While some interesting stories came out of the sports world this past year, none were as tumultuous as the sex abuse scandal that rocked Penn State University in Happy Valley, Pa.
The reason it was voted the biggest sports story of 2011, according to Yahoo!, was not only because of its scandalous nature but also because of the unblemished legacy that the school had built.
This legacy was largely credited to the late Joe Paterno, who was the head football coach at Penn State for 46 years. Paterno passed away last week due to complications with lung cancer.
So what does this have to do with Butler?
The basketball program here is similar to the football program at Penn State in many ways.
Paterno inherited a program that was good—but not great—just like Brad Stevens inherited a program in the same condition.
Each coach has also stressed the importance of academics.
Paterno dubbed his academic enthusiasm the “Grand Experiment,” as it blended the monikers student and athlete into the true meaning of the word “student-athlete.”
He believed it was possible to fuse the two words and ideas together, an unheralded thought at the time he started coaching.
First and foremost, Paterno was a mentor to his players—not only in football but also in life. By putting student-athletes first, he was able to achieve success on and off the gridiron.
As of 2007, Penn State football players had a 74 percent graduation rate, which was 19 percent above the national average at the time.
By the same token, Brad Stevens demands academic success as well.
Stevens’ teams posted perfect academic progress rates—a statistic determined by academic eligibility and retention of a team’s athletes—in two of his first three years as head coach at Butler.
When Paterno was first hired, people often confused Penn State for Penn, the Ivy League school in Philadelphia, because Penn State was not a household name in the world of college sports.
Before Stevens was hired, Butler was just another small mid-major capable of producing an upset.
The Nittany Lions’ football program rose to the national spotlight and became a powerhouse during Paterno’s tenure. This included two national championships and five undefeated seasons.
Stevens is now entering his fifth season as head coach at Butler. He boasts a 118-26 record and back-to-back appearances in the national championship game.
What is happening at Butler is something special. Brad Stevens is a special coach, worth every penny of the $554,941 he earned last year. Only 35, he has plenty of years left on the sidelines if he so desires.
Yet Stevens will never take credit for the success of his team. He is too humble a person for that, just like Paterno was. Stevens will graciously praise his players for the team’s success, not the other way around.
In that, he exemplifies a tradition of the school: The Butler Way.
While Stevens is a fundamental aspect of the recent success Butler has grown accustomed to, the players, the alumni and the fans are the ones contributing to the legacy upon which Stevens is rapidly building.
Hopefully Brad will take a page from Paterno’s book and stay at Butler for many years to come.