Commentary

Butler and Cinderella, a season later

The Bulldogs have more than memories of the championship game going for them

Originally Published: January 13, 2011
By Johnette Howard | ESPN.com

Ten months have passed since his Butler basketball team went on the Cinderella NCAA tournament run that captivated even casual fans. Long enough, says Brad Stevens, the Bulldogs' 34-year-old coach, that he doesn't think much these days about the what-ifs

What if Gordon Hayward's shot from half court had rattled in at the buzzer instead of rimming out? What if underdog Butler had completed the miracle upset that night, knocking off Duke instead of losing to college basketball's Goliath by two?

[+] EnlargeGordon Hayward and Duke
AP Photo/Mark J. TerrillGordon Hayward's half-court shot was in, then it was out. As Duke celebrated last April, he walked away.

But the reminders, of course, are everywhere. For Stevens, one of them came just this week.

"It didn't really feel surreal to me as it was happening, because you're just too immersed in the game," he said. "When it hits you is when you do something like turn on the national championship football game Monday night. You see there are only two teams left, and you think, 'Last year in our sport, that was us.'"

Coping with life after you've been Cinderella can be fraught with land mines.

It wasn't so long ago that Stevens was the white-hot coaching candidate in all of college sports, the role most recently occupied by Jim Harbaugh, who finally left Stanford this week for the 49ers before anyone besides Dolphins owner Stephen Ross lost his mind. After the Final Four run, Oregon -- that team he watched lose in the last minute to Auburn in Monday's BCS title game -- was among the schools that were chasing Stevens, flexing all the nouveau riche hipness and financial muscle that Nike founder and athletic department benefactor Phil Knight's money has brought the Ducks.

What if Stevens had taken the reported seven-year, $17.5 million contract that Oregon was ready to throw at him? What if he'd listened longer to other rumored suitors such as Wake Forest? What basketball coach wouldn't want to work on Tobacco Road in the ACC, rather than at Butler and the mid-major Horizon League?

Well, Stevens, for one. But he isn't your normal coach.

It's pretty clear that (1) Stevens is well-adjusted and extraordinarily grounded, more so than just about any other Division I coach you'll ever meet, let alone one in just his third year on the job; and (2) this 2010-11 season -- the season after -- could've turned into a joyless, six-month slog if Stevens wasn't as sane and smart as he is.

[+] Enlarge Brad Stevens
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesA win over Kansas State in the West Regional final kept the roll going for Stevens and the Bulldogs.

It helps that Butler didn't consider its pre-Cinderella life so bad.

The Bulldogs are used to outsiders looking at them like some obscure mid-major program tucked away somewhere in the Midwest. But the truth is, they had a proud program even before last season's tournament run, and it enjoyed significant success. The easy analogy is that Butler is the Duke of the Horizon League. The Bulldogs have won their conference eight times in the past 10 years. They've been the hunted far more than they've been the hunters.

And that oft-remarked-upon belief that the Bulldogs carried into the Duke game last April? That crazy idea of theirs that they actually could win the whole thing? Here's where it came from: Last season, Butler went a perfect 20-0 in its conference; and by the time they won their first five games in the NCAA tournament, the Bulldogs were on such a roll that nothing seemed too big or out of the question to them. The fact that the title game was being played in downtown Indianapolis, a mere six miles from their campus of 4,500 students, was perhaps the only part that, to them, seemed like "destiny."

"You talk about being in the zone, in a flow," Stevens says. "Our whole team was in the zone and it lasted three months."

Of course, it doesn't hurt that Butler is also moored in a state steeped in basketball lore about native son John Wooden, tiny Milan High School's upset of big bad Muncie Central for the 1954 boys' state title, and Indiana State's underdog run all the way to the 1979 NCAA title game behind Larry Bird.

Indiana basketball history is shot through with so-called ordinary people who do extraordinary things.

Milan is the school that was immortalized as Hickory High in the movie "Hoosiers," and Bobby Plump, the real-life hero of Milan's win, isn't some fuzzy abstraction. For years, he presided at his Indianapolis tavern, Plump's Last Shot, which sits just a few miles from Butler's campus; and anyone who cared enough could just walk in and say, "Hey Bobby, did the movie get it right? Did Milan's coach really take out a tape measure like Gene Hackman did and point out to his underdog kids that the basket is the same height everywhere? Did the fans' cars that followed the team bus really snake down those backcountry roads for miles, their headlights shining like a string of Christmas lights in the dark?"

[+] EnlargeButler
AP Photo/Michael ConroyThe best part of the Final Four might have been the fan support. The campus is only a few miles from Lucas Oil Stadium.

Last April, Butler carved out its own spot among all those stories.

"I think the coolest thing was the opportunity we had, and the way our whole school and our city came together," guard Ronald Nored says. Then, laughing now, he adds: "I also remember telling my teammates if we won it all, Will Smith or Denzel Washington had to play me in the movie."

"Oh, there would have been a movie," Butler athletic director Barry Collier agrees.

"No doubt," Stevens adds. "We were the national champion runner-ups, but people didn't treat us that way. The next day, President Obama called our office and put our whole team on speakerphone. He talked about how they'd captivated sports fans across America, and the positive way we handled it all, and how we had lots to be proud of."

And then it all ended.

Six inches of snow lay on the ground in Indiana as Stevens spoke on the telephone this week. Butler, now 12-5, has already matched the five losses it had against 33 wins last season. League games at Detroit and Wright State are ahead this weekend to break a tie for first place.

Stevens admits he spent a lot of time thinking about how to approach this season because of the way last season ended. Hayward, his sophomore star, went on to become the No. 9 overall pick in the NBA draft and now plays for the Utah Jazz. But telling his players this is a different team and different season goes only so far. And anyway, it's not always true.

"We're 17 games into the season and when I read other teams' game notes [for the media], it still always says 'national champion runner-up Butler,'" Stevens says.

[+] EnlargeBrad Stevens
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesStevens had more than a few tense moments in the title game against Duke.

"We always had a target on our back in our league," says Nored, "but it's at a whole other level this year. Every night is really harder."

When the Bulldogs started this season only 5-4, there were murmurs. Going into their Dec. 4 rematch against top-ranked and undefeated Duke, Nored says, "We knew if we didn't come to play, we were going to get the crap beat out of us." But what do you know? Butler actually led Duke by three midway through the second half. Then starting guard Shelvin Mack went out with leg cramps. Matt Howard, another stalwart, was fighting foul trouble.

Duke went on a 12-0 run and Butler never got closer than three points the rest of the way. But Nored says the overarching lesson was this: Yes, this is a different Butler team, a different season, but when the Bulldogs do what they're supposed to, "We can be really good. Really, really good."

Butler has won eight of nine since then, but as Stevens matter-of-factly says, "Winning eight of nine this year is not the same as eight of nine before … A thing you learn at the non-BCS school level is you can win whatever many games in a row, but losses -- for whatever reason -- get more magnified."

"People always say, 'Oh. Look. They're overrated,'" Nored adds.

Stevens' take on how to handle that is -- like everything else, it seems -- smart and sure-handed. He says he reads all the leadership books and talks to other coaches all the time. He likes to observe successful organizations, among them the Indianapolis Colts. What he's come away believing is that sometimes the best way to ensure future success is to not let your past success distort you.

Part of figuring out how to win is knowing what you are -- and what you don't want to be.

An example: Stevens mentions a game that came months before the Bulldogs' Cinderella NCAA run. Butler had just won by a point to improve to 8-0 in the conference; but afterward, Stevens watched his players unemotionally walk through the postgame handshake line with the other team. And, he says, "That bothered me. Big-time."

[+] EnlargeRonald Nored
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesWho would've played Ronald Nored in the movie? Will or Denzel?

"When we got to the locker room I told them all, 'Look, you've gotta enjoy this process and enjoy the fight to win. And when you do win? Never take it for granted. You've gotta enjoy that, too. I'm not saying jump on the scorer's table and wave towels and yell. But hug each other. Enjoy each other. Enjoy all of it. Never "expect" it.'"

Hug each other? Enjoy the process?

You can talk to dozens of big-time basketball coaches and never hear one of them say that -- let alone say, as Stevens did Tuesday, how thrilled he was that Butler was "nice enough" to give him that long-term contract extension after the tournament.

The truth is, his Butler bosses were hog-tied, thrown over a barrel and sweating what he might do next. Suitors were getting in line.

Yet contract talks between Collier and Stevens took all of one day.

Stevens says: "Well, look. I always try to retain the perspective of why I got into this. And it's hard to do. Scrutiny affects people whether you like it or not … But what we're doing here just felt right. I'm lucky here. I coach really good guys, really good students. Our APR [Academic Progress Rating] is good. We've won a whole lot of games. I mean, there's not a whole lot to complain about.

"My dream is to be in position late in the season to compete for championships. And we're convinced we can challenge for the whole thing here. It just feels right here."

But wouldn't it be easier with all that Oregon money? Or the leverage of the ACC's prestige over at Wake Forest? Why remain at a college basketball Hickory?

"You may be able to have this somewhere else," Stevens says. "But you know you have it here."

To Stevens, "what if" doesn't beat what was. And what is.

Johnette Howard is a contributing columnist to ESPN.com and ESPNNewYork.com, and is the author of "The Rivals: Chris Evert vs. Martina Navratilova, Their Epic Duels and Extraordinary Friendship." She can be reached at jphinbox@yahoo.com.

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