INDIANAPOLIS – On April 2, 2007, Butler needed a basketball coach.
That day, Todd Lickliter, after leading Butler to the Sweet 16 before losing to eventual national champion Florida, announced he was leaving for the University of Iowa.
Barry Collier was, and remains, Butler’s athletic director, where he previously coached the team from 1989-2000. As news of Lickliter’s departure broke, his phone was inundated with some 100 coaches from around the country seeking the job.
Collier, though, had his eye on someone far closer – a soft-spoken, low-profile, baby-faced Butler assistant named Brad Stevens.
Stevens was just 30 at the time, young for a Division I head coach. That was just part of it.
The guy looked like he was, what, 25 years old?
“Twenty-five?” Collier said with a laugh. “He looked a lot younger than that.”
It didn’t matter. Collier’s eventual decision to hire Stevens launched a coaching career that would propel Butler to consecutive NCAA championship game appearances and now has the Boston Celtics one victory from the NBA Finals. The Celtics, holding a 3-2 Eastern Conference finals lead, visit Cleveland on Friday.
Collier’s hire was one of the most inspired in basketball history.
“I thought he was the right guy,” Collier said. “I’m not going to pretend I knew it would work out like this.”
Despite the national interest, Collier was initially focused on trying to maintain the upward momentum the program was experiencing. Here in Indy they call it “the Butler Way,” which is shorthand for finding and developing the right kind of players who want to play a certain way. This is an excellent private school sitting on a bucolic campus on Indy’s north side.
It’s not for everyone. It’s perfect for some.
Butler plays in historic Hinkle Fieldhouse, a treasure of a gym where both the real life and movie version of “Hoosiers” took place. It isn’t fancy, though. Stevens would often say he knew if a recruit was a fit for Butler based on his first visit to Hinkle. The wrong guy was looking for plush locker rooms like at other schools. The right one grabbed a ball and started shooting.
Collier wanted a coach who understood Butler, so he immediately set up interviews with all three of Lickliter’s young assistant coaches – Stevens, Matthew Graves (age 32) and LaVall Jordan (27). Graves, who later became the head coach at South Alabama, went first, then Stevens and then Jordan, who is Butler’s current coach.
Without the benefit of time to prepare, Stevens walked in with a full plan on how he would operate the program, including recruiting, managing academics, dealing with discipline and so on. It was thorough and thought out. It was perfectly organized and perfectly explained. Collier had been impressed all season watching Stevens as an assistant. This was next level.
“Brad clearly had a vision for what he wanted to do,” Collier recalled. “What struck me at the time was what a fantastic communicator he is. His clarity of thought and gift of expression, you see it more and more in the different environments he is.”
While Collier was excited, Stevens thought the interview had gone poorly. He called his wife, Tracy, and told her to start packing for Iowa, believing he wouldn’t get the Butler job and would instead accept a job as an assistant coach for Lickliter in the Big Ten.
Stevens was still an unknown quantity then. He entered coaching with no pedigree. He grew up in suburban Indianapolis and played at little DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana. After college, he took a job in marketing with pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly.
In 2000, still obsessed with basketball, he quit a good job to become an unpaid volunteer assistant at Butler. He was 23. He then slowly worked his way up the ranks. While his intellect and work ethic were undeniable, he had little in the way of flair that often excites athletic directors. He was different. He still is.
Collier saw through that. He brought Stevens back the next morning for a second interview.
“His confidence and communication in the interview were a significant differentiator,” Collier said. “There has never been a question about his integrity, and his intelligence is outstanding. He has a big motor. It may not look like it, but he has a big motor for the capacity of work.”
Collier was convinced. The voicemails were piling up from successful coaches or eager big-conference assistants looking to speak with him.
Collier ignored them and hired Stevens less than 48 hours after Lickliter left. Part of it was the interview. Part of it was watching Stevens the previous season work with the players, who all vouched for him.
“I didn’t hesitate because it’s really how you interact with your players and how they respond to coaching,” said Collier, who also coached Nebraska for six seasons.
In his first four seasons, Butler went 117-25 and played in two title games, unheard-of success for a program of its size. Stevens was 33 years old in his first Final Four appearance, still the youngest active coach in the country and the youngest to reach the NCAA tournament’s final weekend since 32-year-old Bob Knight in 1973.
“I readily admit I didn’t think he’d be the most successful coach ever over his first few years,” Collier said with a laugh.
Stevens left for Boston in 2013, yet remains in regular contact with Collier and the Butler program. Tracy Stevens, an attorney, sits on the school’s board of directors. There is a significant Celtics rooting interest here deep in the heart of the Midwest. And a Butler one up in Boston.
“He’s gotten better because he works at the craft,” Collier said. “He got better during his time at Butler. He told me that in his first game he was so nervous he thought he threw that on the team. He said, ‘I am going to be a coach that doesn’t get in the way of the players.’ ”
Wait, so there was a time when Stevens didn’t calmly watch a game with his arms folded, looking more like an accountant than a coach?
“He said he wanted to express a poise and a calm to transfer confidence,” Collier said.
That’s how you take Butler to two title games, or lose two star NBA players, start a bunch of young guys and sit one game from the NBA Finals.
“All I know is we won that game,” Collier said.
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