Brad Stevens is 31. With the boyish looks, he probably could pass for 25.
He's so young that when his Butler team took on Michigan last week at the Great Alaska Shootout, a couple of Wolverines eyed him during warmups and asked their coach, John Beilein, "That's their coach? How old is he?"
Stevens has been a head coach, on any level, for six games. He is 6-0, won the Alaska tournament and has the Bulldogs ranked 16th in the country.
Maybe he should retire, quit while he's ahead, because while it is one thing to start 6-0, it's another to have the following statement made about your team by the following people you just beat.
"The best compliment I can give them is that I wish we played as smart as they do," said Texas Tech coach Bob Knight, merely the winningest college coach of all time.
"The way they play right now, I told our team, is the way we envision our team later on," said Michigan's Beilein, in his 30th season as a head coach. "You just saw a great basketball team in Butler."
"They've got toughness about them and they expect to win," said Virginia Tech coach Seth Greenberg, now in his 17th season as a head coach.
How'd you like to be 31, six games into your coaching career, and hear that?
"It's really nice but I don't think it's a compliment to me," Stevens said. "I appreciate it, but that's a compliment to our players and the way they approach the game."
Stevens is a modest fellow, a product of Zionsville, Ind. In high school he set records in the unusual combination of three-pointers made and assists. He's good, but he isn't looking for any praise; he isn't suddenly going to start thinking he is John Wooden. He'd rather emulate Wooden – another humble Hoosier – in every other way.
Besides, Stevens is correct. More than correct. When Todd Lickliter left Butler for Iowa last spring, Stevens, the top assistant, took over one of the great programs in college basketball.
Butler has been to the Sweet 16 twice in the last four seasons. It won 29 games and the Preseason NIT last year and gave eventual champion Florida all it could handle in the tourney. It plays in historic Hinkle Fieldhouse – both the real life and movie versions of "Hoosiers" took place there – on a small, beautiful campus on the North Side of Indianapolis.
Stevens is the first to tell you he has been put in the best possible situation for a young coach.
He didn't just return five seniors from that powerful team a year ago; he returned five guys who are so mature, so full of leadership, that when it came time to choose a captain, he designated all of them captain. Yeah, all five of them.
"I thought a captain should be someone who is a great representative of Butler," Stevens said. "And all five are that."
Ever since Barry Collier, now the athletic director, got things rolling again at Butler in the 1990s, the program has won games at a consistent rate few other programs can match. Just about every year, Butler is one of the four or five best teams in the Midwest.
Yes, the chances of winning a national title aren't great, but if it is about maximizing your abilities with a team concept and being true to the ideals of college athletics, then few could have it better.
Saturday, Butler plays host to no less than Ohio State and former coach Thad Matta in Hinkle. Matta still feels such a love and loyalty to the place that he has done the near unheard of – given BU a home game rather than just sit back in Columbus and beat Popcorn State.
Stevens remains eternally grateful to Matta for giving him a job as director of basketball operations back in 2000. At the time, Stevens was fresh off a career at DePauw University and bored in a marketing job at Eli Lilly Co.
At night, he scouted for a local high school team and then talked his way onto the Butler staff. Seven years later he's the head coach.
The key to the program, Stevens says, has always been a phrase that Collier coined, "the Butler Way." By definition, it is doing all the things that make up team basketball – "being a part of a picture bigger than themselves."
"I tell the players 'the Butler Way' isn't easy to define, but you can see it on the floor when we share the basketball, play with great energy and defend."
Now, every coach in America would like their teams to play like that – this isn't exactly groundbreaking strategy they came up with. The thing that makes Butler special is that they maintain it, year in, year out.
And this is where the Butler Way works beyond the internal culture of the program and out onto the recruiting trail. From Collier to Matta to Lickliter to Stevens, a huge premium in recruiting has been placed on finding kids who want to play unselfishly, who are respectful of their teammates, who just want to win. This is a gym rat's program.
As it has enjoyed more success and more exposure, the opportunity to get higher-rated recruits, better talents, even guys from across the country has grown. Butler has a ton to sell kids.
The temptation always has been to grab a really good player whom you might have questions about and see if you can transform him. It can be the downfall, though, and Stevens knows it.
"The guys we recruited, most of them weren't very highly ranked," Stevens said. "They had very good high school careers or careers at other places (transfers), but for one reason or the other they weren't seen as great players. But they all had intangibles."
No one proves that better than A.J. Graves. He was a no-star (as in zero) recruit out of little Switz City, Ind. Now he's a Wooden Award candidate.
Of course, the entire program is like that. A group without big names or egos, a youthful coach and, truth be told, a look during warmups that might make you run back and ask, "Is that their team?"
Yes, it is. And just wait until they beat you.
- Brad Stevens