Butler Destabilized by Brad Stevens’ Move to the Boston CelticsPosted by Chris Johnson on July 4th, 2013
Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.
Burying news breaks in the lead-up to major work holidays or weekends is a totally normal thing. It almost never fails: use the benefit of most people’s designated R&R time to stanch the quick-spreading news cycle and prolonged Interweb shelf life. Snip the story at the bud before it has a chance to grow. Classic. Except that tactic might not work with Wednesday night’s news, dropped mere hours before our country’s biggest patriotic celebration – at least not among college hoops fans – that Butler coach Brad Stevens is no longer. Indeed, the baby-faced, cool-mannered, whiz kid Bulldogs sideline boss is leaving college basketball for the NBA. And not just any professional coaching job: Stevens is replacing Doc Rivers just in time to lead the 17-time champion Boston Celtics through a massive franchise rebuild. For all the classic cases of college coaches failing to translate their success to the next level, Stevens feels like the perfect hire for where the Celtics are as a franchise and the general direction the NBA is moving as it embraces a larger presence of analytics-savvy decision-makers in high-ranking positions.
But Stevens is so much more than your average KenPom frequenter. In the process of lifting Butler from its Horizon League perch to a brief one-year stint in the Atlantic 10 to the new Big East, Stevens showed what comparatively lightly-recruited talent, empowered by tactical wizardry devised to maximize that talent’s best individual and collective attributes, can become. The height of his tenure, needless to say, were the back-to-back national title runs Stevens presided over in 2010 and 2011, each win over each powerhouse program coach more mind-numbing than the one before it. That’s when Stevens’ Bulldogs became so much more than the plucky Horizon league stalwart most college hoops fans had acknowledged for years. Butler became a national story, and its head coach the envy of any major program looking to replace its fired one.
Offer after offer, Stevens stayed true to his home state convictions, rebuffing all manner of pay-raises and prospective profile-building program enticements, emphasizing over and over again his desire to stay at home, where he and his family lived a comfortable life (with a comfortable salary), where he could continue to nudge his endearingly buoyant program to NCAA Tournaments and insane deep-round upsets. You could have made the case, after witnessing Stevens turn down seemingly every job offer thrown his way, that Stevens would hunker down in Indianapolis for good. If college basketball breeds mid-major lifers, Stevens had given every indication. What offer could possibly sever Stevens’ attachment to the program he lifted into de facto major conference stature? Who could possibly convince the stoic Stevens the program he vaulted to new heights was merely a step towards a brighter coaching future? Wednesday night provided a shocking answer.
Trying to speak in absolutes when appraising any coaching hire is a precarious endeavor. Any coaching transition is transacted with an implied undercurrent of uncertainty. It’s when that uncertainty hardens into positive change that you know your decision achieved its intended purpose. But the fact remains that anytime you hire a coach, the only thing you know is what said coach has done either in his old job (or during his unemployment) to be rewarded with a new job. You never know what’s actually going to happen, ever. And this move is even more difficult to predict: who knows how Stevens will handle the leap from cozy Horizon League conference post-game press conferences to the suffocating daily horde of Celtics media devouring every bit of breathing room he previously enjoyed? How will players respond to an unassuming mid-major coach with zero professional experience to speak of? Will Stevens be able to handle the ego-massaging and personality coddling coaches are regularly undermined by in today’s superstar-centered NBA?
I’ll let the NBA folks bounce those important unknowns off one other. College hoops fans want to know what this means for the game they will – despite seeing one of its brightest young coaches walk away – continue to follow relentlessly. Well, sorry to break it to you guys, especially those who claim Butler as their favorite team, but the instant analysis turns up a simple answer: not good. Butler was supposed to march into its new league with the man responsible for its recent dramatic rise pulling the strings, doing all the little things that led him and his team to the lofty landing spots – for Stevens, the Celtics; for Butler, the Big East – they could have never envisioned even six years ago. The main reason the Bulldogs were such an attractive addition for the transitory Catholic Seven in the first place was because of the long-term stability and winning permanence Stevens had proven over multiple Horizon League championships and thrilling Tournament upsets. Some mid-major programs have players that symbolize their respective ascendances, fleeting or lasting or otherwise. Other programs have coaches. Over the past six seasons, Stevens had Butler and Butler had Stevens. Few programs in the country had forged stronger practical and symbolic bonds with their head coach.
Now, the Bulldogs will have to replace that identity, and do so in extremely abbreviated fashion. Assistant Matthew Graves was seen as the most probable successor, but he reiterated Wednesday night his new job in South Alabama – accepted under the impression Stevens wouldn’t be going anywhere any time soon – is a firm commitment. Whoever does replace Stevens, it goes without saying the encore will have a hard time living up to the headliner. Stevens took this program to a place few would have ever thought remotely possible, and now, on the cusp of making its biggest program leap yet, the entire operation is thrown into disarray. It’s important not to paint Butler with one Stevens-colored brush — other coaches, including Thad Matta and Todd Lickliter, have won games here before. Those wins also came against the comparative leniency of Horizon League competition. The Big East is an entirely different beast.
Navigating this already tumultuous period – moving to a more powerful league with better teams was hard enough – without the engine powering their recent resurgence will test Butler’s staying power in its new big boy conference digs. It will also plunder the depths of one existential question: did Butler make Stevens or did Stevens make Butler? Were the Bulldogs a product of or a facilitative platform for Stevens’ work? The next few years, where Stevens will preside over Boston’s post-Doc Rivers resurrection and Butler will attempt to stay afloat in a much tougher conference, could move us toward an answer. The Big East, if it had things its way, would have liked to know before it offered one of its three spots up to the Bulldogs.
But they didn’t. The Boston Celtics came swooping out of nowhere, snatched up one of the best young coaches college basketball has produced in the past decade, and the Bulldogs – and quite possibly the Big East – will not come out on the positive end of the transaction. The idea of inviting an annually contending mid-major like Butler to occupy one of the new Big East’s league roster spots made perfect sense at the time, with the unknown contingency that Stevens wouldn’t suddenly leave his program gasping for air. The repercussions could be grievous for Butler. Or maybe the Bulldogs had the next Stevens lined up all along in anticipation of this very moment. Perhaps the Bulldogs will keep their current pace for the next few years, and eventually plateau without the innovative spark and unflinchingly workmanlike demeanor only Stevens could truly encapsulate. Every possible outcome is worth debating.
We can only address what we know. Which, to recap, is: Butler loses one of the top five coaches in the sport. The Big East extended Butler an invitation precisely because of what that coach built the Bulldogs into under his watch. Butler will frantically search for that coach’s replacement and hope he can not only keep the Bulldogs competitive in their new league, but sustain the momentum that coach built during his time at the school. The web of unknowns is astounding, and Butler will need to face them head on in the coming years.
I have no idea what’s in store.