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Butler's Stevens already a creature of habit, model of excellence

INDIANAPOLIS -- The midweek oasis for the hottest young coach in college basketball sits near the Butler University campus between a hookah lounge and a shop that specializes in pipes, tobacco and fine writing instruments. Every Wednesday at lunchtime, Butler coach Brad Stevens walks past the Broad Ripple Tavern's oak bar. He walks through the brick arch and past the pool tables and takes his usual seat at a square table near two Golden Tee machines and a Big Buck Safari game. There, Stevens lays out his charts and orders a chicken Caesar salad and a water. Before he leaves, he will request a Coke for the road.

Last Wednesday, with his team under a microscope after earning a berth in the Final Four, Stevens walked past the bar, through the arch and past the pool tables. He spread his charts and ordered his salad and water. When server Gabriel Fisher brought Stevens his Coke for the road, Fisher told Stevens the meal was on the house. Stevens insisted on paying. "He didn't want to break the routine," Fisher said Saturday.

Wise move. The Zionsville, Ind., native, 33, is the youngest coach to reach the Final Four since Bobby Knight took Indiana there in 1973 at age 32. If the Bulldogs beat Duke on Monday night, Stevens would become the youngest coach to win a national title since 31-year-old Branch McCracken did it with Indiana in 1940.

To do it, Stevens will have to beat Duke's Mike Krzyzewski, who has three national titles and an Olympic gold on his résumé. Krzyzewski also holds the record for NCAA tournament wins. In spite of this, Stevens has remained impossibly cool.

Stevens was in high school when Krzyzewski led the Blue Devils to back-to-back titles in 1991 and 1992. Since before Stevens needed to shave, Krzyzewski was a coaching legend. Though Stevens seems immune to the disparity, it's incredible to imagine a similar matchup in other walks of life.

That's the equivalent of someone who just passed his Series 7 exam picking stocks against Warren Buffett. That's the equivalent of a young actress competing for a role against Meryl Streep.

That's the equivalent of having my column from the national championship game judged against one written by Grantland Rice.

It probably doesn't hurt that Stevens already has beaten Syracuse's Jim Boeheim and Michigan State's Tom Izzo to reach this point, but still, it's Coach K in the national title game. "It's humbling to be standing there with people like that," Stevens said Sunday. "And not just for their excellence in coaching, but for what they give back to the game. Coach Krzyzewski is the same way. For them to even come over and shake my hand, they don't need to do that. They've earned all that they have achieved. They're guys that you look up to.

"The best way I can put it is they write books, and I get to read 'em."

Stevens has remained humble, crediting his players for taking him on the ride of his life. He has undersold himself just as he undersold the Broad Ripple Tavern. In his description of the place, he painted it as a rather ordinary fortress of solitude. It's anything but. On Thursdays and Sundays, Stevens' usual table gets pushed aside for rowdy games of Cornhole. Stevens also didn't mention the excellent musical selection, which seems out of place at a joint that touts the relative quality of its chicken fingers. On Sunday, lunchtime diners were greeted with selections from three W bands: Wolfmother, Ween and Weezer.

Stevens downplays his skill as a leader of young men, but Krzyzewski has reason to worry. For starters, Stevens is a big dreamer with an unflappable inner confidence, and such men are always capable of accomplishing great things.

How confident is Stevens? Unlike most people, he gave up the relative certainty of a comfortable life to chase a dream. After graduating from DePauw in 1999, Stevens took a job with pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly. "I was a marketing associate," Stevens said. "My main role was metrics and incentives for one of their sales groups." The job was as boring as it sounds, but it offered Stevens upward mobility and a steady, fat paycheck.

Stevens wanted more. So 10 years ago, he quit Eli Lilly to become a volunteer assistant on Thad Matta's Butler staff. According to The New York Times, Stevens was about to start a job as a server at Applebee's to make extra money when he was hired as Butler's director of basketball operations after an assistant coach's arrest on a charge of soliciting a prostitute at a truck stop forced Matta to shuffle his staff.

After Matta, now Ohio State's coach, left Butler for Xavier, successor Todd Lickliter hired Stevens as a full-time assistant. When Lickliter left Butler for Iowa in 2007, Stevens replaced him. Stevens has gone 88-14 since.

On Sunday, someone asked Krzyzewski to recall his days as a 33-year-old head coach. At 33, Krzyzewski moved from Army to Duke. In his first three seasons, he went 17-13, 10-17 and 11-17. "Thank goodness Duke stuck with me through my growing days," Krzyzewski said. "Butler hasn't had to stick with [Stevens]. They should hope he sticks with them."

Though Stevens may not understand why, Krzyzewski considers it an honor to shake his young colleague's hand. "I've already put a preorder in for his book," Krzyzewski said.

If Stevens can lead Butler to a win Monday, his life will change forever. Maybe it already has. He's famous nationwide. Sportscasters across the country crack jokes about how often the fresh-faced Stevens must get asked for I.D. Stevens said Sunday that he never has time to go anywhere where he might get carded. That, it turns out, isn't entirely true. "We carded him," the Broad Ripple Tavern's Fisher said. "Until someone said, 'That's Butler's coach.' "

Who knows? If Butler wins, maybe aspiring basketball coaches from all corners of the nation will trek to the Broad Ripple Tavern for chicken Caesar salads, hoping all the while that some of the magic will rub off on them. "That's a winning dish," Fisher said.

The winner is the man who orders the dish every Wednesday afternoon. The winner is the man who, in 30 years, will inspire knock-kneed respect from young coaches who can't believe Brad Stevens is shaking their hands.

"He'll be somebody," Krzyzewski said, "that a lot of people will try to emulate."

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