A secret. There had to be one, some special ingredient behind a small Indianapolis private school’s improbable run to consecutive NCAA championship games in 2010 and 2011.
Numbers! Yes, that was it.
“What two or three stats do you guys look at all the time?”
Former Butler assistant Matthew Graves remembered hearing that one a lot, from coaches and other sleuths.
Truth was, it all varied game to game, opponent to opponent. But that didn’t slow the inquiries.
“Everybody wants to break it down into this magical stat or formula,” said Graves, now the coach at the University of South Alabama.
Often overlooked was that A) Butler wasn’t a nobody out of nowhere and actually had reached four NCAA Tournaments in seven years (including two Sweet Sixteens) leading up to 2009-10; and that B) the program’s recent success could be traced back to a mid-1990s culture shift that created “The Butler Way.”
The turning point came in 1995 when Butler coach Barry Collier and another coach sat down with Wisconsin coach Dick Bennett, whose teams there and at Wisconsin-Green Bay were always a handful.
“I thought there was some kind of X’s-and-O’s secret I could learn,” said Collier, echoing what others would say years later when Brad Stevens coached Butler.
Instead, Bennett shared five Biblical-based principles that made up his philosophy: humility, passion, servanthood, thankfulness, and unity.
“ ‘Simple’ doesn’t seem like the right word,” said Collier. “But in some ways, I think it is. Because something is simple does not make it easy. It’s hard to follow these things.”
Collier applied what Bennett taught, and Butler improved, winning nearly 70 percent of its games over the next five seasons while reaching the NCAA Tournament in three of them.
Now the school’s athletic director, Collier still keeps Bennett’s principles on a laminated card in his pocket.
But when Todd Lickliter became Butler’s coach in 2001, he wanted to put “The Butler Way” into a one-page mission statement. So, he and then-assistant Stevens spent hours in Lickliter’s office, one on a yellow legal pad, the other on a computer, writing and rewriting until it was right.
Among their key influences was a book Lickliter had given Stevens, a book by Celtics legend Bill Russell: “Russell Rules: 11 lessons on Leadership From the Twentieth Century’s Greatest Winner.”
Two of Russell’s ideals stuck with them, one about team ego (“My ego demands — for myself — the success of my team”); and the other about the culture of the Celtics: “ ‘Celtic Pride’ is a real concept, a culture, and a practice rather than an idea. We lived it and breathed it. But we were each responsible for it. It began with a collective determination never to embarrass ourselves.”
Today, on the front wall of the Butler men’s basketball room is a placard that reads: “The Butler Way begins with a ‘collective determination never to embarrass ourselves.’ And we agree that The Butler Way is not merely a concept, but a ‘culture and a practice — and we all are responsible for it.’ ”
The culture is the foundation.
“Everybody thinks, ‘Well, there’s got to be more, there’s got to be something else,’ ” Graves said. “There’s not. But try doing this every single moment, every single day, over and over and over.”
Stevens kept that copy of Russell’s book, filled it with notes, and was rereading it this July during his flight to Boston, where he was to be introduced as the Celtics new head coach. As he sat in the team’s practice facility beneath 11 title banners that Russell helped win in his 13 years in Boston, Stevens used the word “culture” in his first public remarks.
“I think culture,” he said later, “is the most important thing.”
Obsessed with preparation
It’s after 10, maybe closer to midnight, many years ago at Stevens’s childhood home in Zionsville, Ind. His father, Mark, an orthopedic surgeon, is up late again, going over medical notes. Brad asks what he’s doing at this hour. Mark replies that he’s studying because he’s not sure what cases tomorrow will bring. He said it’s important to always be as prepared as possible.
A four-tier pyramid is fixed on a whiteboard in the Butler locker room. “Results” forms its peak. “Performance” is on the second level. “Character” makes up its base. The third tier is “Preparation.” And perhaps more than any other characteristic — more than toughness, execution, or defense — Stevens’s Butler teams were as prepared as any in the nation.
“You knew Butler was never going to beat themselves,” said Ohio State coach Thad Matta, a former Butler coach whose teams were beaten twice in three games by Stevens’s teams.
As Siena coach Fran McCaffery once said, “If you’re going to beat them, you almost have to play a perfect game.”
Stevens did his homework early. While he coached games, a staff member often uploaded edited video clips to his laptop — clips on each of the next opponent’s players, on the sets it runs the most, a couple of its most recent games, a couple of its games against teams that played a similar style to Butler. Afterward, Stevens devoured the footage, processing information at a pace his staff members called “amazing,” often on late-night flights, his face illuminated by the screen’s soft glow.
By noon the next day, Stevens said, he’d have in place the firm outlines of a game plan — no matter if the game was one day or one week away, because he didn’t want to have a single unprepared practice.
“I wasn’t going to do a day where it’s fluff and I can’t answer everything that I possibly can about the other team,” he said. “That’s how I’m wired.”
He’d study analytics and dig through books — books on leadership, on how the mind works, on successful businesses and the people who ran them — for a motivational quote or passage, because just as he told his players to “win the next possession,” Stevens believed it was his job to find any edge that could help win that possession.
“People always focus on the end of the game,” said former Butler forward Matt Howard, “but one thing I learned more than ever there, and just something we talked about all the time, was it’s not always about what happens at the end of the game. It’s about what happened leading up to that.”
For instance, Stevens loved to score on out-of-bounds plays. He usually had a quick-scoring play in his back pocket, but he also could draw up something based on a weakness he’d seen. Either way, out-of-bounds plays in basketball are akin to special teams in football — not many coaches truly try to capitalize in that area. But to Stevens, they are a potential edge.
“He’s one of these guys, he’s going to find a way to win,” said Butler assistant Michael Lewis. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a basketball game or golfing or tennis or walking through the building to see who can get to the next room the fastest.”
It might be an unorthodox plan, said former Butler assistant Micah Shrewsberry, such as having a post player defend a point guard for a play.
“Just because nobody else had done it, he wasn’t afraid to try it, just because it might give us one advantage,” said Shrewsberry, now a Celtics assistant.
As Lickliter had preached, Stevens and his staff spared no detail as they prepared a scouting report.
“By the end of the week, he’s got so much information on his hands that he can give out bits and pieces,” Shrewsberry said. “The players are like, ‘Whoa, he knows everything about these guys.’ ”
But, as Lickliter also preached, Stevens provided the players with only what they absolutely needed to know — nothing more.
Ronald Nored, a former Butler guard now in a player development role with the Celtics, said he realized the approach wasn’t common when speaking to players on other teams who received pages and pages of notes.
Lickliter said it is a talent to find only what will enable players to be successful, just as it’s a talent to teach it. These are traits, he said, that separate Stevens, whose background as a former star player (in high school) and role player (in college) helps him relate to every player on his teams. But Stevens also saw himself then (and today) as more of a teacher than a coach, curious about what each player wanted beyond the game and invested in a way to help them reach that goal.
The Bulldogs realized that the information they received would make them as game-ready as possible.
“I can’t remember one game where I felt less prepared than the other team,” Nored said. “Not one.”
The mind-set, Howard said, was to “know your player and the tendencies of other players as well.”
The result was that opposing players would use screens to free themselves from the player guarding them, but the Bulldogs could switch on screens — even three times in one possession — and stay effective, as each of them knew enough about everyone to capably guard anyone. It allowed Butler’s already-stifling defense to adapt while its parts still functioned as one.
“So you have to shoot a contested shot every time you shoot it,” Cleveland State coach Gary Waters once said. “Every time there’s any degree of penetration, there are at least two people ready to help out against you.”
Stopping opponents was a priority. Howard said about 85 percent of preseason practices were devoted to defense. Players faced countless scenarios, each designed to build muscle memory through repetition so that they could react almost at will.
“We did stuff until it was clockwork,” he said.
Following Stevens’s axiom, “The game honors toughness,” regimented practices were “extremely physical,” according to Howard, who said they left him sore head to toe. However, they were short, lasting not a minute more than necessary — Nored remembers one lasting just 28 minutes — and Howard said few fouls were called. “But that’s just how they wanted us to play,” he said.
Opponents would tell the Bulldogs that they were the most physical team they played all season — dirty, even. But they were unassuming. Basketball analyst Jay Bilas said Butler “looks like choirboys but defends like a motorcycle gang.” The idea, Stevens said, was “set the tone,” “impose your will,” and break the other team’s spirit. Or, as Butler players said, “Make them quit.”
It worked. In 2010, Butler became the first team since the shot clock was introduced in 1985-86 to reach the NCAA title game by holding five opponents under 60 points.
Stevens’s teams had players similar to him, his ex-teammates say. They weren’t the biggest, fastest, or most talented, but they were technically sound, prepared, determined, and ferocious competitors who had high basketball IQs and were team-focused. Under Stevens, such players created a whole far greater than the sum of its parts.
“The one thing that Brad has done throughout his career, as good as anybody I’ve ever seen,” Matta said, “is he takes what he’s got and he makes it the best it can be.”
The move to the pros
Tracy’s third date with Brad is a 92-mile drive to a high school game in Anderson, Ind. She’s excited, because it’s good car time together. He talks about basketball the whole way. She didn’t know about this side of his life until now — this passion for the game. They marry. There would be many more dates like this.
They have a lake house in Northern Indiana. She jokingly calls it his “happy place.” “Every day at the lake is a little bit of heaven for him,” Tracy said. It’s a physical retreat from work, but his mind is never far from the job. Even there, Stevens said, “All I do is read books and articles about what’s next. It never really stops.”
He craves competition, in any form. One night as he and Tracy were breaking down boxes at their new home in Massachusetts, she swore that he was trying to do it faster. After a pause, he admitted that it probably was true.
“It’s not just that he’s competitive,” Tracy said. “It’s that he always wants to be competing.”
The two have two Words With Friends games going at all times, she said. They also play Scrabble, though she said he leads the series, 500-2 (“It’s amazing that I still play,” she said.) His youth was filled with board games, and he long has been intrigued by puzzles, the challenge of making the next move.
But as he was winning 166 games in his first six years at Butler to become the sport’s winningest coach ever in a such a span, Stevens also turned down several offers, including some from blueblood programs such as UCLA.
It became clear that he wouldn’t leave Butler for another college.
That left only one option: the NBA.
Someone once told Stevens that the pro game differed from the college ranks in that it was more of a chess match. Naturally, that challenge long had intrigued him.
He spoke with NBA coaches at basketball clinics, watched numerous NBA games, implemented the plays, and discussed the pro game with players almost daily. His father Mark even recalled that Stevens once said, “I’d like to coach in college for 10 or 15 years, then give the NBA a shot.”
Then, in late June, Stevens and his wife had sold their house and were living with his mother when a voicemail dinged on his phone. It was Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge. It seemed like a sign, Tracy said: “We have no home, maybe the world is telling us we should move.”
The move seemed destined — for a player whose only Division 1 scholarship offer was from Larry Bird’s college coach, for a college coach whose program was greatly influenced by Bill Russell, for a Hoosier to move from the state that is the cradle of the game to the state where that very game was born.
Several notable college coaches have made the leap to the pro game and stumbled, so there is skepticism. The Celtics are a team that’s rebuilding, so there is doubt, though they gave Stevens a six-year contract, a sign of their patience.
He has no NBA experience, so there will be struggles, and he’ll have to endure losses, which to this day, Tracy said, brings about a noticeable physical reaction in him.
“He absolutely hates to lose,” she said. “He hates it with everything that he is.”
Losses eat at him.
“Of all the great moments at Butler, I still remember the losses most vividly,” he said. “I don’t know why. I guess that’s kind of what drives you.”
He still will jump in shooting drills with his players and talk trash, telling them, “I’m not going to lose!”
Said Nored, “You’re never going to get in the last good word with him. You might get in the last word, but it will not be the last good word.”
Stevens said he handles defeat better now because coaching has granted him perspective.
“You do everything you can to control the outcome,” he said, “and at the end of the day, it’s not always in your control.”
He said he cannot tell you his record in every season at Butler, or his record at DePauw, or in high school in Zionsville, Ind. He said he cannot remember the exact scores of the games. He said he’s not sure where the strands of twine are from the sectional championship he won as a high school senior and that he cannot find all of his NCAA Tournament rings from Butler.
“I don’t keep a lot of the trophy stuff,” he said. “I don’t pay attention to it.”
What matters most, Stevens said, are the relationships forged during those years, many of which are so deep that former players will send him Father’s Day cards.
“The guy, he just invests in you,” said Nored. “He just wants you to be better in any way possible. That’s how he is with everyone. Once you see that, he’s an easy guy to root for, an easy guy to want to do things for.”
Of the more than four dozen friends, family, colleagues, coaches, teachers, professors, classmates, roommates, and teammates interviewed for this series, close to three dozen recited some version of this phrase about Stevens: “You won’t find anyone who has anything bad to say about him.”
Said Ryan Hidinger, a close friend and high school teammate, “He’s one of those people that you see and you’re like, ‘Nobody’s that good.’ But he’s squeaky clean.”
Added Matt Walker, a college roommate: “He’s every parent’s dream.”
A never-ending quest
In his first days with the Celtics, the front office was impressed with how hands-on Stevens was with players, how he was able to communicate information and build relationships. At media day, Ainge said he already knew he had hired the right man but he was so impressed with Stevens since then that “I’d like to give him a four-year contract extension.”
During training camp, players remarked time and again on Stevens’s attention to detail.
“He works on the little things first, from setting screens the right way to getting to a certain spot on the floor,” said guard Keith Bogans.
Said Jeff Green, “He’s very smart, very precise. He’s a perfectionist.”
Said Avery Bradley, “He drills it into our heads. If we go through a play halfway, he’ll keep doing it — over and over again until we get it right.”
Said Kris Humphries, “This is probably . . . the most detailed I’ve been coached.”
And Brandon Bass said the biggest difference between this staff and that of former coach Doc Rivers was “more attention to detail.”
Though those details are a huge part of his life, the best part of Stevens’s day is when he can spend time with his two children — and especially play basketball with his 7-year-old son, Brady, who is aptly named for this part of the country (another reason Stevens seemed destined to coach in New England). They usually play in the driveway of their new home, which, of course, already has a goal set up, or at the Celtics’ practice facility in Waltham. Tracy said they’re quite competitive, but that Stevens internalizes it while Brady is outward, like his father at that age.
Tracy said her husband has remained the same person that she started dating in college, and he said he has no goals: “I get great satisfaction from trying to get better and trying to do the next thing as well as I can.”
Nored believes that once you stop learning and you feel satisfied, “That’s when you lose,” and when asked if Stevens can be satisfied, Nored doesn’t hesitate.
“I don’t think he will be,” he said. “Ever.”
Tracy pondered the question for a minute and said that if he wins a championship, he’d enjoy it for a day or two, then hunt for another.
“It’s a constant quest,” she said. “His desire to compete and be the best is never-ending.”
Years ago, when Stevens was playing high school basketball in Zionsville, his coach Dave Sollman said of all the players on the team, Stevens was the last he’d imagine becoming a coach. He was too smart, too bound for success elsewhere.
“He’s going to make a lot more money in whatever he does than coaches could ever make,” Sollman believed.
Friends, family, coaches, former teammates, and colleagues say he is one of the rare few who would have excelled at anything because of his intellect and drive. But growing up in the basketball-steeped culture of Indiana and coaching in Butler’s Hinkle Fieldhouse, a national historic landmark that was once the largest gym in the US and was where part of “Hoosiers” was filmed, all but ruined him for anything else.
He is all-ball, a Hoosier in search of anything with a scoreboard, who no longer plays as an outlet for his ultra-competitiveness but instead channels it with laser focus into outpreparing the competition, to finding any edge hidden in the details.
A win provides the brief fix he needs and craves, and delays the dagger of defeat for one more day. Then he’ll wake in the pre-dawn hours and continue that constant quest, learning everything he can, reexamining all he knows, all to improve, streamline, and perfect the process, his process, so that he can win tomorrow, too.Baxter Holmes can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @BaxterHolmes