As head coach for Butler’s basketball program, Brad Stevens has been on a roll. Taking over the program in April of 2007, he led the team to a 30 win season his first year. Stevens broke the NCAA record for most wins in his first 3 years. Last year, Stevens coached Butler to the NCAA Championship game where they lost to Duke by 2 points.
Stevens, two-time Horizon League Coach of the Year, is known for his thorough team preparation and his calm demeanor on the bench during games. Even in tight games during the NCAA Tournament run, when TV cameras focused in on the young coach, his poised presence was evident. His coaching style seemed to rub off on his team, as his players never seemed rattled. Stevens’ approach to coaching basketball has drawn comparisons to John Wooden’s.
Since the Championship Game appearance, Stevens has appeared on the Letterman Show, sung “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” at Wrigley Field, and along with the Butler team, served as Grand Marshal of the Indy 500. Butler University, where admissions are up 67%, has resigned Stevens to a long-term deal to keep him as head coach. IMG Worldwide, a sports and entertainment company, recently announced that it had signed Stevens to represent him.
Sports Feel Good Stories caught up with the well-spoken Stevens as he took a short break from his hectic schedule.
The Brad Stevens Interview
Sports Feel Good Stories: Congratulations on Butler’s NCAA tournament run. It had to be a special thrill for you and everyone close to the program. Basketball fans from across the nation seem to unite in support of the Butler feel-good story. What did it feel like to have more people rooting for the Butler team than ever before?
Brad Stevens: You know that’s a great question. I think the thing that is most gratifying or satisfying thing to us is the chance for former players, former staff members and certainly Butler die-hards to get a chance to experience this, and get a chance to watch this team all the way through. One of the great by products of the tournament was the opportunity to increase our fan base. Whether that means increasing your awareness across the globe or whether that means people were -coming to 3-4 games a year are now buying season tickets. I think that’s a really neat thing and I think that’s something that certainly whenever you’re building a brand and you continue to try to maintain a tradition like we have here; the more people that can jump on board, the more that are welcome. It’s something we’re really excited about. Now, the goal is to ride that wave.
Sports Feel Good Stories: Who were some notables that you heard from when Butler had success in the tournament?
Brad Stevens: You heard from people all over the world. You heard from people stationed overseas, people from California to New York. It was really unbelievable, and I’ll tell you, that just the letters and cards and well wishes and everything else, despite the fact that we lost the game were amazing and certainly we appreciated each and everyone of them.
Sports Feel Good Stories: What made you more nervous: your appearance on The Late Show with Letterman or singing “Take me out to the Ballgame” for the Cubs at Wrigley?
Brad Stevens: No doubt, “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” Not even close.
Sports Feel Good Stories: If Gordon Hayward’s half-court shot at the final buzzer in the championship game had gone in, how different would your life had been?
Brad Stevens: You know I think it would’ve been a little bit different but I don’t know if it would’ve been much more crazier than it is now. I really believe that. My wife and I were at a function and there were a few different coaches that had won national championship games, and the emcee was talking about the national champions in the room. We kinda of looked at each other and thought, “Man, we were close.” But, that’s part of it. One of the things that we’ve always said is that at the end of day we’re trying to make this so our team feels like they have maximized their opportunities. Even though there are always things that you’d take back in an one possession game and you’d love to do over, I think those are few and far between. Our guys gave every, every effort. They did it for each other and they did it for Butler.
Sports Feel Good Stories: Your poise on the bench during the tournament run was impressive. In incredibly tight games, you never seem to lose your cool. Rather, you seem quick with a smile and encouraging words? How do you do it?
Brad Stevens: Our staff has worked hard to prepare. And, you feel like, hey, If you prepare well and your players really care, and they’re committed to preparing, then the results take care of themselves and sometimes they don’t work out in your favor and sometimes they do. But, you don’t have any regrets, if you’ve given your all. You never think about, at least I don’t think about, the magnitude a basketball game. All I think about is the basketball game, itself. It’s easier for me to keep that in perspective than maybe it used to be, but I really don’t get overly consumed with what people on the outside think and that probably helps as well.
Sports Feel Good Stories: Tennis star Roger Federer claims to have been a terror on the court before he finally realized he needed to control his emotions to play his best game. Your unflappable quality: was it easy to come by?
Brad Stevens: I get more of that reputation because people watched me on TV more and I’m probably not as unflappable as people think, but at the same time, I’ve tried my best to be the voice for our players and I think that’s easier said than done. I really like for those guys to go out and play the game and let the chips fall where they may. We’re coaching and making adjustments and all those things. I’m not good enough to do that and not have a clear head. So, it’s important to me to try to stay poised.
Sports Feel Good Stories: What’s your basketball coaching philosophy in a nutshell?
Brad Stevens: The bottom line, and I’ve said this many times, if people think of Butler, then I want them to think first of a team. That’s my goal in all of this part of the journey for me is to a tremendous team experience: To get guys to think outside of themselves, to have guys really want to achieve for others. We’ve been really blessed here in the people department.
Sports Feel Good Stories: Bill Simmons’ The Book of Basketball details the “secret” of winning basketball as revealed to the author by Isiah Thomas. Here it is: The secret of winning basketball is that it’s not about basketball. It’s about team, sacrifice and put the good of the team above the individual. What’s the secret of winning basketball?
Brad Stevens: I heard the book is great. Yes, team plays a huge role. But, I think there’s a level of talent you need to be able to do that. We got to the Final Four, and the fact of the matter, is that we’ve got good players. That’s one of the things that can sometimes go unnoticed but at the same time I think do we get there without a having great “team-first” mindset? Probably not. Certainly team plays a big role in achievement, because it’s just like any other company if you have 12 very talented people, but they’re all on their own page, rather than on one page, they’re just not going to get as far. You know, I had a guy tell me when I was growing up, “it’s better for all of us to be on the wrong page, than half of us to be on the right page and half of us to be on the wrong page.” I figure that’s really true.
Sports Feel Good Stories: Is it tougher to coach good defense or good offense? Why?
Brad Stevens: It depends on your players. Sometimes plays that are fairly routine or run by a lot of people, look a lot better when run by great players. They can score with the ball, do different things with the ball, able to break it down with the dribble. All you need to give those guys sometimes is just a small angle. You don’t need to necessarily get them a wide open shot. It all goes back to players and abilities. Good defense is a lot easier to coach when you have guys who can move laterally, are strong, can guard multiple positions, and all those types of things. So, again it goes back to personnel.
Sports Feel Good Stories: What basketball coaching books do you recommend?
Brad Stevens: The Sport Takes Care of Itself by Bill Walsh is a great book and I’m huge Dungy fan so I recommend Quiet Strength and Uncommon: Finding Your Path to Significance.
Sports Feel Good Stories: For young basketball players intent on improving their games, what advice might you give them on how to improve their driveway workouts?
Brad Stevens: I’m a big believer in the concept of deliberate practice, working on one thing and really focusing in and honing in on that and becoming great at it. It doesn’t mean you can only work on one part of your game, but when you get in a driveway or in the gym by yourself, work for a reason. So many people misconstrue what a good workout is, work like it’s game like, work like it’s going to be translated directly into a game, and sometimes for some people that means working to minimize your weaknesses and maximize and perfect your strengths. There’s certain things in this game, shooting for instance, that if you’re a good shooter — there a lot of good shooters — but if you’re a great, great shooter and don’t miss when you’re open, then that’s a real skill, a real trait. You can find yourself on any number of teams at any number of levels. Players who can do that but struggle to do other things can still play but they need to learn how to manage those weaknesses.
Sports Feel Good Stories: What suggestions might you give youth basketball coaches to get the most out of their practice time?
Brad Stevens: All I say is keep the big picture in mind and be yourself.