive basketball background, tracing back to his playing days at Indiana, where he was a team captain and finished his career as the Hoosiers’ all-time leader in career in assists.
Lewis also knows a great coach when he sees one, because he played for Bob Knight and was a graduate assistant for Knight at Texas Tech. When I asked him what the experience was like both playing and coaching for Knight, he gave high praise for the legendary coach:
Interview with Butler Assistant Michael Lewis
Zach Rastall: “Since you both played and coached under Bob Knight, you’re no stranger to big-name coaches. What was the experience playing and coaching under Coach Knight like?”
Michael Lewis: “It was a great experience and one I would do again in a heartbeat. I was pushed every day to be my best and to expand my limits. So many people don’t like to be uncomfortable in situations. I was tested everyday in ways that I became comfortable being uncomfortable. It forced me to focus on all the details and to accomplish the task at hand, regardless of any distractions going on around me. Having the chance to work for him was amazing. To have the chance to go from player to employee and to really see how he ran his whole program was invaluable. From how he organized and worked with his staff, to practice and game preparation, and all the way down to how he dealt with the smallest of details was really good for me to see as a young coach.”
There’s no question Lewis knows what the characteristics are of a good coach, and he sees them in the youthful Brad Stevens, who has had a very positive impact on him. And while there may seem to be no similarities between the calm, cool, collected Stevens and the hot-headed Knight, Lewis would beg to differ:
ZR: “You’re starting you’re 2nd season at Butler, coaching for one of the brightest young coaches in the nation, Brad Stevens. What has coaching under him been like, and how has he influenced you as a coach?”
ML: “Brad, has been great. He really allows and pushes his assistants to work in all facets of our program. He empowers us and challenges us to think like head coaches. He is obviously very bright and has a great feel for the game and managing our program. He, like Coach Knight is very detail oriented and demands that things are done in the right way. He has really influenced me by focusing on the process of reaching your goal and not so much on the goal itself. ”
As far as the move to the new-look Atlantic 10 goes, Lewis does not think it will be a simple transition.
ZR: “What do you think the move to the Atlantic 10 will be like?”
ML: “I think the move to the Atlantic 10 will be extremely difficult. It is a great league and one that we are very excited to be a part of. From top to bottom there are top notch programs with outstanding coaches that will present different challenges each night.”
And when I asked him which Atlantic 10 venue he is looking forward to playing at the most, his answer was simply, “St. Joseph’s, because it is the first one,” (Butler goes to Xavier on Tuesday, but the conference season doesn’t really get under way until early January).
Brad Stevens isn’t the only great, young coach coming to the Atlantic 10, however. Shaka Smart and his VCU Rams (whom the Bulldogs defeated in the 2011 Final Four) are coming to the conference this season. Lewis gave high marks to Shaka as well:
ZR: “One of the coaches you will be facing in the Atlantic 10 is another one of the nation’s bright young minds, Shaka Smart. What has your impression been of him and the job he’s done at VCU?”
ML: “I personally don’t know Shaka, but am obviously very impressed with his program and what he has accomplished. I think he, like Brad is very bright and knowledgeable of the game. His teams are well prepared and always play extremely hard and compete for him. He seems to be a guy that is charismatic, comfortable with who he is, and someone that others enjoy being around. All important qualities when leading people.”
Seeing Stevens versus Shaka will be a real treat, as the Atlantic 10 overall will have a spectacular slate of conference games this season. Both coaches will help to ease the transition to the new league, with Lewis very confident in his head coach’s abilities to make the move smooth.
ZR: “What qualities does Coach Stevens have that will make the transition to a new conference smoother?”
ML: “Brad, will help guide this transition by being who he is. He never gets too high or too low. He is outstanding at giving our guys a calming presence. He is also very good at understanding when to push our team and when to let up. He has a great feel for each player and what they need from him to be the most successful.”
And while everyone associated with the Butler program is excited about the Atlantic 10 move, there is some bittersweetness to it, as they leave the Horizon League behind (the Bulldogs were a charter member in the league, which was established in 1979).
ZR: “What do you think you will miss most about the Horizon League?”
ML: “I really felt there was great leadership in the Horizon League from the league office all the way down to each university. Things were done and handled in a first class manner by outstanding people.”
With Butler playing in a tougher conference, and coming off a season where they missed out on March Madness for the first time in the Brad Stevens era, there are no guarantees on how the Bulldogs will fare. Lewis thinks this team is very capable of making it back to the Big Dance, but he knows they’ll really have to work for it.
ZR: “Lastly, what do you think the keys are for Butler to get back to the NCAA Tournament?”
ML: “The keys for us is to stay the course. Concentrate on us and to improve each day. I feel we have improved our perimeter shooting, which will help us on the offensive end. We were good defensively last season, but we must be able to have enough “stuff” to get the key stops this year when needed. Our schedule is extremely difficult and will provide plenty of challenges throughout the year. I we are able to make the NCAA tournament, I know we will have earned it.”
Without a doubt, Butler will have a tougher conference schedule than they have had at any point under Brad Stevens. But if we’ve learned anything from Stevens’ time at Butler, his teams are never afraid of a challenge.
So the rest of the Atlantic 10 should be on watch, Brad Stevens, Michael Lewis and the rest of the Butler Bulldogs are ready to make some noise.