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Stevens will need 'hide of a rhino' to survive NBA

July 8, 2013
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At this point, it would be easy to criticize or praise Brad Stevens for jumping from Butler University to the Boston Celtics.

But instead of passing judgment, let’s ask some logical questions and look at some facts.

The first question I asked myself on hearing about Stevens’ leaving his head coaching job at Butler for Boston is: “How does Brad Stevens see this ending?” The answer, I’m sure, is a logical, “I don’t know.”

When I covered politics, someone once said to me about Richard Lugar’s presidential run that, “He feels an itch, and he’s going to scratch it.” I suppose the same can be said for the 36-year-old Stevens.

But I can’t help asking another question in the days since his surprise announcement. Did youthful enthusiasm push him to make a bad decision?

I hope all that scratching doesn’t make Stevens bleed. Because in the NBA, there’s only one of two ways this can end. Either he turns Boston into a dynasty or he gets fired in three to six years and finds himself wondering what the next chapter of his life will be.

First, I will say Stevens is an extraordinary coach. So the idea of his turning Boston into a dynasty isn’t 100 percent preposterous. But I don’t think it’s the most likely scenario. In an NBA world where high-paid players get sick of coaches on an almost daily basis, the failure rate for coaches is astronomical.

The NBA has the highest turnover rate among its coaches of any professional sports league. The average stay is 3.03 years, with the median at 2.78. So those who say this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Stevens are talking nonsense.

The truth is, if Stevens is as good a coach as most people think he is, he could have jumped to the NBA at almost any time. The statistics tell us the job with the iconic Celtics franchise would likely be open again within four years.

People seem to forget that, despite winning two Eastern Conference titles and one NBA championship in nine years, Boston seemed to be ready on several occasions to pitch Stevens’ predecessor at Boston, Doc Rivers, out the door.

Opportunities that come along once every four years or so are not once-in-a-lifetime, even if it’s coaching one of the most storied franchises in the NBA.

I’ve also heard from many folks that Stevens simply couldn’t afford to pass up such a lucrative deal. In the short term, Stevens will definitely make more in Boston, where he signed a six-year, $22 million contract. That’s $3.67 million annually.

If Stevens had stayed at Butler the next 25 years, given the way college coaches’ pay is escalating and the Bulldogs’ move to a bigger conference, the school would have likely paid him $60 million over that period, and maybe more. This move isn’t about money. This move is about ambition. The question is, is that ambition blind?

I’ve heard many theorize that Stevens, like many college coaches, has tired of the NCAA’s expanding rulebook that make recruiting and dealing with players ever more difficult. Those challenges may seem simple compared with some of the egos he’ll have to manage and work with in the NBA. And I’m not just talking about players.

Former Chicago Bulls and L.A. Lakers Coach Phil Jackson said of Stevens: "He has the demeanor of a composed leader. Hope he’s got the hide of a rhino for NBA grind." We're about to find out what Stevens is made of.

Sure, Stevens can always come back to coach college basketball if he fails in the NBA. Certainly John Calipari and Rick Pitino have. And they’ve both had great success. Or Stevens—like so many other NBA coaches have done—could recycle around the league, though I don’t think he’d be happy doing that.

I suppose it’s possible that Stevens could someday come back to Butler. But I have a feeling the door on that is closed. First, it might feel a bit like going backward, and coaches aren’t big into that.

Second, and probably more important, by the time Stevens gets done kicking around the NBA, someone else might wisely realize that Butler is the type of place you don’t leave. It’s the type of school and institution, that if you have the opportunity, you put down stakes and stay for a good long time.

Someone else might finally realize that Butler, with its sky-high values, throwback morals and historic Hinkle Fieldhouse, is the best kind of place to build a legacy—and a dynasty.

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