Butler coach Brad Stevens is the calm during the storm



After watching John Calipari coach in person for 35 games, I’m used to his tendencies, his movements, his coaching. He likes to scream, and gesture wildly, and point at guys, and scream in faces, and grab his pants and stomp his feet. He likes to do all these things and more, and it makes for a wildly entertaining time — almost as entertaining as the game itself. Some

And then I watched Brad Stevens coach. The Butler head man looked more calm than anybody else in the building, even the most neutral fan in attendance. He slowly paced the sidelines. When he talked to his players, he talked so softly I couldn’t hear him from one row back. (Hours later, I would hear Calipari scream at Darius Miller to “Just SHOOT IT!”) With Butler holding a 10-point lead and 20.6 seconds left, a second consecutive berth in the national championship game locked up, Stevens sat serenely on his little coaching stool. The only thing he did the entire game that could have been interpreted as showing nerves was chewing through four pieces of gum.

“If he’s nervous, I definitely don’t see it,” said senior Alex Anglin, who has an excellent view of Stevens the whole game from the bench. “He does a great job of hiding it. It’s really re-assuring to see our coach is calm all the time. It’s remarkable.”

At this point, though, everything about Stevens seems remarkable. He held a job at Eli Lilly, a top pharmaceutical company, but left to become an unpaid graduate assistant at Butler in 2000 and worked his way to head coach in 2007. Now, he has Butler back on the precipice of college basketball’s first mid-major national championship. Coaches from other small programs call all the time, but he “isn’t really into the business of giving advice to people we’re trying to beat,” Stevens said.

Perhaps they should just watch him, rather than talk to him.

“I think it is Coach Stevens and his calm demeanor that has helped us the most,” said sophomore Andrew Smith on how Butler was able to get back to this spot from the No. 8 seed.

Stevens coaches like most people conduct everyday life, which is a far cry from the vision most have of how coaching works. Not that either way is right or wrong; plenty of other coaches have also made it to Final Fours,

each with their own way. But Stevens has his. And when he breaks it, it’s for a reason. Leading scorer Matt Howard said any level of voice raising is rare, but when it happens it “makes you realize there’s something going on.”

“We make fun of him because he picked up a few more technical (fouls) this year than normal,” Anglin said. “I think like 3 or 4. So we tease him for that. But he’s a calm dude.”

It’s the calm confidence of a well-prepared coach. He prepares clips of every opposing player, breaking down their tendencies to see which way his defenders can shade, when they can help off, when they can double down.

“I’m a lot better when I’m organized and prepared,” Stevens said. “It’s the way I operate. I want to know what we’re doing and have an idea about at least a game plan, a backup, and a backup to the backup going into the first practice as we’re preparing for a team.”

That meticulous preparation pays off. He shows the teams clips of every player on the opposing team, and film of themselves. But it’s not the typical highlights or plays he shows. It’s the little things — leap steps to close down a lane on defense, players hedging hard on ball screens, coming from the weakside to take a charge — that Stevens wants his players to see. It’s the “Butler Way,” a set of values and expectations Stevens has set up.

And, of course, the stats. He’s an advanced statistics guy, utilizing the tempo-free metrics such as offensive and defensive efficiency (which measures points per possession), rebounding percentages and turnover rate. “He’s definitely a stat geek,” said Anglin. He prides his team on the hard-nosed defense that Butler has become known for.

But he’s also described as personable and the most polite guy you could ask for. He said he “probably got grounded once or twice for coming home late” as a kid. As an adult coach, he gives flying chest bumps to 6-foot-9 Emerson Kampen after postseason victories. “Coach can get up,” said Anglin. He hops in to shooting contests and talks smack, but “nothing major,” said Shelvin Mack. He makes time to talk to the team managers about normal things, not just their job.

“I didn’t expect it, to be honest with you,” said freshman manager Michael Burke, who celebrated his birthday with a Final Four win over VCU. “As a senior last year, seeing him on the big stage, being in front of ESPN all the time, you wouldn’t expect that from him.”

That’s because Burke only knew him as the young coach who led his team on a semi-miraculous run. Go back to his early years, when he had to rely on a talented group to help him through his first year as head coach. “They were nothing but great to a head coach,” Stevens said. Go back to when he was trying to build the program further, taking a successful place and turning it into one that is now set to get a $25 million upgrade to its stadium. Go back to when he was recruiting players and giving a different message than everybody else, and had the ability to believe it himself.

“He drove the 481 miles or whatever to offer me a scholarship,” said Ronald Nored. “(Most coaches) tell you more about how many minutes you can get, whether you’ll be able to start or not, why you’re perfect for the program. That wasn’t his pitch. And I respected that.”

Nored is one of many small names that came to Butler and, together, built something special.

“(Our program) doesn’t demand the biggest name out there,” Nored said. “If we get that kind of guy, it’s for a reason. But coach really, honestly has a reason behind everyone that he gets. And it’s not let’s see how many ESPN top 100 recruits he can get.”

With those recruits, Stevens is on the cusp on making history as the first mid-major to win a national championship. There’s talks swirling that he should make the jump to a high-profile program, but for right now he’s in a contract that runs through 2021-22. He’s a fan of underdogs in other sports, and so he loves what his team is doing right now in capturing America’s heart. But he still isn’t quite living the dream. Not quite.

“The dream was to be playing in it,” Stevens said. “But coaching is the closest you can get.”