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Why Brad Stevens' departure means college hoops takes a big hit

By Matt Norlander | College Basketball Writer

It's undeniable that when college hoops loses a coach like Brad Stevens, it hurts the game. (USATSI)
It's undeniable that when college hoops loses a coach like Brad Stevens, it hurts the game. (USATSI)

If you didn't see the Brad-Stevens-to-the-Celtics news come up on your computer or via Twitter, if you were informed secondhand, I'm guessing your chain of thought and reaction was similar to mine.

First came the text message from my colleague, Jeff Borzello.

"You have a take on Stevens?"

What? Stevens who? What take? I was cooking dinner, and it was after 5 p.m. the day before the Fourth.

"He's going to the Celtics."

Who's going to the Celtics, Jeff, and why are you texting me NBA news right nowwwwaitaminute. Stevens. Celtics. Buh ... rad Stevens? Took the Celtics job? It took a good 20 seconds for that to compute. And then to the computer to confirm I went, because who could accept this news without seeing it from 10 sources? So, at first, there was disbelief. (Even Stevens' close friends were stupefied.)

Then came a downcast upon the realization that college hoops just lost a really good one, maybe an all-time great one. That was my most immediate thought once it was clear that Stevens was leaving a program that he'd elevated and a sport that he'd helped popularize in the past four seasons. We've addressed why Butler can be OK going forward and why the move makes sense -- and is the right one -- for both Stevens and the C's. When you think about it, Stevens is the ideal candidate for the job in Boston. And it's for that exact reason that this loss undeniably hurts college hoops. When someone so clearly qualified for an NBA job leaves behind college basketball, it's just bad for business. That seems clear.

College hoops is not a niche sport; I'll fight that notion for as long as millions of fans keep going to games and billions of dollars are spent broadcasting them. But it's also not a mainstream one. It's not as popular as pro or college football, and it's not as conversational as the NBA. In truth, it still jogs behind fading Major League Baseball in terms of popularity. But college hoops has big, deep pockets of fandom that have helped keep the game going and growing, despite the fact that team talent on the whole isn't as efficient, well-rounded, well-known or cosmetically appealing as it was 10, 20, 30 years ago.

A big part of why college basketball has been charming and engaging in the past half-decade is due to Butler and Brad Stevens. Haven't you noticed that? More Butler games on TV, more of your friends bringing up Stevens' name and the Bulldogs' rise. (How many other coaches of schools outside of major conferences can you or your friends call to mind?)

College basketball has been embraceable and damn exciting as of late because of the NCAA tournament and the Final Four runs from small programs. Butler is emblematic of that success. This program, and he was its coach, brought in casual fans and made the game more endearing. Butler bypassed Gonzaga in the last four years as the nation's pre-eminent loveable "small guy" program. Stevens brought credibility to college coaching and interest from casual fans. Hard to get both of those in today's game.

And those two title-game runs in 2010 and 2011 went a long way to breaking down expectations for mid-major programs and redefining what schools like Butler could do -- if they had the right coach and system.

That coach is now gone. And so a small school loses another one to more money and fame. But this loss brings bigger pangs than previous departures because no coach at that school reverberated or accelerated the growth of the program like Stevens. You could say no coach at any program has ever done what he has done in his 30s. The only logical comparison, of course, is VCU's Shaka Smart.

At this point, only Tony Hinkle, who has a name synonymous with Butler lore (and 559 wins spanning 1926-70), is more connotative to the school than Stevens, who's taking the ultimate personal and professional big leap by leaving the state of Indiana for the first time in his 36 years on this planet.

I don't want to be melodramatic, though. Brad Stevens leaving the college game doesn't mean the moral fabric of the sport is now suffering a major tear. It doesn't mean college basketball viewership on TV will take a big dip next season or that interest from fans will wane to any discernible degree. But it does mean the sport loses a big star well before anyone expected. If anything, the waiting game with Stevens would be whether and when he'd take a blue-blood gig. Not the NBA. That's the shock of the matter.

And what of Butler in the Big East? That's the other issue to address. The program has officially been in the league for not even four full days, and now I can't help but wonder if it belongs. If Brad Stevens leaves the program in March, does this school get invited to join the reconfigured conference? I don't think so. And that's where Stevens' impact speaks loudest. I just don't know if Butler can manage three NCAA tournament appearances in the next five years now that Stevens is gone.

If he was there? Forget possible; it'd be likely. Expected. He turned Butler into something bigger than anyone could have expected.

But now the school faces a huge test. And college basketball loses its brightest young star in coaching. He could be back; deep down, a lot of college basketball fans are probably rooting for Stevens to fail in Boston -- the way that Rick Pitino did -- so he will return to "where he belongs," they'll think. Its an increasing reality and way of life that the role of coach in the NBA is less centralized and important than it used to be.

It's the exact opposite in college. More and more, the coach means everything. And when one of the best and brightest leaves any field, the void normally only gets filled not by any person, but by the proxy of time.

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