THE SECRET -- SIMPLICITY
A secret. There had to be one, some special ingredient behind a small Indianapolis private school’s improbable run to consecutive NCAA championship games in 2010 and 2011.
Numbers! Yes, that was it.
“What two or three stats do you guys look at all the time?”
Former Butler assistant Matthew Graves remembered hearing that one a lot, from coaches and other sleuths.
Truth was, it all varied game to game, opponent to opponent. But that didn’t slow the inquiries.
“Everybody wants to break it down into this magical stat or formula,” said Graves, now the coach at the University of South Alabama.
Often overlooked was that A) Butler wasn’t a nobody out of nowhere and actually had reached four NCAA Tournaments in seven years (including two Sweet Sixteens) leading up to 2009-10; and that B) the program’s recent success could be traced back to a mid-1990s culture shift that created “The Butler Way.”
The turning point came in 1995 when Butler coach Barry Collier and another coach sat down with Wisconsin coach Dick Bennett, whose teams there and at Wisconsin-Green Bay were always a handful.
“I thought there was some kind of X’s-and-O’s secret I could learn,” said Collier, echoing what others would say years later when Brad Stevens coached Butler.
Instead, Bennett shared five Biblical-based principles that made up his philosophy: humility, passion, servanthood, thankfulness, and unity.
“ ‘Simple’ doesn’t seem like the right word,” said Collier. “But in some ways, I think it is. Because something is simple does not make it easy. It’s hard to follow these things.”
THE CULTURE IS THE MOST IMPORTANT THING
Among their key influences was a book Lickliter had given Stevens, a book by Celtics legend Bill Russell: “Russell Rules: 11 lessons on Leadership From the Twentieth Century’s Greatest Winner.”
Two of Russell’s ideals stuck with them, one about team ego (“My ego demands — for myself — the success of my team”); and the other about the culture of the Celtics: “ ‘Celtic Pride’ is a real concept, a culture, and a practice rather than an idea. We lived it and breathed it. But we were each responsible for it. It began with a collective determination never to embarrass ourselves.”
Today, on the front wall of the Butler men’s basketball room is a placard that reads: “The Butler Way begins with a ‘collective determination never to embarrass ourselves.’ And we agree that The Butler Way is not merely a concept, but a ‘culture and a practice — and we all are responsible for it.’ ”
The culture is the foundation.
“Everybody thinks, ‘Well, there’s got to be more, there’s got to be something else,’ ” Graves said. “There’s not. But try doing this every single moment, every single day, over and over and over.”
Stevens kept that copy of Russell’s book, filled it with notes, and was rereading it this July during his flight to Boston, where he was to be introduced as the Celtics new head coach. As he sat in the team’s practice facility beneath 11 title banners that Russell helped win in his 13 years in Boston, Stevens used the word “culture” in his first public remarks.
“I think culture,” he said later, “is the most important thing.”
OBSESSED WITH PREPARATION
A four-tier pyramid is fixed on a whiteboard in the Butler locker room. “Results” forms its peak. “Performance” is on the second level. “Character” makes up its base. The third tier is “Preparation.” And perhaps more than any other characteristic — more than toughness, execution, or defense — Stevens’s Butler teams were as prepared as any in the nation.
“You knew Butler was never going to beat themselves,” said Ohio State coach Thad Matta, a former Butler coach whose teams were beaten twice in three games by Stevens’s teams.
As Siena coach Fran McCaffery once said, “If you’re going to beat them, you almost have to play a perfect game.”
Stevens did his homework early. While he coached games, a staff member often uploaded edited video clips to his laptop — clips on each of the next opponent’s players, on the sets it runs the most, a couple of its most recent games, a couple of its games against teams that played a similar style to Butler. Afterward, Stevens devoured the footage, processing information at a pace his staff members called “amazing,” often on late-night flights, his face illuminated by the screen’s soft glow.
By noon the next day, Stevens said, he’d have in place the firm outlines of a game plan — no matter if the game was one day or one week away, because he didn’t want to have a single unprepared practice.
“I wasn’t going to do a day where it’s fluff and I can’t answer everything that I possibly can about the other team,” he said. “That’s how I’m wired.”
He’d study analytics and dig through books — books on leadership, on how the mind works, on successful businesses and the people who ran them — for a motivational quote or passage, because just as he told his players to “win the next possession,” Stevens believed it was his job to find any edge that could help win that possession.
“People always focus on the end of the game,” said former Butler forward Matt Howard, “but one thing I learned more than ever there, and just something we talked about all the time, was it’s not always about what happens at the end of the game. It’s about what happened leading up to that.”
THE IMPORTANCE OF SCOUTING
As Lickliter had preached, Stevens and his staff spared no detail as they prepared a scouting report.
“By the end of the week, he’s got so much information on his hands that he can give out bits and pieces,” Shrewsberry said. “The players are like, ‘Whoa, he knows everything about these guys.’ ”
But, as Lickliter also preached, Stevens provided the players with only what they absolutely needed to know — nothing more.
Ronald Nored, a former Butler guard now in a player development role with the Celtics, said he realized the approach wasn’t common when speaking to players on other teams who received pages and pages of notes.
Lickliter said it is a talent to find only what will enable players to be successful, just as it’s a talent to teach it. These are traits, he said, that separate Stevens, whose background as a former star player (in high school) and role player (in college) helps him relate to every player on his teams. But Stevens also saw himself then (and today) as more of a teacher than a coach, curious about what each player wanted beyond the game and invested in a way to help them reach that goal.
The Bulldogs realized that the information they received would make them as game-ready as possible.
“I can’t remember one game where I felt less prepared than the other team,” Nored said. “Not one.”
Following Stevens’s axiom, “The game honors toughness,” regimented practices were “extremely physical,” according to Howard, who said they left him sore head to toe. However, they were short, lasting not a minute more than necessary — Nored remembers one lasting just 28 minutes — and Howard said few fouls were called. “But that’s just how they wanted us to play,” he said.