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Wednesday, July 3, 2013
Stevens' exit a blow to college game

By Dana O'Neil
ESPN.com

At 5:40 p.m., my editor left me a voice message that ended with this line: "Brad Stevens, next coach of the Celtics."

Nineteen minutes later, I'm still trying to wrap my arms around that sentence. The last time I was this gobsmacked shocked was ... well, I honestly don't know.

You could have told me I was the new Celtics coach and I'd be less stunned.

In trying to pen a reaction column, my reaction seems perpetually stalled at, "Wait, what? Brad Stevens is going to coach the Celtics? Did I time travel? Is it April 1?"

(An aside: The next time I have a secret to keep, I'm telling Stevens or Danny Ainge. Not even Edward Snowden could pry info out of these two, apparently.)

Brad Stevens
Brad Stevens rose to national prominence after taking Butler to back-to-back national title games.

Well, I believe my reaction is summed up pretty simply, if not with prose Grantland Rice would admire:

This stinks.

This stinks for college basketball. It stinks because Stevens is one of the good guys, respected, liked and admired by his peers and even the media. And trust me when I say the number of coaches who hit for that cycle is an extremely short list.

It stinks because Stevens is a terrific coach. Back-to-back Final Four appearances don't happen accidentally. Stevens is a brilliant basketball mind whose advanced use of analytics will no doubt be a hit in the NBA as the pros embrace the "Moneyball" approach.

And it stinks because when the word college partnered with either amateurism, purity or integrity is equal parts oxymoronic and moronic, Stevens was a guy you could point to and say, "No, I'm pretty certain that guy does it right."

Look, no one is perfect, and to paint Stevens as saint or savior is foolish. But few would argue the point that he encompassed everything college sports is supposed to be about, everything the idealists among us wish college sports could still be about.

In fact, I'm sure part of the shock is not that he left for the Celtics, but that he left Butler at all. Part of the nice and tidy Brad Stevens story always was that he was this loyal guy who always turned down other jobs.

Except that's probably more about us than him. He never said he would stay at Butler forever; we just inferred that because we liked the quaint notion of the plucky coach of the small school thumbing his nose at the Richie Rich big schools.

But part of Stevens' appeal is real, too.

In recent years, I've written about whether the future of the game can be trusted to the next generation of coaches. With so much attention on ladder-climbing and recruit-grabbing, plenty worried the essence, not to mention the integrity, of college basketball was decaying. When I polled coaches, they said they weren't worried, and the name they all referred to was Brad Stevens.

I've also opined on who might be on the next Mount Rushmore after the current crew -- Mike Krzyzewski, Jim Boeheim, Roy Williams, et al. -- steps away. Stevens was on every short list.

Not anymore.

The real epicenters of this news are obvious. The domino effect of one man's career change quite literally stretches from Middle America to the East Coast to points unknown.

Brad Stevens
As steady as they come, Stevens won 166 games in six seasons at Butler.

In Indianapolis, Butler folks, three days into their Big East step up, need to scramble to find a replacement for the man who made them attractive to the Big East in the first place. In Boston, a frenzied sports town will debate whether a college coach can succeed in the pro game (Rick Pitino's ears are currently ringing, no doubt). And in the Office Address to be Named Later, aka the Big East Conference, new commissioner Val Ackerman is feverishly hoping the Butler Way can continue without its conductor.

Whether the Bulldogs will regroup, whether this is a good day for Stevens and the Celtics, whether the Big East took a hit will be determined in due time. The win-loss ledger has a simple way of computing those results.

But I can't help but come back to my simple, gut reaction: This is a lousy day for college basketball.

This game is and always will be overwhelmed by the coaches. In the moment, the players rule the day -- as they should -- but for the long run, it's the sideline stalkers who write the narrative. While the players come and go in a matter of years and even months, the coaches are the constants. Their personalities, vices and virtues steal the show.

So losing someone such as Stevens is a body blow. Certainly not one the game can't recover from (some coaching cliches are actually true, as in, no one is bigger than the game), but it is a mighty blow to Butler and the sport.

It's been a couple of hours and I'm still trying to process the news, but that much is clear.

Editor's Note: For Eamonn Brennan's analysis of how this move affects Stevens, the Celtics and Butler, click here. Also check out Jeff Goodman's assessment Insider of who the Bulldogs might turn to now and Andy Katz's roundup of coaching reaction from around the country.