Somebody had to have done something wrong. Just as 19 to 22-year old young adults tend to do around the Fourth of July, the feeling was mutual around the Butler basketball locker room prior to 5:30 p.m. on Wednesday evening. One of the players, in some way, shape, or form, had done something that deserved a lecture from coach. Why else would Brad Stevens call for a meeting that day?
As the players sat together, nobody could pin-point an answer as to why they were gathered a day before a national holiday. They just knew that they were brought together as friends, as a team, and most importantly, as Butler Bulldogs. During good times, during bad times, and throughout seasons and off-seasons, this was just one of those occurrences where Coach Stevens was going to straighten everything out.
“I thought it was social-media wise,” said Butler Senior Khyle Marshall. “I figured somebody had tweeted, or put out a tweet that was taken the wrong way.”
As Brad Stevens entered the room, the players could sense there was a different aura about him. Stevens, who’s signature-walk through the hallways before NCAA tournament games includes a straight-look ahead with his left hand in his pocket, must not have been oozing the “moxie” that often asks of his players throughout practice as he entered the room. There would be no “signal” or running back-bump to Emerson Kampen as he walked in, the celebrations of Sweet Sixteen success, but rather a conversation that he had already gone through earlier that day.
Senior Erik Fromm wasn’t with his teammates in Indianapolis on Wednesday. Instead, Fromm was celebrating his mother’s 60th birthday party in South Carolina. For a family that had gone through so much over the past year with he loss of Erik’s father, the opportunity to spend time with each other in such a way must have been special. Brad Stevens knew this, just like he knows personally how much the Butler basketball program had meant to Fromm both on the court, but off of it as well. Fromm would be told first, perhaps because Brad Stevens knew he could handle it the best, perhaps because he knew the role he was playing in his life as a second-father figure.
For whatever Brad Stevens chose Erik Fromm first, and appointed him the team-leader to be the only player to speak through the media through the evening, is something we don’t know. But what we do know, is that on Wednesday afternoon, Fromm was the first Bulldog player to find out that Stevens had accepted a six-year, $22 million dollar contract to become the Head Coach of the most winningest basketball franchise in the history of the sport. Fromm was the first Bulldog to know that Brad Stevens was his coach no more, but rather a Boston Celtic.
“Obviously when a coach leaves, it’s a little bit of a downer and a little bit unexpected,” said Fromm over the phone.
“But first of all, congratulations to him and his family, that is awesome. It is a testament to what type of coach that Brad is, and what he has done for our program. I think that everybody had a feeling that at some point, he would leave. But like I said, in this business, it is difficult to judge where or when somebody is going to end up. Being prepared for it, and being ready to move on, that is the best thing we can do.”
With Stevens not only was it difficult to judge when he would leave, but also where he would leave, because Stevens was always so good at keeping a secret. It wasn’t until after turning down the likes of Illinois, UCLA, and various other coaching positions across the NCAA that anybody had known Stevens was even being swooned from time to time. Even then, everybody had their own theory of what program Stevens would ultimately leave Butler for. It’s not that nobody believed that Stevens wouldn’t ultimately want to stay at Butler throughout his coaching career. It’s just that everybody assumed at this point, an offer that he couldn’t refuse from the likes of Duke, North Carolina, or even Indiana University, would be the only options that could persuade him. Not a single person had really thought that such a world-class organization in the NBA would come calling, but as Stevens has shown us before, everything is “believable”.
And just like those instances earlier in which programs failed to draw his interest, nobody had known that when Boston had let go of Doc Rivers a week prior, that Celtics General Manager Danny Ainge had come calling to Stevens. The interest was there early and often, enough to the point that Ainge would not only hand Stevens the keys to a franchise that has had championship coaches by the name of Auerbach, Russell, Heinsohn, Fitch, Jones, and Rivers, but Ainge would even go as far as saying this in a press release on Wednesday:
“His teams always play hard and execute on both ends of the court. Brad is a coach who has already enjoyed lots of success, and I look forward to working with him towards banner eighteen.”
Read that again. Banner eighteen. From the kid who was once a Zionsville varsity basketball star at age 18, the Sectional’s Most Valuable Player as he led the Eagles to a 52-50 championship over Zionsville. From the young adult at age 23, who with the blessing of his future wife, gave up a marketing position and pretty darn good salary with Eli Lilly to become a low-paid coordinator of basketball operations at Butler University. From the young man, who from age 31-36, would lead the Bulldogs to a run that perhaps college basketball will never see from a young coach at a mid-major ever again.
The results are so well-known, but are still worth being briefly looked over. During his first-year at age 31, Stevens became the third-youngest coach in NCAA history to have 30-wins with a 30-4 record. Somehow, Stevens was remarkably able to raise the bar two seasons later, reaching the National Championship games in back-to-back years. If it wasn’t for mere inches on a Gordon Hayward shot, Butler’s 61-59 loss to Duke would be known as perhaps the single-greatest game in college basketball history. Then two seasons later, the Bulldogs had one last memorable year with Stevens on the sidelines, knocking off three top-ten teams (wins over #9 North Carolina, #1 Indiana, and #8 Gonzaga) for the first time in school history.
Overall, Stevens’ success at Butler ended with a 166-49 record (.722 win percentage), three Horizon League Tournament championships (four regular-season championships), and recognition to a program that opened up doors to move conferences to the Atlantic Ten and as of Monday, the Big East. With all that said, maybe banner eighteen isn’t as far out of reach as some might expect. In fact, it almost seems like destiny.
But the journey to the Boston Celtics had to start somewhere, and first and foremost it started on Wednesday afternoon when he informed Butler Athletic Director Barry Collier for the very first time that not only was he talking to Boston, but that he would be accepting the job as well.
“We literally earned about this earlier in the day,” said Collier in a press conference Wednesday night at Hinkle Fieldhouse. “We then called together our student athletes, met with them, notified you folks and others at once, and called all this together. It was somewhat a sudden thing, but in today’s world, that is how a lot of this works. We know that good days are ahead for us, but this one happened pretty fast.”
Collier, who looked both a combination of stunned by the news but completely happy for the coach that he hired in the first place, said that Stevens had gone through the whole procedure with the same class, respect, and dignity that he had shown throughout his years at Butler. He would note that in all honesty, there would have been no “good time” for Stevens to break such news, but Butler University will forever be grateful for the way he represented the University, for the way he represented the “Butler Way”, and though it wasn’t flat-out said, one could imagine Collier is forever thankful for the millions of dollars Stevens would help bring the school.
But with all the good news, and the thank-you’s aside, Brad Stevens still had to walk into that Butler locker room at 5:30 pm to talk to his players.
Perhaps the memories of the success, the life-lessons he taught his players, and all the 6:00 am practices at Hinkle Fieldhouse with no heat all the way to the battles they won there, came rushing into his mind. But this was almost unlike any other Coach Stevens they had seen before. Often Stevens is the perfect example of moving forward, often as calm as they come on the sidelines, never wavering from the game-plan and always pushing for his Bulldogs to be perfect. Due to the amount of magical wins and upsets the Bulldogs had pulled off, Stevens had almost become immune from becoming overexcited in situations. Even when Roosevelt Jones’ miracle floater knocked out Gonzaga in January, Stevens didn’t show a single-expression, but rather made a perfect bee-line to the opposing team’s bench to shake hands. And often Stevens has such a great game-plan for all situations, that even when the Bulldogs were facing off against #1 Indiana back in December, Senior center Andrew Smith noted that his team had complete confidence they could win solely on the fact Stevens had so much time to prepare for the contest.
But you can’t game-plan to say goodbye until the moment comes, and that’s when Khyle Marshall and the Bulldogs realized that they hadn’t done anything wrong after all.
“When he walked into the locker room, tears were already in his eyes,” said Marshall who started to tear up himself. “He didn’t really know how to tell us. Through the speech, he told us how proud he was of what we accomplished. It was a decision, that with a legendary franchise with the Boston Celtics, and he told us that he had other offers. But he told us for sure, that he would never, ever go to another school.”
The remainder of Stevens’ talk with his players in the locker room was kept pretty close at heart from both Collier and the players. Marshall would go on to praise his coach of three years more, and the underlying attitude of the team is not only do they support his decision, but they understand that he had to do it. When you get chances to coach organizations like the Boston Celtics, you just can’t pass on them. And just like that, just as quick as Stevens’ shooting star raised the Butler basketball program to new levels never imagined before, he was gone.
On Friday morning at 11:00 am, Stevens will be trading in his blue tie for a green one, as he will officially be introduced as Celtics Head Coach at just the age of 36. The job won’t be easy from the get-go, as faces of the franchise in Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett are gone, along with Jason Terry and potentially Rajon Rondo to follow. Boston is essentially rebuilding, and with nine draft-picks in the next five years (and if they are bad in 2013-14, a high pick in a loaded draft the following June) the Celtics are in perfect position to build a contender with Stevens’ vision in mind. Still, for the first time in his head coaching career, Brad Stevens will probably finish with a sub-.500 season for perhaps the first two or three years.
So the questions now are, how will Stevens be able to handle failure if it comes during those years? How will he be able to handle the scrutiny of the Boston media? Most importantly, how will he be able to tell professionals, ones who make millions of dollars, that they need more “moxie”?
Only time will tell how Stevens will transition to the professional game, but if by chance he does raise banner eighteen, I’m sure Emerson Kampen will be ready to give the flying back-bump once given the signal.