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Editor's Note, July 3, 2013: The Boston Celtics announced just before the Fourth of July holiday that they had secured Brad Stevens as their new head coach, making for an unexpected jump to the NBA for the dynamic Butler men's coach. In six years at the helm in Indianapolis, he had never won fewer than 22 games in an NCAA season. On Dec. 15, 2012, his Bulldogs collided with the No. 1 Indiana Hoosiers, led by coach Tom Crean, upending them to the surprise of nearly no one.
Brad Stevens is sitting with his laptop in a windowless room, about the size of a utility closet, buried beneath the bleachers of Hinkle Fieldhouse. On this sweltering midsummer afternoon, the landmark arena is an oversized oven, its air-conditioning shot again. The coach’s usual office, too, is out of commission, cluttered with cleaning supplies, paint cans, and a Shop-Vac—the result of flooding from two days of rain. But it is clear, from his warmup pants and T-shirt and his intense concentration on the computer screen before him, that none of these inconveniences impinge on his attention. The boyish 33-year-old is not concerned with appearances.
Since April, when his team lit up the city and the sports-watching world with its breathtaking run to the NCAA finale, analysts have been trying to figure out the key to Stevens’ success. How he started his career with more wins than any other coach in Division I history. How he led his tiny private school to within two points of a national championship. Why he turned down moving trucks full of big-school money to stay.
The answers seem to be contained in this tiny room, where he sweats beneath the knock and whir of a dusty ceiling fan, scouring data. He’ll spend 20 days in July on the road, recruiting in 14 cities, looking for the future of Butler basketball. There’s no room for wasted motion. No time to be enamored by points-per-game or All-State squads made, or to get fixated on what recruiters call a player’s “profile.” “People get caught up in rankings,” Stevens says. “They’re not always based on how that person reacts to adversity, how he acts in the community, or whether he performs in the classroom. We want guys who are going to fit into our values and our vision. Often, the profile is misleading.”
Of the thousands of kids Stevens will see, he has zeroed in on fewer than 20, whose dossiers he has committed to memory. He will evaluate their minds and hearts as well as their athleticism. Peer through the veneer, ignoring national rankings and the names of other schools in the hunt, searching for players who are eager to be part of something larger than themselves. Young men like Stevens, who himself left an Eli Lilly marketing career to be an unpaid Bulldogs volunteer, taking a job at Applebee’s just so he could be near the game.
ABOVE: Stevens matched wits with legendary coach Mike Krzyzewski in last year's championship game.
Teens like that are rare. Stevens leaves out talented athletes that he doesn’t think will cut it off-the-court, in the locker room, or in the classroom. And if posh offices and state-of-the-art facilities, the packaging of college athletic programs, dazzle them, they probably don’t belong at Butler. While perennial powerhouse Kentucky approved a $575,000 recruiting budget, last year Stevens made do with $59,644. As a result, Stevens doesn’t have much margin for error. Each year, Butler extends fewer than 12 scholarship offers while other schools, big and small, cast wider nets of 50 or more. Butler’s recruiting team, as one analyst puts it, sets out “toting a rifle, instead of a shotgun.”
The targeted few have followed different paths to Butler. But they all share certain characteristics with the coach who brought them here. Among them is the 17-year-old who showed rare maturity when his future and that of the school were both uncertain. The son of a preacher who made his own leap of faith and found his life’s true calling. The incoming freshman, soon to be sweating in this very gym and hoping to carve out a role in the encore to an almost-perfect season.
Stevens chose these players because they personify his values and vision. They chose Stevens because he embodies that vision. They push themselves for him because, on this simmering summer day, he is sequestered in an airless “office” best suited for a volunteer assistant, hunched over his laptop, working for them.
Matt Howard learned the game in an Indiana driveway, on a netless rim bent oblong above his parents’ garage, under the punishing forearms and elbows of four older brothers. At first, the hard fouls were simply the natural initiation of the youngest Howard boy into the fold. But by the time the baby had outgrown his older siblings—reaching 6-foot-7 by his freshman year of high school—the bruises were only evidence of their futile attempts to stop him.
When Matt first stepped onto the hardwood at Connersville High School, his shooting and footwork (in size-18 shoes) still needed untangling. But he possessed raw athleticism and an unmatched zeal for the game. He pulled down rebounds he had no business getting to. Dove after loose balls. Hustled. And the Butler staff never took their eyes off him. In the summer of 2004, while still an assistant, Stevens saw Matt for the first time, and made a quick evaluation. “He was a great basketball player,” Stevens says. “But more important, he was clearly a kid who endeared himself to his team.”
Matt’s father, Stan, was the mail carrier in the family’s neighborhood, and by the end of Matt’s sophomore year in 2005, the mailbag contained letters from a handful of small schools. But by the end of that summer, Matt had been selected 16-and-under MVP of a national tournament. The following spring, he was named an Indiana Junior All-Star. Several recruiting websites ranked him among the nation’s Top 100 prospects. Soon Matt’s father was delivering bags of mail from big colleges all over the country, as well as Notre Dame, Indiana, and Purdue. Matt was also a straight-A student—he could go anywhere he wanted.
Then–head coach Todd Lickliter, Stevens, or another member of the Butler staff had attended almost every game Matt had played since his sophomore year. The school’s interest was clear, the pitch simple: Butler was a small school, close to home, that emphasized hard work. There were no promises of national TV or NBA drafts. The only assurance was that Matt would get the full attention of the coaches, who would challenge him to improve. Stan Howard remembers that Stevens never oversold his message, never pressured. Even when facing heavy-hitting competition, Stevens never seemed anxious. He seemed honest, with an intelligence that belied his youthful appearance. “He was always on the ball,” says Stan Howard. “Anytime I would ask coach Lickliter something he didn’t know, he would say, ‘Let me ask Brad.’”
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