On cue, Butler a breath of fresh air
HOUSTON -- Last July, I sat down next to Brad Stevens in an Indianapolis gymnasium. He was there with hundreds of other coaches to watch some AAU ball as the summer recruiting circuit got under way.
After chatting about a number of things, I asked the Butler coach where he stood with a recruit he was pursuing. I asked him off the record, because NCAA rules do not permit coaches to speak publicly about unsigned prospects. They all speak off the record; it's probably the most common secondary violation in college sports.
Unless you're Brad Stevens.
"I'm sorry," he said, politely but firmly. "I'm not going to do that."
That's why, ladies and gents, college athletics needs the Butler Bulldogs to win the national title. In a sport rife with NCAA felons, caught and uncaught, Stevens won't even jaywalk.
These are troubling times for college sports fans. Auburn won the 2010 football national title while under NCAA investigation. The team it beat in the BCS Championship Game, Oregon, is currently under investigation. And the team Butler will oppose Monday night, Connecticut, was hit with sanctions in late February for major NCAA violations.
Huskies coach Jim Calhoun has been suspended for the first three Big East games next season. And that might not be the end to the saga after the former player at the center of UConn's violations, Nate Miles, told The New York Times last week that he's willing to speak with NCAA investigators after stonewalling them for years. Miles said Calhoun was aware of the money and services he was receiving from an agent.
Despite all that, the coach the NCAA found guilty of a "failure to promote an atmosphere of compliance" will have his chance to earn a third ring in Reliant Stadium.
"I think that's the last thing I should think of," Calhoun said Sunday of the scandal following him to the title game.
That's fine. Plenty of others will be thinking of it for him.
But the perp list doesn't end with schools that have played for the most recent national titles. It includes some of the most powerful and profitable athletic programs in the nation.
Bruce Pearl was forced out at Tennessee last month after being charged in February with major violations. In football, Ohio State has applied sanctions to itself for violations committed by coach Jim Tressel -- but the NCAA hasn't yet weighed in. A recent HBO investigation alleged violations at Auburn, and ESPN reported that payment was sought from Texas A&M in 2007 to sign cornerback Patrick Peterson, who wound up signing with LSU. And USC football is entering the back half of a two-year bowl ban.
It's enough to shatter a fan's faith in college sports.
Butler might be enough to single-handedly restore it.
Think of the statement made if the Bulldogs can win a national title by recruiting smart, high-character, low-maintenance players. Think of the impact they could make by winning it all without operating in the so-called gray area, which in most instances is really the cheating-but-not-caught area. Think of the adrenaline shot college athletics would get from a champion that hasn't succumbed completely to the facilities and salaries arms race.
That's why a Butler victory Monday wouldn't just be the greatest story ever told in college sports. It might be the most well-timed and redemptive, too.
Understand, this isn't a condemnation of UConn's players, many of whom are laudable in their own right and had nothing to do with the school's current sanctions. This is an appreciation of Butler's unselfish, humble, straight-and-narrow DNA.
"I want to operate with as much integrity as I possibly can every single day," Stevens said. "I want our players to understand that when they move on. I've said before, the results don't matter [as much as] the process and the way you go about things."
The way the Bulldogs go about things is simply different from so many other elite basketball programs. I'm not saying Butler is perfect, but a deservedly cynical media corps is still trying to find something seriously wrong with the small Horizon League school from Indianapolis. Not just in terms of rules compliance; in terms of anything.
The scene here Friday at Butler's open practice could have charmed a loan shark. There were Bulldogs on the floor -- and there on the sidelines were the wives, the kids and the dog.
Blue, the school's bulldog mascot, was slobbering on a basketball. The young staff has a combined seven children ages 5 or younger, and they all bounced basketballs and slapped hands with the players and their parents before practice. Then they sat in a circle and ate Chick-fil-A before running out to join the team huddle at the end of practice.
In a game that has plenty of coldly corporate programs, the mom-and-pop purity of Butler basketball is jarring. And enjoyable.
Now the question is whether the program's innocent ethos can be bottled and preserved as Butler assumes a more prestigious and powerful place in the game.
If Stevens stays, the answer is yes. And at this point there is no evidence that the preternaturally mature and grounded 34-year-old has plans to leave. His current gig is good enough that he can be the choosiest of all job shoppers.
"You hear people say this all the time, that the grass is greener somewhere else," Stevens said. "Well, I think we recognize the grass is very green at Butler. Butler's been terrific to us. Butler's gone out of their way for us. We recognize that.
"We certainly appreciate everything that this place has done for us, even when I first got the job and was not making a whole lot of money but had a key to Hinkle. Certainly there can be green grass at other places. But I've said this many times. We're happy."
His happiness is contagious. Butler's players, who clearly have never received the Media Wariness Training that's so popular with many other programs, are polite and engaging. Members of the support staff at the Southeast Regional who interacted with the Bulldogs in New Orleans raved about them.
Class doesn't just trickle down from the head coach, though. It trickles up as well. If you talk to Stevens for a few minutes about Butler, he will invariably praise his athletic director, Barry Collier. You could talk to Calhoun every day for a year without hearing similar praise for his boss, Jeff Hathaway.
Stevens last year was given a 12-year contract and a considerable raise that still leaves him well below the compensation for the highest-paid coaches. Yet he's not a likely candidate to reprise Calhoun's "not a dime back" tirade of 2009 if questioned about making big bucks in difficult economic times for higher education.
The confrontational Calhoun at least knows he comes out on the losing end of any virtue contest with Stevens.
"I said the other night when I talked about 'My Three Sons,' the younger coaches in the field, Brad was the perfect middle child," Calhoun said. "I want him occasionally to at least cuss or just do something out of line."
Don't hold your breath, Jim. And by all means, don't ask him about any unsigned recruits.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.