By Pat Forde
July 3, 2013
The single biggest drain on the quality and credibility of college basketball over the last 20 years has been early entries to the National Basketball Association.
Primarily, that’s been a player problem.
Wednesday it was a coach problem.
A huge coach problem.
Brad Stevens, college basketball’s single brightest light under the age of 40, jilted the college ranks well before anyone thought he would. If anyone ever thought he would.
The 36-year-old stunned the basketball world by leaving Butler for the Boston Celtics, which absolutely nobody saw coming. This Third of July shocker was a star-spangled stealth move. No rumors, no buzz, no speculation. It was quite the covert operation.
Stevens had been courted for every major opening in the college ranks for the past three years, since the first of Butler’s consecutive, fairy-tale runs to the NCAA Tournament title game. The only places that ever seemed like possible destinations were blue-blood locales — Duke, North Carolina, Indiana. Nobody ever linked him with the NBA, until all of a sudden he was gone.
It was the most significant pro raid on the college coaching ranks since the Celtics nabbed Rick Pitino from Kentucky in 1997. My guess is that this one will work out better than that one.
Stevens is on par with Pitino in terms of intellect, but a better fit in the pros than mid-90s Pitino from an ego standpoint. He has the kind of temperament that should work well with professional millionaires — even Rajon Rondo, who often exasperated Tubby Smith in college and Doc Rivers in the pros. Stevens should have no problem putting the players first, which is the way it has to be in the NBA.
[Related: Rewards outweight risks for Brad Stevens]
So this looks like a great move for the Celtics. But it is a massive blow to college hoops.
Stevens had been so perfect in college, especially the mid-major fit at Butler. Young, sincere, not jaded, thankful where he was, winning without a whiff of scandal or a hint of ethical compromise — he was the white knight the game needed, coaching in the Camelot of Hinkle Fieldhouse.
But white knights and Camelot exist in storybooks. And college hoops is no storybook place.
It is a game compromised by towering egos, control freaks, scam artists and empty suits. That doesn’t mean there aren’t a few good men coaching at that level — quite a few, really — but they tend to be overshadowed by con men who talk like Gandhi and operate like the Godfather.
Stevens was not that guy.
He wasn’t into hiring AAU operators who couldn’t coach a lick but would bring along a star player in a package deal. He didn’t turn Butler into a safe haven for recruits who hopscotched from one high school to the next, producing transcripts that looked like ransom notes. He didn’t ask anyone to believe, with a straight face, that impoverished kids with fancy cars and uneducated kids with great grades were perfectly natural occurrences. He didn’t take shortcuts, didn’t game the system, didn’t ask the Butler administration to look the other way while he got things done by any means necessary.
And he still won big. At a place that had no business winning big.
Making the 2010 Final Four was an incredible triumph for a small school from the Horizon League. Then the Bulldogs nearly won the thing, until Gordon Hayward’s half-court heave banged off the rim after the buzzer. That Final Four was in Indianapolis, and on the day of the title game, players on the hometown team actually went to class.
It was the feel-good story college basketball badly needed.
Then Butler backed it up the next year, going back to the title game with a team that truly had no business making it that far without Hayward, who had turned pro after his sophomore season. The Bulldogs collapsed in the final against Connecticut, but that back-to-back run ranks high among the great feats in college basketball history.
Stevens was the architect. The guiding force. The preternaturally calm guy who had every answer — in the huddles during timeouts, in the press conferences, everywhere. Butler was built on a great foundation of mid-major success, but the biggest reason it rapidly rose from the Horizon League to the Atlantic-10 to the new Big East was the nerdy looking dude on the sidelines.
No wonder every single school from every single power conference that had an opening since 2010 at least put out a feeler to see if Stevens was ready to leave the Shangri-La of Hinkle for the big time. And every time the answer was no.
The longer Stevens stayed at Butler, the more college basketball needed him to stay. He had six glorious seasons there, but the game needed him for 26 more. As there steadily became less to believe in, the reassurance of believing in Brad only grew.
Whenever people despaired about the future of college coaching — which was often, and quite frequently from within the profession — the two guys you could point to as reasons for hope were Brad Stevens at Butler and Shaka Smart at VCU.
Now that hope has been cut in half. A nation turns its lonely eyes to Richmond, Va., and hopes Smart can handle the burden by himself.
Brad Stevens will be missed. Not just by Butler, but by college basketball as a whole.