After the thousands of words dedicated to a recent coaching move—hey, did you hear, Brad Stevens left Butler University to become coach of the Boston Celtics, and former Bulldog player and current assistant Brandon Miller has been chosen to succeed him?— I’m not sure what’s left unsaid on the subject. But that’s never stopped me before.
So, a few observations:
First, I was sitting at Symphony on the Prairie for the annual music/fireworks celebration when my cell phone suddenly blew up with the Stevens news. How appropriate: a figurative bombshell preceding the literal bombshells. Like many others, I thought Stevens might leave the Fairview campus someday, but always thought it would be for an elite NCAA Division I program, and never, ever for the NBA.
That said, I think Stevens, if Celtics General Manager Danny Ainge delivers the requisite talent, can succeed. But that said, I hope the Indiana Pacers kick Stevens’ butt.
Second, those who opined that Stevens’ departure was a critical blow to college basketball need to broaden their perspectives. While it is true that Stevens’ program represented what we should want major college basketball to be—student-athletes performing at a high level while adhering to core values (e.g., The Butler Way)—it is hardly going it alone in that regard. Sadly, my friends in the media have long chosen to ignore those programs, taking notice only when they do something remarkable like reaching the Final Four.
Third was the notion that Stevens was the latest and greatest keeper of a Butler tradition that began with Barry Collier. While it is fact that Butler basketball was rock bottom when Collier took over, I seem to recall a man named Tony Hinkle won a few games back in the day.
Fourth was the idea that Stevens had to go to the Celtics for the good of his family.
They’re moving from the bucolic suburbs of user-friendly Indy to the urban chaos of Boston. They’re moving away from grandparents. And as great as the time demands are on a Division I coach, they are significantly greater in the NBA. Stevens did this for one reason, and he said it in his press conference: “It’s the Boston Celtics.”
Fifth, the NBA cognoscenti hold in disdain hot-shot college coaches, and many believe the Butler baby face will get his can handed to him in much the same manner that Rick Pitino and John Calipari did when they tried the NBA.
You hear all the time that college is a “coaches’ game” and the NBA is a “players’ game.” Allow me to state the obvious: At every level, it’s a players’ game. To think that Butler’s NCAA success was entirely a tribute to Stevens’ genius shortchanges the talent and toughness of those Butler players.
I still recall Michigan State coach Tom Izzo’s comment after losing to Butler in the 2010 Final Four: “That’s the most physical team we played all season.” To repeat what I said earlier, if Ainge gives Stevens players with NBA talent, he will win with them.
But it will take a while and that will be Stevens’ biggest challenge. That choir-boy image belied a man who—like all winners—absolutely hated to lose. He will lose a lot in the NBA. How he deals with defeat and a critical media (unlike the fawning following he had in Indy) will be telling.
Finally, a few words about Brandon Miller. Without question, his arrival comes at a critical time, with Butler busting into the big time in the Big East, asking donors to pony up for a Hinkle Fieldhouse renovation, and demanding the fan base pay ever higher prices for the product.
Miller takes over a program where competing for league titles and deep runs in the NCAA tournament are now the expectation. It is no longer the charming Cinderella from a mid-major.
But Miller is one of those quintessential Indiana kids who was born to play and coach the game. As a Bulldog player, he displayed remarkable poise and maturity. He has since paid his dues as an assistant.
So now we will see how it all plays out, for both Stevens and his successor. And isn’t that part of what draws so many of us to sports? You can never look beyond the next game.•
Benner is senior associate commissioner for external affairs for the Horizon League college athletic conference and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.