Thrill of Victory

Did Brad Stevens err in leaving Butler for Boston?

The simple text message from a friend just about jolted me out of my seat. To slightly modify a fantastic line from the movie Christmas Vacation, if I woke up tomorrow with my head sewn to the carpet, I wouldn’t have been more surprised than I was at the moment I learned that Butler basketball coach Brad Stevens was leaving to coach the Boston Celtics.

Stevens had become perhaps the most sought-after coach in college basketball, and spurned overtures from just about every corner of the college hoops world to stay in Indiana at a mid-major school and succeed at a level no one ever imagined. And now, he was leaving?

My first text response to my friend was, “Stunning. He will regret that.”

Now that I’ve had two days to think about it, I’d like to re-examine my reaction. Let me start by sharing a couple of key thoughts behind that initial sentiment.

First, college coaches almost never do well in the NBA. Look at this list detailing how those making the jump fared; it includes Hall of Fame coach Rick Pitino, a couple of outstanding coaches in Lon Kruger and Mike Montgomery who can make Hall of Fame cases, and several other good coaches like John Calipari (who’s had a Hall of Fame-caliber career, but I don’t know how heavily the voters will weigh the black marks on his record against him).

Second, there’s a lot to be said for being content at Butler. Stevens took a program that was generally just happy to get to the NCAA Tournament and came within a game of winning a national title in both 2010 and 2011. It’s hard to beat the perks of running a Final Four-caliber program with the pressure that comes with… well, honestly, can anyone tell me what pressure there is in coaching at Butler?

Finally, Indiana is Stevens’ home. Unlike some coaches who always need to be in front of a camera, Stevens didn’t. The low-key situation at Butler fit him perfectly.

Intuitively, he must have known all these things, or else he’d have bolted for a huge job like UCLA long ago.

Oh, and did I mention that the Celtics just traded three of their four leading scorers and will be rebuilding?

So why do it?

First of all, I made some assumptions in my first reaction. By all appearances, Stevens was as happy as could be at Butler with everyone and everything, and I’d be shocked if that weren’t the case. But it’s an assumption, and we’d probably never know if there were some sort of internal situation that made life less-tenable for Butler than we knew.

Second, it’s not any NBA job. It’s the Celtics. As in, the most successful and storied franchise in basketball history. Only 16 men before him have been allowed the chance to coach Boston. When you think of it that way, it’s hard to imagine anyone turning down the job.

Third, it’s Wyc Grousbeck’s Celtics. I had the chance to hear Grousbeck speak in person at the MIT Sloan Sports Management Conference in 2007, and it was one of the most compelling talks I’ve ever heard. That day, Grousbeck essentially admitted that from a business sense, purchasing the Celtics wasn’t the best decision he’d ever made, but the chance to purchase a team he dearly loved was one on which he couldn’t truly put a price. I’ve rarely heard a more heartfelt, inspired talk than the one I heard Grousbeck make that day, and it would probably be hard for me to sit across the table from him and tell him “no” if he offered me a chance to coach.

Fourth, Stevens has embraced cutting-edge statistical approaches to the game. He’s coaching in a different kind of era, and his tactical mindset may give him a chance to win that those failed college coaches never had.

Finally, as many have since pointed out, even if he fails, Stevens can always come back and get just about any college job he wants. Nobody will soon forget what he’s done at Butler.

Conclusion: I could wind up being right. There’s no comparison between handling a bunch of NBA divas and coaching the kinds of good kids that Stevens got at Butler, and there’s something to be said for life without potential headaches. So that’s the risk.

But the more I think about it though, the more I think I was wrong. It’s not as if Stevens signed a blood oath binding him to Boston for life, and Stevens is a man of wisdom and maturity well beyond his 36 years. I’m sure he weighed every risk against the fact he’s been given the opportunity of a lifetime that may never come again. If he was wrong, he’ll just cut ties and move on. Given the respect I have for him, I hope he never has to do just that.