clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Chris Petersen, Brad Stevens And The Great Man Theory Of Coaching

New, comments

The logic -- promulgated by a media beguiled by the Great Man Theory of Coaching -- is persuasive: just hire the coach and you get their program.

Getty Images

"Why can't we play like that?"

For over a decade, this has been the familiar refrain of any college sports fan watching the Broncos and Bulldogs.

For good reason. It is as much a lament as an expression of admiration or envy. In sports bars and on message boards it is the rhetorical trigger for rants about the inadequacies of their own team's schemes or the athletic department's inability to hire.

"Can you imagine what Chris Petersen would do with our talent on offense?"

(Finishes beer. Attacks peanut bowl)

"Please imagine what Brad Stevens would do with our lottery picks."

(Posts reply. Scans basement walls)

The logic - promulgated by a media beguiled by the Great Man Theory of Coaching -- is persuasive: just hire the coach and you get their program. Add the Butler/Boise Way to the superior resources and prestige of a name program, give them elite athletes to coach instead of overachieving scrappers, and the trophy case will be bursting with hardware. It's little wonder that Brad Stevens and Chris Petersen are the two most coveted coaching candidates in collegiate athletics.

Except that it hasn't worked. When Boise and Butler lose their sought after head coaches, their teams get better. And the big name programs that take those coaches almost always get worse. These are inconvenient, if incomplete, data points. They merit exploration.

Boise State and Butler both entered the national consciousness around the same time,their first steps hesitant, with modest initial success quickly snowballing into an avalanche of accolades. The similarities they share are not just as fraternal twin mid-majors who punch well above their weight class, but also in their ability to negotiate seemingly crippling rates of coaching turnover and improve.They offer case studies, if not cautionary tales, for the uncertain duplicability of culture and systems from program to program.

If not head coaches, might players hold the secret? Not in terms of raw material. No one can credibly contend that the Sawtooth Range or the fourth basketball school in Indiana is on the right side of recruiting demography.

Butler's And 1 mix tape highlights would feature guys taking charges and boxing out on rebounds. Their street handles would be Senzible Annuity and Plenny O Fiber.They prove the coaching motto that to score, you don’t have to do it fast, you just have to do it well.

Boise State typically features a towheaded QB who looks like a table tennis enthusiast and a roster of players ignored by their dream school, their back-up school, the back-up to the back-up, and possibly even their own high school coaches until a late summer growth spurt. For the last decade, they've suckered college football fans and opposing coaches into believing they’re smoke-and-mirrors while they bludgeon defenses with a power running game and five-seconds-standing- in-the-pocket play action. Befitting the Bulldog basketball comparison, the Broncos are gridiron gym rats.

Since 2000, Boise State has had three head coaches; Butler four. Their career arcs are an exercise in pattern recognition.

Boise State

Dirk Koetter – Idaho native, offensive genius -- brought the Broncos up from obscurity. From1998-2000, he went 26-10 at Boise (20-5 in his last 2 years) and became one of the hottest young coaching prospects in college football. He was hired to awaken sleeping giant Arizona State. Their slumber continued. Koetter went 40-34 over six seasons with a 2-19 record against ranked teams and was fired. Currently the offensive coordinator for the Jacksonville Jaguars.

His successor Dan Hawkins – former Boise assistant, charismatic media favorite – went 53-11 at Boise State over five years. He won four WAC titles and was three time WAC Coach of The Year. Hired by Colorado -- which had won the Big 12 North 4 of 5 previous seasons -- Hawkins managed a 16-33 record, including a 2-20 mark on the road. Now he coaches intramurals, brother.

Former Hawkins' OC Chris Petersen has led the Broncos to an extraordinary 61-5 record and is a two-time College Football Coach of the Year. He has been discussed for every major college job opening for two years running. Yet he remains a Bronco despite offers to double his salary and coach in a BCS-favored conference.


Barry Collier – the second winningest coach in Butler history after only 11 seasons – brought the Bulldogs to the NCAA Tourney in 3 of his last 4 years and had five 20+ win seasons at a program which had only two 20+ win seasons in its history. The highly regardedCollier left Butler for the greener, flatter pastures of Nebraska. There he amassed a 89-91 record over six seasons, never made the NCAA tournament, and "resigned" to take the AD job at…Butler. He's the prime architect of The Butler Way.

Butler assistant Thad Matta replaced him for only one year, went 24-8, and moved on to success at Xavier and Ohio State. Matta built Ohio State relentlessly recruiting elite blue chips and has shown an uncanny knack for squeezing production from NBA one-and-dones. The sole outlier excelled by creating the anti-Butler.

Butler assistant Todd Lickliter came after Matta and became the next hot coaching prospect. In six seasons, he made the NCAA tournament four times and won three conference titles. He was promptly snapped up by Iowa and went 38-57(15-39 in Big 10 play)over three years before being fired.

Butler assistant Brad Stevens takes over the head job and racks up a 117-25 record with two back-to-back appearances in the national title game. Fundamental, hard-nosed teams featuring basketball rarities like seniors and class attendance.Despite his youth, Stevens was hired because he'd been steeped in Butler's basketball culture and the notion of an external hire was anathema to the system.

All of Petersen and Stevens' predecessors were lured away by bigger programs that were outward cultural and geographical fits, and all but one of them (the exception that proves the rule, Matta) was eventually fired.

The common shared blueprint for both programs is apparent: exclusively internal hires, a cohesive system maintained and improved upon, a shared culture constantly reinforced, a collaborative environment between athletic director, coach, alumni, and players. A knack for identifying and developing undervalued talent that's institutionally internalized throughout the coaching staff.

And hiring one man is meant to transfer all of that?

This caution is not to diminish Petersen or Stevens. Both are extraordinary coaches. Both helped create and now preside over the perfection of a decade long systemic evolution. However, they’re excellent coaches in a specific context. The more specific the school's culture, the more specific that context. And athletic cultures don't get more definitive than Boise St. and Butler.

"Why can't we play like that?"

Because they can't bring their program to you. It's bigger than they are. Their success at a new school will be in direct relation to how they adapt to their new reality as much as trying to run the Boise St. or Butler blueprint. They may well be able to do so, but the prior track record gives pause.

If Brad Stevens can build rapport with a 15 year old AAU kid who already has an entourage and plans for a shoe line as adeptly as he can find a hidden gem that will shine after three years of polish; if Chris Petersen can walk into Atlanta and win over a five star linebacker as easily as a two star quarterback from Missoula, then, by all means, back up the Brink's truck.

Until then: caveat emptor.