Butler coach turns dream into reality
SALT LAKE CITY -- Mark Stevens still remembers the day in June 2000 when his son announced he was giving up his promising career at a pharmaceutical giant to become a college basketball coach.
"My first reaction was that he was nuts," Stevens said. "But then his mother and I sat down and realized he was chasing a dream."
Brad Stevens had just finished his first year as a marketing associate at Eli Lilly, one of the world's largest pharmaceutical companies. Less than one year removed from a four-year playing career at DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind., Stevens hadn't yet rid his system of his basketball itch.
"At the time, I just thought it was something that I really wanted to try, really wanted to do," Stevens said. "I was really fortunate at 22 or 23 years old not to have any responsibility beyond myself. I didn't have a family. I wasn't married up to that point. My longtime girlfriend at the time and I both decided to kind of chase that dream."
Stevens' girlfriend and future wife, Tracy, moved to Cleveland to finish law school and live with her mother, who was dying of cancer. Stevens, then 23, took a job as a volunteer assistant on Thad Matta's staff at Butler University in the summer of 2000.
"It probably wasn't a smart decision," Stevens said. "But it looks pretty good now."
On Saturday, the 33-year-old Stevens will lead Butler into the national semifinals of the NCAA tournament against Michigan State at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. The Bulldogs, who have won 24 consecutive games, will be the first team to play in the Final Four in their hometown since UCLA in 1972.
Stevens will become the youngest man to coach in the Final Four since a 32-year-old Bob Knight guided Indiana to the national semifinals in 1973. And if Butler can win two more games, Stevens will become the youngest coach to guide his team to a national championship since 31-year-old Branch McCracken led Indiana to the 1940 NCAA title.
"If everything else remained the same, I would have been as happy as heck," Stevens said. "I have a wonderful wife, great kids, tons of friends in Indianapolis that I've grown up with in high school and went to college with. You know, it's not like life was bad. It was just one of those things you wanted to take a shot and see what happens."
Stevens has been on college basketball's fast track ever since he walked away from the business world. Before joining Matta's staff at Butler, Stevens worked as a volunteer coach at an Indiana high school and coached an AAU team. Before the 2000-01 season, he was promoted to Butler's coordinator of basketball operations, which was mostly an administrative position. When Matta left for Xavier the next summer and Todd Lickliter was hired to replace him, Stevens was promoted to the third assistant job.
"He was an eager young coach who would do anything and everything to progress in the profession," Matta told ESPN.com in 2007.
In April 2007, Stevens was hired to replace Lickliter, who left to become the University of Iowa's coach.
Butler athletic director Barry Collier, a former Bulldogs basketball coach, interviewed each of Lickliter's three assistants and had conversations with a couple of outside candidates. Collier hired Stevens, who at 30 became the second-youngest coach in college basketball at the time.
"Brad had great experience at Butler," Collier said. "He didn't have experience anywhere else because he'd never been anywhere else. But I felt like it was an eight-month interview while he worked on Todd's staff. I was looking for a coach who was highly intelligent, had great character and high energy. Brad had a great grasp of the culture at Butler and the 'Butler Way,' as we like to call it."
Mark Stevens, an orthopedic surgeon in Indianapolis, helped instill a love of sports in his son. Mark was a backup center on Indiana University's only Rose Bowl team in 1967. He had season tickets to Hoosiers basketball games for many years, taking his son with him as soon as Brad was able to walk. The two were there when Knight threw a chair across the floor during a game against Purdue on Feb. 23, 1985.
"I was horrified by it," Mark Stevens said. "I looked down at my 9-year-old son, and he was shaking his fist and screaming like everyone else."
When Brad Stevens was 10, he often would spend winter days in the basement of his family's house playing with a mini basketball goal. There was a chalkboard on the wall, and Stevens would pretend to coach the Hoosiers, his favorite team.
"Basketball was always my first love," Stevens said. "It's hard not to be when you're a kid growing up in Indiana in the '80s and '90s because basketball in this state was pretty darn good at that time."
Stevens was a star player at Zionsville High School in Zionsville, Ind., which is about 17 miles north of Indianapolis. He set school career records for points scored, 3-pointers made, steals and assists. As a senior in 1995, Stevens averaged 26.8 points and was named MVP of the state sectionals.
Stevens had a nice career at DePauw, playing in every game of his four seasons with the Tigers. He never averaged more than 8.8 points in a season, but scored 24 points in a game as a freshman and again as a junior. Stevens was a three-time Academic All-America nominee, made the school's dean's list and was a member of its prestigious Management Fellows honors program.
"Brad was a really big scorer in high school," DePauw coach Bill Fenlon said. "He came here and had to make some adjustments. He couldn't score as well in college, but he was very unselfish and was a great teammate and leader."
In Stevens' senior season at DePauw in 1998-99, Fenlon asked Stevens to play off the bench.
"You take the good and the bad from your experiences," Fenlon said. "You can tell by the way his teams play that they really value not making one guy more important than the others, and he was that way as a player."
When Stevens approached Fenlon about becoming a college basketball coach in 2000, Fenlon told him to follow his heart. Fenlon believed Stevens was smart enough and motivated enough to succeed in the high-pressure profession.
"I think a lot of people thought about having him drug-tested when he decided to get into coaching," Fenlon joked.
But Fenlon's advice was simple.
"You're probably not going to do it 10 years from now," Fenlon told his former player. "If you do it and it doesn't work out, Eli Lilly isn't going anywhere. You're only 24 years old. You're still young. But when you're 34 years old and have a wife and children, a mortgage and car payments, you might be thinking, 'Wow, I wish I had tried that.' You don't want to look back and think, 'Boy, I wish I had tried it.'"
So Stevens took a leap of faith and hasn't looked back since. He led the Bulldogs to the Horizon League regular-season championship in each of his first three seasons, and his 88 victories are the most by a coach in his first three seasons in major college basketball history.
"I'm not surprised at all," Butler assistant Matthew Graves said. "Brad personifies what we want to do here. It starts with him and trickles down to the assistants and players. It's about attention to detail and being organized and prepared. I think it's about the confidence the players have in us that they're prepared better than any team we'll play."
Butler's confidence was evident in this past week's West Regional in Salt Lake City. The Bulldogs upset 1-seed Syracuse 63-59 in the Sweet 16 after turning the ball over only seven times against the Orange's vaunted 2-3 zone defense. In a 63-56 victory over 2-seed Kansas State in Saturday's final, the Bulldogs held the Wildcats to only 38.6 percent shooting and a scoring total 23 points below their season average.
"His age doesn't really mean nothing when he coaches because he's just a brilliant coach," Butler guard Willie Veasley said.
Now the youngest coach at the Final Four will match wits against Michigan State's Tom Izzo and possibly Duke's Mike Krzyzewski or West Virginia's Bob Huggins, three of the most successful coaches in college basketball history.
It's a long way from Eli Lilly, that's for sure.
"I hope everybody can do what they want to do," Mark Stevens said.
But Brad Stevens said this weekend is not about him and this Butler team. It's about the former coaches and players who helped transform the Bulldogs from a budding mid-major program to a legitimate Final Four threat.
"I think this is about the 10 years and the 15 years of people that have poured sweat into this," Stevens said. "It's been great to get e-mails and texts from all the former coaches and players who came really close and how much they care about this. To me, that's been the most fulfilling part of it. I can't overstate what Todd has done for me, what Thad has done for me. They're every bit as big a part of this as I am, if not bigger."
Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at email@example.com.