Brandon Miller Is An Excellent Choice To Replace Brad Stevens at Butler: What Happens Next?Posted by Chris Johnson on July 8th, 2013
Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.
Familiarity and tradition has worked for Butler when executing coaching changes in the past, and it will have to work once more after watching Brad Stevens take an immense NBA leap of faith in agreeing to become the next head coach of the Boston Celtics. Butler wasted no time hiring Stevens’ replacement; shortly after his departure was made official Wednesday night, two candidates–Michigan assistant LaVall Jordan and Butler assistant Brandon Miller–were identified as the only two candidates with any conceivable shot at actually landing the job. Jordan was seen as the frontrunner, and for good reason: he is widely respected in Big Ten coaching circles, played and coached at Butler and was seen as the biggest guiding hand in elevating Trey Burke to First Team All-American/Lottery pick status.
In the end, Butler went with what has worked in the past. Miller is the fourth consecutive Butler coach to be promoted from within, a quintessential Bulldogs hire. And not only did Miller play and coach for the Bulldogs, he is also, like Stevens, Matta, and Lickliter before him, getting his first opportunity as a college head coach at the school. Fortunately for him, this job likely would have gone to former assistant Matt Graves, the current South Alabama head coach and star Butler guard widely presumed to be Stevens’ successor whenever the possibility of Stevens leaving – which was basically, like, any time a high major job opened up over the past three seasons – cropped up. Miller returned to the Bulldogs bench once Graves left for South Alabama, and unwittingly positioned himself for a promotion few college basketball people saw coming at this stage of the offseason. His profile aligns with everything Butler has sought in its recent coaching hires, but this time, the stakes are even higher, and Miller has a more difficult mandate than the other in-house hires that preceded him.
For starters, there’s the matter of succeeding Stevens unparalleled success, which – short of a couple national championship game appearances and conference titles – is an impossibly high standard to meet. Stevens took an already very good program and embossed its endearing Midwestern pluckiness to an enthralled national audience. He made every NCAA Tournament game Butler played appointment viewing, lest any of us miss the next hair-splitting last second bucket or walk-on spurred second half comeback, or whatever other intuitive strategic ruse Stevens conjured up to stun countless high major opponents with more individual “talent.” The NCAA Tournament (along with a few insane non-conference wins; beating Indiana at Lucas Oil Stadium on Alex Barlow’s teardrop in overtime and Marquette in Maui on Rotnei Clarke’s off-balance buzzer heave, both taking place last season, are the most recent examples) captures only half of why preserving the momentum and national renown Stevens established will require a truly herculean effort. The regular season numbers are even more unprecedented. Stevens won 166 games in six seasons at the school, the most prolific six-year run ever by a first-time head coach. Asking Miller to keep that pace is like asking someone to rewrite history.
Coaching in Stevens’ shadow will be challenging. Miller’s job is made doubly hard so by the move Butler is making this off-season, wherein it officially becomes a high major program by joining the new Big East. There were already questions about whether Butler could survive the nightly grind of Villanova and Georgetown and Marquette and the rest of the 10-team league. Most people believed it could, but a lot of that, I would argue, was rooted in Stevens being there to guide the ship, to help Butler erase the echoes of its relatively low-profile Horizon League existence. An 11-win league season in a strong A-10, coupled with the massive contract extension Stevens signed in 2010, gave the new Big East the long-term stability and confidence it desired to tab the Bulldogs for the revamped league. Butler was the perfect fit, and Stevens – backed by an athletic department committed to pumping more money into its basketball program; i.e. a $34 million Hinkle Fieldhouse renovation this offseason – would keep them competitive through its transition into a much tougher league. That vision changed when Stevens shocked the college hoops, and most of the NBA world Wednesday night, but the expectations are there all the same. Butler will need to win in a deeper, more-monied, better-coached league, and it won’t have the coach responsible for its promotion to said league in the first place, Stevens, along for the ride. The onus is on Miller.
Some programs handle coaching transitions better than others. North Carolina trudged through six years of Bill Guthridge and Matt Doherty after Dean Smith. Kansas replaced Roy Williams with Bill Self. Identifying and hiring the right candidate is a fickle endeavor. You can never be totally sure in the moment that the man you have selected to replace your legendary coach (which Stevens, with the only caveat being abbreviated tenure length, most definitely is). You can only make the most sensible move based off the instructive history gleaned from previous coaching hires. Miller is a continuation of everything Butler used to become one of the nation’s most consistent mid major programs, and an almost direct extension of the man who launched the Bulldogs to their new high-major conference membership. Unlike previous Butler hires, the obstacles Miller faces not only bring higher expectations internally (following in the footsteps of one of the best coaches in the sport), they also include the unexplored territory of trying to mold Butler’s efficient winning recipe to the brighter lights of a major conference; even if their promotions – call-ups from assistant jobs – were similarly conceived. Miller is not attempting to succeed merely another successful Butler coach in a long line of successful Butler coaches. He’s picking up where the winningest first-time college coach of all time left off as the program undergoes a pivotal step up to a major conference.
The hire feels like a perfect fit. The results may vary.