Like Shaka Smart, Stevens is unusually bright for a basketball coach. He attended DePauw University where he majored in economics and was a three-time Academic All-America nominee. He was working at Eli Lilly and Company when he decided he was going to pursue coaching as a career. He joined the Butler staff in 2000 as a volunteer and was promoted to assistant in 2001. He became the head coach in 2007 and won 30 games his first season, becoming the third-youngest head coach in NCAA history to win 30 games. In that first season in 2007-2008, Butler went 16-2 in the Horizon League, won the conference tournament and lost to #2 seed Tennessee in the second round of the NCAA tournament. Stevens was a finalist for the Jim Phelan National Coach of the Year.
Butler lost four starters prior to the 2008-2009 season and was picked to finish 5th in the conference. Stevens led his team to a 15-3 record in league, lost in the conference tournament final, but received an at-large bid to the NCAA tourney as a #9 seed. Butler lost to LSU in the first round of the tournament. With 56 wins in his first two seasons, Stevens was second only to Bill Guthridge's record of 58 wins. Guthridge, at North Carolina, had just a little bit more talent than Stevens at Butler.
In the 2009-2010 season, Butler was undefeated in conference play and won the conference tournament. They beat UTEP, Murray State, Syracuse and Kansas State to reach the Final Four. At 33, Stevens was the youngest coach to reach the Final Four since Bobby Knight did it at 32. Butler defeated Michigan State in the semi-finals before losing to Duke 61-59 in the championship game.
Prior to the 2010-2011 season, Butler lost star player Gordon Hayward when he left early for the NBA. Despite the loss of Hayward, Butler won a share of the Horizon League and won the conference tournament. In the NCAA tournament, Butler defeated Old Dominion, Pittsburgh, Wisconsin, Florida and VCU before falling to UConn in the title game. The fact that Stevens was able to lead this team back to the championship game without Gordon Hayward speaks volumes. It's one thing to ride a star player at the mid major level to a deep tourney run. It's quite another thing to do it the following year without that player. Butler missed the NCAA tourney in 2011-2012, but made the tournament again this year and was knocked out in the second round. This level of success at a mid-major is unprecedented in college basketball. And to do it during his first six seasons as a head coach is simply stunning.
Stevens has a very calm and cool sideline demeanor. He has said that he wants his team to remain poised in tough games, so he tries to maintain his own poise. He rarely berates officials or yells at his players after mistakes. He's always focusing on the next play rather than what just happened on the court. It's not surprising that someone with this approach would also be a big proponent of using advanced statistics to analyze not only opponents, but also his own team as well. Stevens actually has his own statistics guy on his staff, looking for every possible edge he can find. His style of play is a direct result on this analytical approach to the game. Given the players that Butler can recruit, it makes sense to play a team-oriented, smart and disciplined game that emphasizes good shot selection, strong fundamentals and solid defense. Stevens isn't going to be able to out-talent or out-athlete the bigger schools that he faces in the NCAA tournament. So he's found a way to optimize the players that are available to him and beat those bigger programs with regularity. Simply put, he's a great coach and he's out-coaching many of those bigger programs.
The question that many people have had about Stevens is whether or not his style would be successful in Westwood. Does it translate when you're talking about a different breed of player in Southern California? My feeling is that he wouldn't use the exact same methods at UCLA that he used at Butler. He's such a bright guy, on the cutting edge of the game, that it's reasonable to assume he would modify his system to take advantage of the higher level of talent available to him at UCLA. A guy that's using advanced statistical analysis is probably going to realize that he doesn't want to play fewer possession games when he has the superior talent and athleticism. That's not to say that he's going to start playing at the same pace as VCU (although anything is possible). But I think it's very likely that he'd try to find the optimal style of play given the talent available to him. So, for me, the whole question of style of play, does it translate, etc., is not a real issue. Stevens is not only a great coach, he's a really smart coach – he would figure out how to use his talent at UCLA.
The real question for me is how difficult would the recruiting adjustment be for him. The kids he's recruited at Butler, and the families he's been dealing with, are nothing like what he'd be dealing with at UCLA. The Southern California AAU scene is an absolute mess, for a number of reasons. There are whacked out club coaches, crazy parents and hangers on, entitled (but talented) kids…the whole scene is like nothing Stevens has encountered before. The AAU teams he did have to deal with at Butler are nothing like what we have in Southern California and some other parts of the west. Again, since Stevens is obviously a very bright guy, my assumption is he would figure out pretty quickly how to navigate the waters out here. I think his youth is also an advantage when it comes to dealing with a brand new situation. It's not like Bobby Knight coming out to L.A. and having to change his approach. But there is no question that recruiting at the elite, high major level is a very different experience than recruiting at the mid-major level.
The million dollar, or maybe four million dollar, question now is will Stevens take the job if offered. He's been offered the Oregon, Wake Forest and Clemson jobs in the past and turned them all down. Of course, none of those are at the same level as UCLA. Judging from the interviews I've seen, and what people close to him have said, he seems very sincere when he talks about loving his situation at Butler. For what it's worth, Matthew Graves, his longtime associate head coach, just took the head job at South Alabama. One would think that might signal Stevens isn't going anywhere, since Graves would almost certainly have been promoted to the head job at Butler if Stevens left. However, we've been told that Graves may have actually taken the South Alabama job a few months ago and it was kept quiet until the official announcement this week. In which case he might not have known that Stevens could very well leave for UCLA and the Butler job would be open. Stevens typically plays things very close to the vest, so I wouldn't expect a lot of leaks to the media prior to his decision being announced.
I think UCLA could do very well with a number of the candidates, but Stevens is the guy that seems to fit the mold of what you would expect UCLA to be looking for in a coach. He's a straight-arrow guy from the Midwest that you can see UCLA folks envisioning as someone similar to another coach the Bruins got from the Midwest. The Butler Way originated with former Butler coach Tony Hinkle. It sets for the following principles for Butler basketball.
1. Humility – know who we are, strengths and weaknesses
2. Passion – do not be lukewarm, commit to excellence
3. Unity – do not divide our house, team first
4. Servanthood – make teammates better, lead by giving
5. Thankfulness – learn from every circumstance
It's not the Pyramid of Success but, if the UCLA administration asks the question "what would Wooden do," then I expect Stevens will be offered the job.