by Kent Sterling
Sixty-five years ago, a coach in his late 30s at a small school in Indiana accepted the position of head coach at the University of California at Los Angeles. He was a teacher of life and basketball who valued his love of the game and his students more than money. John Wooden and UCLA Basketball became legendary.
UCLA is reportedly looking for another head coach today, and as is the case with every significant opening over the past three years, a coach in his late 30s at a small school in Indiana is the target of that school’s search.
Brad Stevens remains a hot item on the coaching market despite being two years from his run to the National Championship game in back-to-back seasons. His Butler Bulldogs ended their latest run at the hands of a team that by all rights should have lost Thursday night.
UCLA has spent the 38 years since Wooden’s retirement trying to recapture the magic he brought to Pauley Pavillion, and in a town that loves exploiting a narrative, the parallels between Wooden and Stevens will certainly not escape those charged with returning the Bruins to a place of honor in college hoops.
The question isn’t whether UCLA will seek out Stavens, it’s whether Stevens will pick up the phone when it rings. Will he agree to have the kind of conversation that he has refused until now?
None of the hallmark coaching gigs has opened since Stevens became hot. UCLA, Duke, North Carolina, Indiana, Kentucky, and Kansas have all been manned by the same coaches, but now one of those jobs is open.
Will the born and bred Hoosier leave central Indiana where he was born, raised, went to college, met his wife, and left that famous gig at Eli Lilly for an unpaid position of the Butler University staff?
The timing for Stevens has been easy so far. All he’s done to this point is accept promotions that came frequently at Butler as Barry Collier, Thad Matta, and Todd Lickliter moved on with varying degrees of success. There is no next step at Hinkle Fieldhouse, unless he wants to wait for Collier to retire as athletic director. Now, the next step is out, and it’s up to Stevens to decide when or if to take it.
If not now, then when. With every season that passes, Stevens’ star will fade slightly. The two heroic trips through the bracket will move from relevance to lore, and while Brad can enjoy working at the quaintest arena in all of basketball, there might be a hunger within him to try to tackle a legendary challenge.
Stevens has been adamant about not wanting to leave Butler. His family is here, and this is where he has roots, but he definitely has the chops to meet each test. His ability to recruit to a specific culture is undeniable. He enforces a tradition of academic excellence. He is a very entertaining and engaging speaker. He doesn’t have Brad Pitt looks, but he’s a step above Jon Cryer.
UCLA, like most universities, is run by some smart people, so if indeed Howland is out (UCLA has denied this), they will reach out to Stevens. This will be a test for the previously very loyal (to Butler and family) Stevens.
Is the UCLA gig good enough for him to pack a box?
This is either a very exciting morning for Stevens, or the beginning of another unpleasant series of questions regarding his bright future. There will come a time when he should leave, but whether the UCLA gig is good enough to pull him the 2,093 miles from Hinkle to Pauley can will only be answered by Stevens – a guy bold enough to know what he wanted when he agreed to work for free.
And Pauley isn’t just 2,093 miles from Hinkle, it’s the difference between “Hoosiers” and “Blue Chips”.