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Stevens out to prove Butler belongs among the nation's elite programs

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. -- Imagine how odd it would feel to walk into your house just a few hours after coaching in an NCAA championship game. That was Brad Stevens' reality around 2 a.m. on April 6, when the baby-faced, preternaturally poised 33-year-old Butler coach came home, said hello to his wife and checked in on his two young sleeping kids. Then he sat down to watch a DVR recording of the Bulldogs' 61-59 loss to Duke, which had been played eight miles from Butler's campus at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.

"I just wanted to watch it to put closure on it and move forward," Stevens says. He smiles and adds, "I was mad at my wife for extending the [save] time."

As he watched the game, Stevens was again taken not only by how hard the players competed but how properly -- no showboating, no trash-talking, no whining to the officials. When the game entered its indelible final sequence, however, Stevens hit the stop button. To this day he has never seen a replay of Gordon Hayward's ill-fated half-court heave at the buzzer. "I can't watch it. I already know what it looked like," Stevens says. "Just being that close to winning the whole thing is hard to swallow."

Sitting on a couch in his office earlier this month, Stevens recounted the evening at home with his usual, low-key good humor. But don't let the smooth taste fool you. While most of the world viewed Butler's run to the NCAA final as a magical tale straight out of Hoosiers, Stevens looks at it as a nettlesome piece of unfinished business. "He's a really driven guy," says Matt Howard, Butler's 6-foot-8 senior forward. "The one thing that really, really impresses me about him is that he's always looking for that next step. It's hard for us to let any kind of success get to our heads when our head guy is not doing that."

To the untrained eye, this program may feel like a one-hit wonder -- the proverbial "This Year's George Mason" -- but that is not the case. Over the last 10 years, the Bulldogs have been to the NCAA tournament six times, and since 2003 they have reached the Sweet 16 three times. During the last four years, they've been ranked in the AP's top 25 for all but 10 weeks. Reaching the NCAA championship game was a remarkable achievement for a No. 5 seed, but Stevens is on a mission to prove it was no fluke.

That started with his decision to sign a lengthy contract extension just two days after the loss to Duke. As his name was being floated in the press for various openings (Clemson, Oregon and Wake Forest were all vacant at the time), Stevens walked into athletic director Barry Collier's office and assured him that he didn't want to go anywhere else. Eager to cement that conviction in writing, Collier came back with an offer for a 12-year deal. Though Stevens later hired IMG to manage his corporate contracts, he does not retain an agent to handle his coaching agreements. His wife, Tracy, a labor and employment attorney, looked over the language and gave him the OK to sign. Brad Stevens, Inc. is literally a mom-and-pop operation.

"It was flattering to hear all the talk, but at the same time I think we have a really unique thing here," Stevens says. "I really do feel blessed to be a part of it, and I want to continue moving in this direction."

Since the extension was announced so soon after the loss to Duke, there is no way of knowing if a truly tempting offer would have come Stevens' way. But there is also no denying that those opportunities will eventually present themselves if he keeps winning at his current clip. (Under his watch, the Bulldogs have gone 89-15 in three years.) Though Collier would not discuss specifics of Stevens' contract, he did confirm that it does not contain a huge buyout clause that would make it difficult for Stevens to accept another job, which is the case with many coaching deals these days. "If it ever comes to a point where somebody doesn't want to be here, then they need to be able to go. That's just our philosophy," Collier says. "Brad is a special talent, but more importantly he's a great fit for Butler because of what he believes in and what we believe in. I think that's a big part of the reason why he's still our coach."

Collier was a major reason why Stevens decided to re-up. Four years ago, after then-coach Todd Lickliter left for Iowa, Collier promoted Stevens from his assistant's position even though he was 30 years old and had never been a head coach anywhere. "That was a risk, but fortunately for me it's one that Barry and Butler were willing to take," Stevens says. Stevens also recognizes the benefits in working for an athletic director who understands what he's going through. Collier graduated from Butler in 1976, he coached men's basketball there from 1989-2000, and he was the coach at Nebraska for six years before returning to Butler in 2006 to become the AD. "He understands the process, and he's always trying to help you grow and get better," Stevens says. "One of the things that is sometimes undervalued is feeling empowered when you go to work. That's how I feel here."

But aren't there schools out there that could double or triple your salary? "I don't know. We're fine," Stevens laughs. "We're really lucky to have what we have."

There is an even more basic reason why Stevens wanted to stay put: He is a Hoosier, born and bred. He grew up in Zionsville, Ind., which is a half-hour's drive north of Indianapolis, attended DePauw University in Greencastle, and he has worked at Butler since coming there in 2000 as a director of basketball operations under former coach Thad Matta. He and Tracy, whom he met when he was a freshman at DePauw, have a son, Brady, who is 4, and a 16-month-old daughter named Kinsley. "When my wife and I want to go out to dinner, we have no problems finding a babysitter," Stevens says. Can you think of a better reason to stay at a job?

Still, as Howard indicated, Stevens is first and foremost a competitor. He wouldn't stay at Butler if he didn't think his team could win on the biggest stage. In this respect, his career appears to be tracing the arc of Gonzaga coach Mark Few, who every spring turns down high-major opportunities to stay in Spokane, where he has guided the Bulldogs to 11 consecutive NCAA tournament berths and four trips to the Sweet 16. It should also be noted that both Stevens and Few followed coaches who left to take bigger jobs and flopped. Lickliter lasted three years at Iowa, and Few's predecessor, Dan Monson, coached just one NCAA tournament game at Minnesota before being fired seven games into the 2006-07 season. (Monson is currently the coach at Long Beach State.)

The one area where Stevens has most tried to copy Few's template for mid-major success is scheduling. Every year, Stevens tries to load up as many difficult nonconference games as he can, which is why Butler has been able to garner three NCAA at-large bids since 2003. While many mid-major schools play so-called guarantee games, where they are paid upwards of $75,000 to travel to an opponent's gym, Butler has not played a guarantee game since 2004. Ohio State, UAB and Northwestern are among the schools that have come to Hinkle Fieldhouse in recent years. This season the Bulldogs will host Stanford, and though they will play Xavier and Louisville on the road, those teams will return to Hinkle next year. Then there's the big nationally televised rematch with Duke in the Meadowlands on Dec. 4, which is sure to be a major event.

Such is the changing perception of Butler that it was Rick Pitino's idea to set up the home-and-home series with Louisville. He and Stevens struck up a friendship after meeting on line at a Starbucks several years ago while they were out recruiting. Pitino is an unabashed Stevens fan -- "All of us coaches wish we had the humility that he has when we were his age. I think he's very special." -- and he sees no reason why Stevens can't build a legitimate national power at Butler. "When Coach K got to Duke, it was in a top conference, but it was not a top-10 job. It wasn't even a top-20 job," Pitino says. "He made it a great job, and the same thing can be true of Butler and Gonzaga. They're top-20 programs every year and they go far in the tournament."

And yet, nobody knows better than Few that in many respects, the hard part for Stevens is just beginning. "Brad has a great thing going. They've shown that they can play with anybody in the country and beat anybody in the country," Few says. "I just know from what we've done that it's so much harder to continue success than it is to make that initial run. Everybody in your league wants a piece of you, they want to storm the floor, and then nationally everybody expects you to win every game."

For now, Stevens has the pieces in place to meet that challenge. Though Hayward left after his sophomore season to enter the NBA draft, where he was chosen ninth overall by Utah, the Bulldogs return three other starters. That includes their backcourt duo of Shelvin Mack, a 6-3 junior who spent part of his summer scrimmaging against NBA players who were trying out for USA Basketball's world championships team, and Ronald Nored, a 6-foot junior who led last year's team in assists and steals.

The linchpin up front will be Howard, the 2008-09 Horizon League Player of the Year. Besides being an invaluable asset who is not afraid to do the dirty work (it was Howard who set the possibly illegal screen on Duke's Kyle Singler to free up Hayward for that last-second attempt), Howard is an ideal posterboy for this program. He carries a 3.8 grade point average, and at the start of last season, when Stevens asked his players to vote secretly on who was the most humble player on the team, Howard received 10 out of 15 votes.

Stevens has also brought in three solid freshmen who will all vie for playing time, but the group does not include any names that can be found at the top of the rankings on recruiting websites. This, too, is nothing new. "We've probably tried to stick to our guns more in recruiting than any other area," Stevens says. "We need to find guys who will be top-100 players when their college careers are over, not when they're young." Though Butler is one of three schools (along with Indiana and North Carolina) still in the mix to land Cody Zeller, a 6-10 forward from Washington, Ind., who is ranked 20th in the Class of 2011 by Rivals.com, Stevens did not spend his summer chasing after would-be McDonald's All-Americans. "Those guys might be more interested in talking to us now, but ultimately the player has to pick your school. Finishing second in recruiting is not a very good thing."

The same can be said for finishing second in the NCAA tournament. "Ultimately, we were not the most successful team in the country last year, so there's some motivation that comes from that," Stevens says.

He's the right man at the right time to help Butler take that next step, and if he has to work overtime to make it happen, that's OK. At least he doesn't have to worry about finding a babysitter.

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