News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Mark Bennett Opinion

April 17, 2010

Mark Bennett: Success hasn’t changed Butler’s Brad Stevens

TERRE HAUTE — It was no fluke that Brad Stevens coached tiny Butler University into the national championship game this month.

That destiny wasn’t guaranteed, either.

Refreshingly, Stevens — at just 33 years old — understands those realities.

Technically, Stevens returned to his alma mater, DePauw University, on Tuesday to serve as the April guest speaker in the school’s Ubben Lecture Series. But his 45-minute talk with students, staffers, alums and Greencastle townsfolk was no lecture. Though others who wear his title — “Division I college basketball coach” — often communicate in rants, Stevens typically works the sidelines with a serene grin, applauding and redirecting his players. He walked onto DePauw’s Kresge Auditorium similarly composed, sipping a bottled water and smiling as the crowd of more than 800 people stood and cheered.

He’s neck-deep in adulation, mostly because his Bulldogs came within inches of beating powerhouse Duke in the NCAA title game two weeks ago. The tide hasn’t swept Stevens off his feet, though. He seems firmly grounded.

He reminded the DePauw crowd that Butler’s 61-59 loss to Duke wasn’t his team’s only close call in the Big Dance. The Bulldogs narrowly beat Murray State 54-52 in the second round. “We could’ve lost,” he said, “and I would be speaking in front of 80 people, instead of 800.”

His appearance Tuesday was planned way back in August, long before the Bulldogs became the darlings of March Madness, with a 25-game winning streak, a 90-percent graduation rate and a star player with a 3.31 GPA in computer engineering. Stevens was asked by his former econ prof Gary Lemon to speak to students in DePauw’s Management Fellows program. Stevens graduated from that program in 1999. Of course, after Stevens’ Bulldogs knocked off Syracuse, Kansas State and Michigan State in succession and scared the daylights out of Duke, his speech at DePauw — just eight days after the heroics ended — took on added interest.

Stevens would’ve been just as comfortable talking economics and philosophy to the Management Fellows. On Tuesday, he spent just as much time on those topics as basketball. Stevens realizes Butler’s 33-5 season, his 89-15 coaching record and his job can’t be taken for granted.

“There’s a lot of circumstances that could’ve happened to where I would never have been asked to speak to you today,” Stevens said. “In fact, I’d be the last person asked to speak to you.”

Instead, his future wife, Tracy, supported his decision to quit a solid, good-paying job at Eli Lilly and go after a college coaching career, starting as a volunteer assistant at Butler. Seven years later, the university promoted him to head coach. He could’ve started disastrously and gotten fired. Instead, he stuck to the values that made Butler an enviable program and succeeded.

Those values have been posted in the Bulldogs’ lockerroom through four coaches. The first two aren’t too unusual for a sports team — passion and unity. Teams struggle when players don’t enjoy the experience or perform selfishly. The next three reveal precisely why Butler and its young coach had gone where no mid-major had gone before.

Servanthood. Humility. Thankfulness.

Looking at the block of students, Stevens — who could pass for one of them if he traded his suit for a T-shirt, shorts and sandals — said the most valuable class he took at DePauw was called “servant leadership.” He learned “the best way to lead is to step up and do something for somebody else.”

His example of humility explains Stevens’ style. He considers former Colts coach Tony Dungy a role model. Dungy quietly leads, and people listen. “To be a leader, you have to be followed,” Stevens said. “Eventually, if you’re just a screamer or a yeller or whatever the case may be, it’s going to be a lot harder for you to be followed.”

Thankfulness “is contagious,” Stevens added. It’s hard to be a prima donna and thankful at the same time.

After some thought a few years ago, Stevens decided to add a sixth Butler value — accountability. The Butler players are asked to be accountable for their actions, and to hold their friends and teammates accountable. Courage is a key. “It takes guts to tell people something they don’t want to hear,” Stevens said.

Passion. Unity. Servanthood. Humility. Thankfulness. Accountability.

Those standards for living aren’t just meant for Stevens’ student-athletes. They apply to him, too.

“If I do those things, I’ll probably be a better husband, a better father, an easier person to work with, and an easier person to be around on campus,” he said.

Moments before Stevens began speaking, Lemon asked the audience if they would think more highly of Stevens if Butler forward Gordon Hayward’s 3-point attempt had gone through the basket at the buzzer against Duke, instead of careening off the rim.

Forty-five minutes later, when Stevens finished speaking, the crowd answered Lemon’s question by giving the coach a second standing ovation.

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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