When the Final Four tips off this weekend, some familiar faces will be roaming the sidelines in Rick Pitino of Louisville and Jim Boeheim of Syracuse. Together, they have more than 1,575 career wins, have taken 48 trips to the NCAA tournament, making eleven Final Four Appearances and claiming two national titles. However, the hottest coaching commodities in college basketball and the coaches garnering the most attention these days are young enough to be these men’s sons.
In this tournament, we watched the rise of 43-year-old Andy Enfield, who led 15th seeded Florida Gulf Coast University on a Cinderella run to the Sweet 16 and this week accepted an offer from the University of Southern California. Enfield’s Cinderella story has outshined two coaches who consistently produce teams from lesser known schools that contend come tournament time.
Brad Stevens of Butler University and Shaka Smart of Virginia Commonwealth University are 36 and 35 years old respectively. Even so, they are already veterans of the NCAA Tournament as both coaches took their schools through the first round to the field of 32 this year. You likely remember the 2011 Final Four, where Smart and Stevens faced one another. Stevens’ team won the matchup before going down to defeat in the championship game. His Butler Bulldogs had finished as the national runner-up in 2010 as well. To put the duo’s early-career accomplishments in perspective, Jim Boeheim reached his first Final Four in his eleventh season as a head coach; Pitino, his eighth. Smart took VCU there in only his second year while Stevens guided Butler there in both his third and fourth years!
What have these two young coaches done to achieve success so rapidly? I’d like to highlight three commonalities in their journeys to the pinnacle of college basketball.
First, each man has been unafraid to bypass good opportunities to give full outlet to their passions. Shaka Smart has a fitting last name; he is highly intelligent and nearly aced the SAT in high school. He was admitted into Harvard, but he chose to attend Kenyon College in Ohio to play basketball. He starred as a point guard while at Kenyon, and he also graduated magna cum laude with a degree in history. His teachers told him that he had a promising future in academia. However, Smart was sold on basketball and pursued coaching instead.
During his junior year of college, Brad Stevens secured a job at global pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly. Though financially secure and on the fast track to corporate success, Stevens could not shake his love for basketball. In 2000, he resigned from Eli Lilly and moved into a friend’s basement in order to volunteer with Butler’s basketball program. He was about to start working at Applebee’s when Butler offered him a role as an assistant—for just $17,000 per year.
Second, each man made the most of a seemingly insignificant leadership platform, catching the eye of veteran coaches while working at summer basketball camps. Shaka Smart was such an upbeat, knowledgeable instructor at Dayton’s camp that the university’s head coach, Oliver Purnell, decided to hire him. Likewise, Brad Stevens impressed Butler coach Thad Matta while helping out at a summer camp. When Stevens quit his job at Eli Lilly, Matta gave him the volunteer opportunity at Butler that eventually turned into a full-time position.
Finally, each man pays diligent attention to the process—inspiring his team to give consistent effort every day. Though fiercely competitive, they put the emotions of winning and losing in the background and instead focus their energy on continuous improvement. Through this approach, Smart and Stevens shield their players from the emotional highs and lows of the season. They refuse to let their teams by defined by wins or losses. Rather, they stress the character development that happens daily through the course of each practice session or workout.
Take a look at your leadership. What good opportunities are standing in the way of pursuing your passions? What leadership platform are you not maximizing? Where can you refine your attention to the process? Where can you pay more diligent attention to continuous improvement?
Ideas for this article have been drawn from Shane Ryan’s profile of the two coaches on ESPN’s Grantland.com: