SPORTS: He took a chance, and now he’s top dog

Keywords Sports Business

This isn’t just a feel-good story. It’s a feel-great story. It’s all about a young guy, full of ambition, yearning to grow, thirsting for knowledge, deciding to take a chance. Rolling the dice on a dream. Pursuing his passion.

There he was seven years ago, fresh out of DePauw University, working in a promising marketing job for our local pharmaceutical giant, Eli Lilly and Co. He was making some nice change. If he wasn’t was just around the corner.

So what did he do? He chucked it all. Went from paid professional to unpaid volunteer.

That’s because there was an itch there, and he just had to scratch it. Besides, who wants to spend the rest of their lives thinking, “What if?”

The cushy life could wait, maybe forever.

Fast forward seven years, and there is Brad Stevens. The Zionsville native is 30, but looks 18. He’s walking across the brightly lit hardwood of Indiana’s basketball cathedral, Hinkle Fieldhouse. The seats are empty but the promise is full.

The house that Tony Hinkle built now has a room with Stevens’ name on it. It’s called the head coach’s office.

A week earlier, the coaching carousel had spun Butler University incumbent Todd Lickliter off to the University of Iowa. I was among those convinced Lickliter would be a Butler lifer. Shows you what I know.

But I was not as surprised when it was announced that Butler Athletic Director Barry Collier, now the patriarch of what modern-day Bulldog basketball has become, decided to stay within the family and hire Lickliter’s “senior” assistant, if senior can be applied to one so young.

A safe choice? Only as safe as hiring someone with no head coaching experience whatsoever could be.

But how can you not give a chance to someone so willing to take a chance on himself? Stevens arrived at Butler in 2000 and essentially told then-coach Thad Matta he’d do whatever he had to do to find a seat on Matta’s bench.

“I took a leap of faith,” he said.

Starting with faith in himself. Within two months, he was on the payroll as director of basketball operations. A year later, Matta was gone (to Xavier University) and Lickliter was elevated, which allowed Stevens to become a full-time assistant.

Stevens was a sponge, soaking up as much as he possibly could.

“The thing you do with [Matta and Lickliter] is that you have a pen and paper handy all the time and you write down everything you can and learn as much as you can, and every day you don’t do that, you’re wasting a great opportunity,” he said. “And the year Thad was here, I got to room with, work with and spend every waking minute with Todd, so I got a chance to learn how he likes to do things. He was a great resource for me.”

Stevens inherits huge expectations … a good problem to have. Butler returns six of its top eight players from that remarkable 29-7 Sweet Sixteen team that came closer to beating national champion University of Florida than anyone else in the tournament, Matta’s talent-laden Buckeyes included.

“The external realities of the job,” he said. “But when you’re with really good people and you share a vision, I’m just going to enjoy the journey. And I think we can get there. But it’ll take a lot of work and a lot of focus.”

And Stevens clearly expects his players-current and arriving-to reach for the brass ring, much the way he did seven years ago.

“The one thing our players better be is ambitious and they better take pride in what they’re doing and understand they’re representing something bigger than themselves,” he said. “Whether they’re going to be a pro basketball player, a dentist, a lawyer, a doctor, it’s going to take an ambitious person to achieve those things.”

He knows ambition is not a bad thing. Consider his wife, Tracy. When Stevens decided to leave Lilly and go work as an unpaid Butler volunteer, she left a notfor-profit and entered law school. She now works for Bingham McHale.

Dream. Reach. Strive. Take a chance. Not a bad formula.

The payoff for Brad Stevens is that he’s now coaching in Hinkle Fieldhouse.

“Humbling,” he said. “It’s special … a neat place. I value every day I come in here.”

That morning, he and his new assistant-former Butler star Brandon Miller-had arrived before dawn to run laps in the fieldhouse.

“As the sun came up and shined through the windows,” he said, “I thought to myself, ‘There’s no better place to be.'”

Dreams can come true. All it takes, sometimes, is a little ambition.

Benner is associate director of communications for the Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly.To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to Benner also has a blog,

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