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Chasing the Green

by Robb Reel

Maybe it’s my fault.

Just a few days ago, I shared a video from the Butler University athletic department.  Bulldog mascot Trip was training for the big jump to the revamped Big East.  The montage included a cameo from men’s basketball coach Brad Stevens.  I had no idea that the appearance would be his last in Butler Blue.

So perhaps I tempted fate.  I did not pay proper homage to Murphy or Lady Luck or whomever.  I angered the gods of sport.  Whatever my egregious error, the result was the announcement that Stevens would leave the Indy school to become the new head coach of the Boston Celtics.

Stevens has been a hot coaching commodity for a few years now.  Despite his age of just 36 – or, depending on one’s perspective, because of it – he amassed an almost gaudy 166-49 record in his six seasons for an astounding .772 winning percentage.  He led the Dawgs to five NCAA tournament appearances and two straight runs to the runner-up spot.  He was in the catbird seat of coaching, with his pick of whatever job he may have wanted next, and turned down several offers, not the least of which was the UCLA job that fellow Hoosier Steve Alford took soon after.

Pitch after pitch came, yet Stevens chose to stay at “ol’ Fairview,” a nickname for the Butler campus derived from the old neighborhood and park where it now sits.  He has a wife and two small children.  His home in Zionsville, just northwest of Indy, is near where he grew up and went to high school.  Most of all, Butler was home, where he began as a volunteer assistant while still working as a pharmaceutical rep, where he got his first shot, where he rose through the ranks, where the program’s ascension of prominence mirrored his own.  It was easy to see why Brad stayed put.

So what changed his mind?

Now, a lot of sportswriters and hack bloggers – the use of the latter is approved by the Department of Redundancy Department – will try to fool you, try to be coy, or will just flat-out lie to you, trying to convince you they are great friends with certain sports figures.  They’ll say “I know So-and-So…” before waxing some poetic [read: phony] tale about getting the real inside scoop from their imagined best bud over a cold beer.  Stephen A. Smith, I am looking squarely at you, among many others.

I am not that guy.  If I ever do become that guy, I would tell you to take away my Press pass, except those don’t really exist anymore.  I cannot say that I am “friends” with Brad Stevens, though we have always been friendly with one another.  I have had far greater access to him than most media members for two reasons: my long tenure working in Indianapolis and, more importantly, my status as a Butler alumnus and erstwhile employee, allowing me to go where many others are simply not permitted.  As a result, I would say that I am professionally acquainted with Brad.  We know each other by sight and by name and could easily have a non-basketball conversation if we met on the street.  I know that much because most of our conversations have had nothing to do with sports, veering instead toward Abraham Lincoln or our shared study of economics.  More succinctly, I think he and I could be friends under different circumstances.

It’s that DePauw University degree in Economics earned by Stevens that leads me to understand his choice.  Being successful in any market depends on knowing when to make a move as much as making the right move.  There are 340 schools in NCAA Division I alone, with countless more in Divisions II & III, the NAIA, etc., but only 30 teams in the NBA.  For even the best college coaches, the Association is only going to come calling once, maybe twice, in an entire career.  When that one call is from a legendary franchise such as the Boston Celtics, you answer it.

When looking at the Stevens family, another economic principle comes to mind: scarcity.  Brad’s wife, Tracy, is a labor and employment attorney.  While that may not be a common or “sexy” specialization in the legal field, it is one that can be done almost anywhere.  Some jobs can certainly be performer interchangeably at almost any location.  For the likes of doctors, teachers and lawyers, et al, some additional study and licensure is required to ply the trade elsewhere; one can’t just pick up and move from one state to another without learning the requirements of the destination.  Tracy could, with relative ease, make the transition from practicing in Indiana to Massachusetts or – thanks to the tighter proximity in New England – New Hampshire, Maine or Rhode Island.  Maybe she’ll practice at the federal level, which is obviously universal to all 50 states.  Maybe she’ll just serve as counsel, always an option for attorneys whether or not they are fully licensed in a particular state.  Maybe her primary focus will be those aforementioned children with less emphasis on her law career altogether.  Irrespective of which option she chooses, the point is that her field has far more flexibility, portability and opportunity than his.  He has greater value and so does his, albeit rarer, opportunities.  As a basketball coach in the upper echelon, Brad Stevens is the far scarcer commodity.

Continuing the economic perspective, consider how little risk there is.  Despite a storied history, the current Celtic roster is a veritable dumpster fire after trading away previous head coach Doc Rivers and waning stars Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, who is coincidentally older than Stevens.  The mercurial, tempestuous Rajon Rondo is assuredly next to go.  That leaves a Boston team with incredibly low expectations.  That’s great for Stevens, who is already accustomed to dealing with the very young players with which he’ll undoubtedly be left, because anything the Celtics do well will be a credit to him.

Lastly, look at the investment.  In the college world, there are some schools that can pay coaches a lot of money.  Butler is not one of those very few.  Let me be as forthright as possible here: Butler is a very expensive school – I should know – for those who pay full tuition, but the vaunted liberal arts institution also goes well beyond most others in providing private grants to students of need – I should know – such that the coffers are none too full when the ledger is balanced.  The Celtics can pay far more than can ever be found in the Circle City.  Reports claim the contract is six years and $22 million to become the franchise’s 17th head coach.  Brad Stevens is, to put it a bit crassly, about to cash a very fat check – at little risk to him or the organization – that will virtually guarantee his family’s future.  Even if this is an abject failure – and I can all but promise you it won’t be – and Boston cuts him loose, Stevens will have enough money and cache to choose where he wants to coach for the rest of his life, just because of this one deal.

[Photo: ESPN.com]

So, with an economic examination of the possible reasons, it makes sense after all.  One thing that has been abundantly clear is that Brad was not going to make a move just to make one.  He was going to wait for, to use one last economics term, the tipping point -- at which the benefit of change would be greater than that of staying put.  When that chance presented itself, he took it.  More power to him.

Selfishly, I will miss seeing him on the sidelines at historic Hinkle Fieldhouse, which I must tell you is the single greatest place in the world to watch basketball.  However, I will heal from that ache soon enough.  I will let Brad out of the doghouse for being out of the Dawg House.  I know, as every Butler alumnus knows, that there will be a next man up.  It has always been that way from Tony Hinkle through to Barry Collier, Thad Matta and Todd Lickliter, to Brad Stevens.  There will be another because that’s The Butler Way.

Best of health and luck to Coach Stevens.

**All photos courtesy of Butler University Athletics, except as noted.**