UConn's Calhoun, Butler's Stevens as different as night and day
HOUSTON -- Do not expect, in 35 years, to click on some future version of YouTube and find a clip titled "Brad Stevens likes the F-word" that features the coach verbally undressing a reporter who asked a somewhat silly question about a recruit who got away. If you'd like to see something like that now, simply insert that phrase into Google and replace "Brad Stevens" with "Jim Calhoun."
"I want him occasionally to at least cuss or just do something out of line," UConn's Calhoun said Sunday when asked about Stevens.
As much as it may shock Calhoun and the rest of the basketball-watching world, Stevens -- the wholesome, eternally fresh-scrubbed Zionsville, Ind., native who looks like a college junior en route to a job interview -- has allowed the occasional George Carlin-approved, network television-banned word to pass his lips. "There are some," Butler guard Chase Stigall said, "but it's few and far between."
Calhoun embraces the F-word. Stevens doesn't. During games, Stevens criticizes his players' foibles with a verbal scalpel. During games, Calhoun criticizes his players' foibles with a verbal cruise missile. Calhoun, 68, is in the twilight of his career. Stevens, 34, stands near the dawn of his. Some of Stevens' players call him Brad. All of Calhoun's players call him Coach. Calhoun has been dinged by the NCAA, and depending on which story former Huskies recruit Nate Miles tells investigators when next he speaks to them, Calhoun could get sanctioned further. Stevens thinks he got grounded once or twice as a teen for being late coming home. (The smart money says the punishment was followed by someone saying "Ward, I think you were a little hard on the Brad.") Stevens rarely makes headlines with anything he says in a press conference. Once, when a reporter reminded Calhoun that he is Connecticut's highest-paid state employee during a budget crunch, Calhoun didn't even let the guy finish his question before he roared "Not a dime back!"
If the two coaches in Monday's national title game were any more different, scientists probably would have to examine them to determine whether they belonged to the same species. But they do share at least one common trait. They win. A lot. In 39 seasons as a college head coach, Calhoun has won 851 games. He has two national titles, and he raised UConn from a cute little story to a name-brand powerhouse. In four seasons as a head coach, Stevens has won 117 games. He has led the Bulldogs to the national title game twice, and it appears that -- if he stays in Indianapolis -- he will raise Butler from a cute little story to a name-brand powerhouse.
The clash of styles should make for fascinating viewing, but Monday's matchup isn't a referendum on which coaching formula works better. Each man's method has its merits.
Calhoun took the more traditional route into the profession. After college, he worked as an assistant at alma mater American International College before departing to coach at three different high schools. In 1972, Calhoun was hired as Northeastern's head coach at age 29. Calhoun, who proudly describes himself as "an Irish guy from South Boston," subscribes to the theory that players will listen if the point is made at a high enough volume. His rants are not suitable for a family publication, but they do get his players' attention. Besides, UConn freshman point guard Shabazz Napier says Calhoun's paint-peeling critiques come from the heart.
"To this day, he yells at me," Napier said. "But he does it out of love. No one really takes it as disrespect. We take it as great criticism from one of the best coaches in the world. If he's yelling at you, that means he's caring for you. He wants you to be one of the best players in the country."
Calhoun's dry wit occasionally gets him in trouble. (See the "Not a dime back" quote, which began as a joke and turned serious as Calhoun got more perturbed with the line of questioning.) But he is consistently one of the nation's most hilarious coaches. He drew plenty of laughs Sunday. "That's good [that] God gave us two ears and one mouth," Calhoun said. "I don't subscribe to that theory, but for everybody else it's a good thing to have."
His program's recruiting practices also have gotten him in trouble. Calhoun was suspended for three games, and an assistant and UConn's director of basketball operations lost their jobs after the NCAA found a variety of violations in Miles' recruitment. Last week, Miles told
With that controversy swirling, it would surprise no one if Calhoun hung up his whistle after Monday's title game. Sunday, he sounded like a man content with his career and the choices he has made. "One thing I'll guarantee you, I know who I am," Calhoun said. "I know what I've done in 39 years of coaching. You don't have to tell me, you don't have to write it, but I know who I am. Quite frankly, I'm pretty comfortable with who I am. Have I made mistakes? Yes. Do I have warts? Yeah, I do, like all of you. But I know who I am and I'm comfortable with what I've done."
Stevens seems equally comfortable in his own skin, but while Calhoun's seems like a hard-won peace, Stevens' self-confidence seems to radiate from his core like the warm glow of a campfire. Unlike Calhoun, Stevens didn't immediately enter the coaching ranks. Upon graduation from DePauw in 1999, Stevens took a job as a marketing associate at pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly. The pay was good. The work was soul-crushing. So Stevens quit in 2000 and took a job as a volunteer assistant on Thad Matta's Butler staff. Stevens had planned to work as a server at Applebee's to help pay the bills, but a staff shakeup allowed Matta to offer Stevens a paying gig.
Stevens didn't last long in the business world, but in some ways he never left it. While most coaches tell recruits how soon they'll start and how quickly they'll reach the NBA, Stevens sells Butler's program like the CEO of a startup pitching to an angel investor. That's precisely how Stevens sounded to guard Ronald Nored after Stevens drove from Indianapolis to Birmingham, Ala., to offer a scholarship, sell the Butler Way and steal Nored away from Harvard. "That was his major," Nored said. "His first job was in that setting. That's just the way his mind works."
Stevens also occasionally takes a page -- or rather an E Ink screen -- from Phil Jackson's playbook. Nored said that when the Bulldogs traveled to Hawaii for a tournament, Stevens handed Nored his Kindle and asked him to read the chapter on Shane Battier in SI writer Chris Ballard's
Speaking of millions, Stevens could cash in at any time on Butler's two trips to the title game. Large schools are willing to throw money at him hoping he can replicate that success under higher pressure to win. In this respect, the startup analogy remains appropriate. Stevens in 2011 is the basketball version of Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page at the turn of the century. Brin and Page faced a choice. They could cash in on their creation and sell to a larger company, or they could stay independent and possibly enjoy an exponentially larger payday. They chose to remain independent, and when they took Google public in 2004, they became billionaires.
Though there aren't as many zeroes involved, Stevens faces a similar choice. He can take the guaranteed payday of a BCS-conference job, or he can stay at Butler and try to build a power that annually goes deep into the NCAA tournament. Mark Few created that model at Gonzaga, and Butler already has surpassed Gonzaga in cachet thanks to Stevens. If Stevens wants to talk himself into either choice, he can consult his two former bosses at Butler. Matta has built an excellent program at Ohio State. He has reached the title game once. His Buckeyes were the No. 1 overall seed in this year's tournament and may start next season ranked in the top five. On the other side is Matta's successor, Todd Lickliter. Lickliter left Butler in 2007 for Iowa. He was fired by Iowa in 2010.
The choice will be up to Stevens, but after hearing him talk about the Butler Way -- his own personal business plan for the program -- it's difficult to imagine him leaving. "It's not rocket science," Stevens said. "It's a values-based organization driven by a mission and a vision like every other business in the world or every other collective group in the world. The key in any endeavor is adhering to those standards and trying to live up to those standards, not trying to worry about anything else. It's hard to do and easy to talk about ... The only way we address the 'Butler Way' with our team is in this regard: People know they've seen and felt something special. They just can't put their finger on it."
Calhoun is an old-school coach. Stevens is a cutting-edge CEO. Stevens belongs to the Nintendo generation. Calhoun came at the start of the Baby Boom. Calhoun screams. Stevens contemplates. Make them roommates, and you'd have a hit sitcom. Put them on opposite benches, and you have a must-watch title game.
But for all their differences, Stevens and Calhoun share a few common traits. Both are consumed by the desire to win. Most importantly, both love their players. Stevens once heard Calhoun speak at a clinic and came away impressed. "I really appreciated how he stood up for his guys no matter what," Stevens said. "You can see that in the way his team plays."
Calhoun spoke Sunday about two types of coaches -- the ones who have a lot of awards in their offices, and the ones who have a lot of pictures of former players in their offices. Calhoun is the latter, and though he doesn't have photographic proof, he's pretty sure Stevens is, too. "I watch his teams play," Calhoun said. "I can see that passion right there. It comes out of my team the same way. The instrument directing may be a little different, but the passion is there. ... If he's what college basketball is going to become, we're in good hands."