Q: How Does Brad Stevens Compete with Big Schools for Star Recruits? A: He Doesn’t.
After Butler’s Final Four run, everyone tried to decipher Brad Stevens’ playbook for success. The secret resides in the unique players he targets—long before they arrive.
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.’”
In the summer of 2006, Purdue called to tell Matt that three of its four available scholarships had been accepted by a dream-team of recruits, including JaJuan Johnson, an electrifying prospect and close friend of Matt’s who had also been recruited heavily by Butler. The last spot could be Matt’s—if he acted quickly. Here was a chance to play for a major college program in a major basketball conference—the kind of chance Hoosier kids dream of in their driveways.
When Matt called Butler that August, the staff thought it was to tell them that he was going elsewhere. He informed them, instead, that Butler had landed its first-ever Top 100 recruit—a grab heralded as a Bulldog breakthrough in the local media. Stevens agreed that it was a big day for the school. “But,” he says, “ it had nothing to do with Matt’s ranking.”
Then, in April 2007, weeks after being named National Coach of the Year for leading Butler to the Sweet 16, Lickliter announced he was leaving for Iowa in the Big Ten. Matt was about to close out his senior year of high school, and he had to decide whether to bet on an unknown future and stick with Butler, or to ask for a release from his commitment. No one would blame him if he chose the latter.
Two days later, at 10 p.m., after a seven-year climb from volunteer to director of basketball operations to assistant, Stevens was named head coach. He spent the evening swept up in a whirlwind of congratulatory communiques and his own restless excitement. But the next morning, running on an hour’s sleep, he was on the 90-minute drive to Connersville. He entered the Howard home unraveled, bags under his eyes. Matt’s mother told Stevens he looked like he could use some food, and invited him to sit.
During the recruiting process, the Howards had come to know Stevens even better than they had known Lickliter. Stevens had also come to know Matt. He had seen the youth’s maturity, his ability to make educated decisions under pressure. But Stevens still didn’t know what Matt was going to do. Matt and his parents did. As Stevens sat at the family table, Matt’s mother brought out a dessert topped with a blueberry “B” for Butler.
When he wasn’t playing football or basketball, Ronald Nored watched his pastor father work throughout the rundown neighborhood surrounding his church in Birmingham, Alabama. Helping build single-family houses to replace dilapidated shotguns. Administering youth groups and work programs for a community mired in crime and unemployment. Ronald himself passed out presents to needy children on Christmas morning while his own sat unopened under the tree at home. Reverend Nored taught his sons to trust in faith. And that faith sustained them when they lost their father to cancer in fall 2003. Ronald found comfort with his family, many of whom lived in Indianapolis, 490 miles north. His grandmother’s house is on 40th Street, less than a mile from the Butler campus. One evening the summer after his father’s death, 14-year-old Ronald was visiting, and his uncle took him to Hinkle to shoot around. But it was getting late, and a Butler assistant had been asked to lock up the gym for the day. The coach approached the youth and politely asked him to leave. The boy quietly picked up his dribble, took his ball, and went home. It was the first time Ronald and Stevens met.
That fall, Ronald chose to put football aside and focus on basketball. He was not a great shooter, but he was the best defender on the floor. And as point guard, he seemed to lift his teammates and put them in a position to win. Still, a lack of gaudy point totals kept Ronald below the national recruiting radar. When the phone wasn’t ringing by the end of Ronald’s sophomore season in 2006, his high-school coach took it upon himself to contact schools. And since the coach was a Fort Wayne native, one of his first calls was to Butler.
In the summer of 2007, three years after their Hinkle encounter and just a few months after the unknown Stevens had been promoted, the new Butler head coach was in the bleachers of a tiny gym in Florida, watching Ronald play in a showcase tournament for high-school talent. Ronald was terrible. The players he was assigned to guard blew past him. He turned the ball over again and again—including once in the closing seconds that cost his team the game.
“I walked away understanding why he wasn’t being recruited by major-conference powers,” says Stevens. “But you can learn a lot about a guy watching him play poorly, and watching him react.” Even though Ronald was disappointed, it never showed in his body language. He never allowed it to undercut his ability to general his team. “In Ron,” Stevens says, “I saw an elite leader.” Ronald was also an elite student, and soon he drew scholarship offers from 16 schools, including Harvard and Yale. Butler was not among them. Stevens already had two freshman point guards, and by the time he phoned Ronald, the player said he was leaning toward Western Kentucky, where he had become close to the head coach. Stevens told Ronald that he thought the youth should make whatever decision he felt was right for his future—showing a selflessness not particularly common in recruiters that impressed Ronald and his mother, Linda. “Stevens was very positive and genuine,” she says.
“He told Ronald, ‘Fine, but if you change your mind, call me.’” Then in April 2008, days after Ronald had led his team to the Alabama state championship game, the coach at Western Kentucky took a major-conference job at South Carolina. Ronald was nervous. How would he fit into the new scheme? The fall semester started in less than five months. He needed to reevaluate. He secured his release, sent it to Butler, and called Stevens. Stevens drove to Birmingham to meet with Ronald and his mother. Even on the eight-hour trip down I-65, Stevens was questioning himself in his mind and on his cell phone with assistants.
Was he the right fit?
He’s a great defender.
Would a third point guard disrupt team chemistry?
He’s a special leader.
Would he even play?
By the time Stevens arrived at Ronald’s high school and sat down with the Noreds at a desk in the gym office, he had decided this second chance at signing Ronald was too much to pass up. But he was blunt with the senior. With two guards ahead of him, he might not get the minutes he would elsewhere. In fact, the coach might ask him to red-shirt—sit out his freshman season and put a year of eligibility on the shelf. All Stevens could offer was a scholarship and a chance to work for his spot on the team.
Ronald didn’t care. Butler was close to family. And the coach had just driven almost 500 miles simply to meet with him.
The rules were simple: Every day Khyle Marshall was to come home from school, eat, and then go to his room to study. There was no TV or basketball until mom, Myrline, or dad, Joseph, both Caribbean immigrants, had checked his homework. And when a Ft. Lauderdale high-school coach spotted Khyle at a gym and asked the Marshalls to let him work with the 14-year-old, the same rules applied. “We told the coach, ‘If you get him to do as well in the classroom as on the court, we have a deal,” says Myrline. During the Florida summer, while other kids were on vacation, Khyle would be at the school working out twice a day—running and lifting at 7 a.m., and then back at 5 p.m. for drills and shooting. He would put up as many as 1,000 shots a day. When school started, Khyle came on Saturdays and Sundays at 10 a.m. to supplement weekday practices. By 2009, when Stevens began scouting the 6-foot-7 junior forward, the coach was watching a determined defender who could score and rebound. Khyle also performed in the classroom. “We knew right away that he was a target,” says Stevens. “And he had a great foundation.” That was clear from the start. While some parents just hand over recruiting mail to their kids, it was obvious to the Butler staff that Joseph and Myrline had read every letter. When coaches pitched their basketball programs, the parents stopped them mid-sentence and let them know that basketball was not an option for Khyle if his grades weren’t up to snuff. Stevens’ approach was different. He appreciated the discipline system that the Marshalls maintained with Khyle, and he told them that Butler had a similar method. “(Stevens) stressed education,” says Myrline. “And a family-type of structure between the coaches and the kids. He told Khyle that there would be a place and time for him to play, if he continued to work hard. But it was up to him—he had to want it and to work for it. There were no shortcuts—exactly what we had been telling him.”
Two dozen scholarship offers came—among them, invitations from big-conference schools Kansas State and Auburn. But Khyle gradually began to gravitate toward Stevens and Butler. He liked their style, their emphasis on defense. In recruiting, Stevens played strictly by the rules—something Khyle had been raised to appreciate. In the fall of his senior year, 2009, Khyle made his official visit.
After a tour of campus and Hinkle, Stevens invited Khyle and his parents over to his house for a barbecue and to watch football on TV with his wife, Terry, his two kids, and a few Butler players—the kind of gathering Stevens occasionally hosts for the whole team. “Players can choose not to come here for many reasons,” Stevens says. “But I would never want one of those reasons to be that they felt they didn’t know us.”
What Myrline saw was a family. And to her surprise, she saw her usually shy son fit right in. “He just came out of his shell,” she says. “It was like he had known them for many years.” On the way home, even though the senior had two more colleges to visit, he announced to his parents, “That’s where I want to be.”
Weeks later, Stevens visited the Marshalls’ home in Ft. Lauderdale. He brought along his laptop, and after a late lunch of sandwiches and fruit punch, the coach showed Khyle some video of Butler plays, illustrating where he thought Khyle might fit and what he could work on. Then there was a lull in the conversation. Joseph and Myrline smiled. They knew what was coming.
“Coach Stevens,” Khyle said, “I want to be a Butler Bulldog.”
In April 2010, Khyle returned to Indianapolis to be among the 70,000 people—more than 16 times Butler’s total enrollment—sitting in the stands of Lucas Oil Stadium to watch the Bulldogs in the Final Four. They shared in the elation of the semifinal upset of Michigan State and then in the anguish two nights later against Duke for the national championship. But even amid the wave of disappointment that washed over the Butler crowd that night, Khyle could hardly contain his excitement.
That was his team. Those were his future teammates. He couldn’t wait to step on that floor. “They know what it takes to get there,” Khyle says. “And we know we’re going back.”
Among the heartbroken on the court that night was sophomore Ronald Nored. Despite Stevens’ red-shirt warnings, Ronald had started all 32 games at the point his first year—a Butler record for a freshman—and last year, he was named Horizon League
Co-Defensive Player of the Year before leading the team on its tournament run. The 6.8 points and 3.3 assists Ronald averaged in each tourney game didn’t light up the box scores. But only star sophomore Gordon Hayward spent more minutes on the court.
Stevens admits he rides Ronald harder than his other players at practice, but that’s only because the coach’s expectations are so high. It’s easy to imagine that Ronald’s late father would have approved—as he would of his son’s current plan to make a career of coaching. Stevens, Ronald says, is “the kind of guy who just makes you want to be a better person. He has grown into my mentor and role model.”
When the buzzer sounded, the celebrating Blue Devils had to step over Matt Howard, who had collapsed on his back, hands to his forehead in frustration. In 2007, his freshman year, he fought for playing time on a team with five seniors—and earned a starting spot, being named that season’s Horizon League Newcomer of the Year. He would make first-team All-Conference and Academic All-American the next two years. Against Duke, battling the lingering effects of a concussion, he still managed 11 points and four rebounds in only 19 minutes. The 2010 tournament was Matt’s third with Coach Stevens. He doesn’t expect it to be his last. “Coach Stevens always has things thought through to the next step,” Matt says. “He always has a plan.”
And as much as things have changed in the wake of last year’s success, it’s clear the plan won’t shift an inch. Parents will give more attention to mail from Butler, but the school will recruit as it always has. Top-ranked prep stars will be attracted to the Bulldogs’ heightened national profile, but if they don’t fit into Stevens’ system of sacrifice, he will not be interested. Last April, he signed a 12-year extension to stay at Butler. “I want to work where I can recruit the kind of kids I want to coach,” he says.
And his pitch to those kids will be the same.
“When you sell your situation, you can’t get outside of who you are,” Stevens says. “Who you are is the bottom line.”
Photos by Tony Valainis
This article appeared in the November 2010 issue.