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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  • Back to Indiana
    I think Brad Stevens will spend three seasons as the Boston Celtics head coach. After some success, but tired of the NBA-player egos, he will then come back to Indiana to coach the Hoosiers. By then, IU backers will be tired of Crean's teams always faltering in big games.
  • Really?
    I'm all for hometown loyalty, but come on, the guy got offered a coaching position at one of the NBA's most storied franchises. You can't fault him for wanting to take a chance on success at basketball's highest levels. Despite the NBA coaching carousel, it's not easy to get an NBA head coaching job. Just ask Brian Shaw.
  • Somehow Hooosir fan always makes it about IU
    Funny comment...go coach the Celtics now, and then take over for the Crean in 3 or 4 years (whose teams falter in big games?). And how many big games has IU had since Crean has been there? None the first 2 years, because Sampson destroyed the place...The Big Ten regular season championship last year, when they beat Michigan...the Kentucky game 2 years ago which they won on Watford's 3. The rematch of the Kentucky game in the 2012 tournament Sweet 16, in which they played by far the most talented team in the country and eventual national champions and slugged it out with them toe to toe before losing, easily the best played game of the 2012 tournament. They laid an egg once since Crean got there, in last year's Sweet 16, against a much taller at all positions (re: tiny guards who couldn't make an outside shot or an accurate pass to save their life) and more athletically talented Syracuse team...Bob Knight laid a few eggs in the tournament too...remember Cleveland State? Good luck to Brad Stevens...I have a hunch his skin is a little thicker than Anthony suggests here, and the Celtics are now in the "suck to get Anthony Wiggins or Jabari Parker" sweepstakes for the next lottery, and added some good young talent last year and this...the only ego left there is Rondo...the rest of them are gone. All he has to do is work with one ego to make this work, and they can trade Rondo for the future too if need be. Yes, NBA fans are notoriously impatient, and the media is highly critical, especially in places like Boston, but Brad will be fine and much richer (darn near $4 mil a year) for the experience if that happens...there is just not any way to say the Butler job is better than the Celtics job, Anthony...no matter how hard you try. It is a great place...it may be someone's dream (Brandon Miller?) job...but Stevens has always had a short list of other jobs and everyone knows it. God knows we've all made decisions we rued later, but we didn't get paid $12 million or more while we were making that mistake, we probably lost money on the deal...life is about taking advantage of opportunities. Good luck and Godspeed to Brad, and Tom Crean...and to the Crean haters, I see a Final Four in your near future, whether you want it or not...and to Brandon Miller, good luck, you'll need it, Butler is in a tougher conference now than the A10 was...Miller will actually have much higher expectations next year than Stevens and the Celtics will...
  • Tripe
    If the question you are asking is "Did he make a bad decision", you did an awful job of laying out a coherent case for the supposed mistake he is making. He'll make $22 million and would be the most-wanted coach on the market if he decided he did not like the NBA. If only all of us could fail so poorly if we took a risk in life. Given Brad walked away from a comfortable life trajectory to go into coaching years ago, doesnt look like he is wired to live life by playing it safe. Which, best I can tell, is what you are advocating he should have done.

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