The Butler Bulldogs are two years removed from back-to-back championship game appearances and are about to start a new era in the Big East, but the program was dealt a tough blow on Wednesday. The Boston Celtics hired Brad Stevens to be their head coach Wednesday afternoon after Stevens spent six years leading the Bulldogs. In that time, Butler made five NCAA Tournaments and was National Runner-up in 2010 and 2011.
And now with Butler joining a major conference, the Bulldogs are without a leader and face an uncertain future. It's a position they've been in before, and in the past, they've persevered by staying true to their principles.
In 2007, the Bulldogs said goodbye to Todd Lickliter, the coach who put Butler in the national conversation with two trips to the Sweet 16 in the previous five years. When Lickliter left for the Big Ten and Iowa, Butler was left to appoint Stevens, a then-assistant who had no head coaching experience.
A deciding factor in giving Stevens the job over more established outside coaches was that he had been on the Butler sidelines for seven years. He knew the "Butler Way," which preaches hard work, selflessness and constant improvement as a team. When Stevens took over, veteran coaches marveled at his teams' work ethic and toughness, which would become trademarks of Bulldog teams in years to come.
And doing things the Butler Way paid off; Stevens and the Bulldogs won at least a share of the Horizon League in his first four years at the helm.
But looking forward, the Horizon League is certainly not the Big East, which next year will feature competitive teams in Georgetown, Creighton, Marquette and Villanova. To make matters more difficult for the Bulldogs, they're also losing two of their top three scorers, since Rotnei Clarke and Andrew Smith graduated. Four three-star recruits will replace the graduating Bulldogs and if anyone could have succeeded with the new-look team in a new-look league, it would have been Stevens.
Will whoever replaces him be up to the challenge? Athletic director Barry Collier says there are no candidates to speak of just yet, so it's impossible to answer that question. None of Butler's three assistants -- Matthew Graves, Terry Johnson and MIchael Lewis -- has ever held a head coaching job, but Graves played for the Bulldogs in the 1990s and was promoted to associate head coach in 2010.
Whoever gets the job will be asked to lead the program with the same passion and values that Stevens' teams had. The goal will be to improve every day -- maybe to become the most improved team in the Big East from start to finish. How many wins that results in remains to be seen.
Collier told Nicole Auerbach of USA Today that the most important quality of the new head coach will be that he "really understands Butler." The coach will need to understand that it's not about him and whatever salary he might command. The program is bigger than the coach. It was that way before Stevens and it will remain that way going forward. A coach who doesn't understand that simply won't fit.
The new coach will also need to be patient. With a young team, in a new conference, under new leadership, keeping the program on track will not be easy. Between a historic facility, rabid fan base, major conference and name recognition, the pieces are there for success. So at the very least, Butler will be a program to follow over the next few years.
All that's left is a coach who not only knows the Butler Way, but lives by it.