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Stevens continues to elevate Butler

RICHMOND, Va. -- The old-timer, a long-time fan of Butler basketball, couldn't quite lift his bag into the luggage holding area of the bus as the Bulldogs traveling party readied to depart for its big game at VCU earlier this month.

So a nice, young gentleman came along and helped him.

It was Brad Stevens.

No surprise there, really. Stevens has been carrying Butler for six years now.

On Wednesday, the new Big East made what it termed a "milestone announcement" for its fledgling league, making official the additions of Butler, Xavier and Creighton.

It's big news for the new league, giving it immediate hoops cachet from the East Coast to the Midwest.

But the more amazing piece in all of this is the stunning conference ladder-climbing for Butler. Last season, the Bulldogs were in the Horizon League; this season, they were the feather-in-the-cap addition for Bernadette McGlade, commissioner of the Atlantic 10; and now Butler is the essential building block to solidify the legitimacy of a new Big East -- thought so highly of that they'll be the only non-Catholic school in the conference.

And this has all happened because of one man, a man who is the least active social climber in all of college basketball. It's like the class nerd suddenly becoming the most popular kid in school.

"What you see is genuine,'' athletic director Barry Collier said. "At the end of the day, it's about the quality of the person, and with Brad, that comes across in everything he does. He doesn't think about himself at all, yet he's done so much for this university.''

Short of maybe Chris Petersen at Boise State, is there one coach who has done more to elevate an entire university than Stevens?

Maybe Mike Krzyzewski in his early days at Duke, but the Blue Devils were in the Final Four three years before Krzyzewski arrived and in the Elite Eight in Bill Foster's final season.

Maybe Mark Few at Gonzaga, though the Zags had guys named Dickau and Stockton before Few took over.

Sure, Butler was decent before Stevens. Tony Hinkle put the program on the map, Collier got the Bulldogs into the NCAA tournament and Todd Lickliter got them into the Sweet 16.

But mostly Butler basketball was a nice March diversion, largely ignored by America the other 11 months of the year.

Next season, the Bulldogs will tip it off against Georgetown, Villanova, Marquette, Providence, DePaul, Seton Hall and St. John's. All of those schools can cite thicker record books, but Butler immediately becomes the Big East member with the most recent Final Four appearance.

And the Bulldogs did it twice, in 2010 and '11.

"From where we were to where we are to even be considered, it's remarkable,'' Collier said before the news was official. "And to have it happen in this day and age, it shouldn't even be possible. It's so much harder to establish a brand now than it was 20 or 40 years ago.''

Yet into the clogged market strolls the Bulldogs, a small-enrollment and small(er)-budgeted team that has gone from charming story to national power. In 2010, the university hired media firms Borshoff and Meltwater to try to determine just how much the Bulldogs' Final Four exposure was worth. The number they came up with: $639,273,881.82. That's a slightly subjective number, taking into account media exposure through television, print and the Internet.

Slightly less subjective is the fact that sales of Butler athletic gear and donations to the athletic department were at an all-time high while applications to the university rose 41 percent. And that was before the Bulldogs' second Final Four.

Certainly the players, and not just Stevens, have a say in all this. Gordon Hayward, Matt Howard and Shelvin Mack left relatively large footprints behind.

Except the Bulldogs' appeal, what makes them so attractive to the new Big East (and once to the Atlantic 10), is more than just wins and losses. Hokey as it sounds, the attractiveness is in their blue-collar ethic and (almost) wholesomeness.

In a sport often stuck somewhere between a cesspool and a sewer, the Butler Way has become synonymous with the Right Way, above board and done with high-character players who reflect their high-character coach.

"Who he is, how he carries himself, it reflects back on us,'' Collier said. "And we're very lucky for it.''

The irony that it is Stevens doing all of this only makes it all the more entertaining. Plenty of people will read this column and nod in agreement. Not Stevens.

He'll hate it. Hate the concept, hate the attention. In a Kim Kardashian world, he is Greta Garbo, far more talented yet happiest in the shadows.

He is about simplicity and sanity. While other coaches melt down or explode, simmering boiling pots heaving under the pressure-cookers of their jobs, Stevens just moseys on. His completely subdued reaction to the Bulldogs' crazy win against Gonzaga was equal parts hilarious and honest.

For a few years there, his stoic refusal to even consider another job seemed foolhardy. Reality stars and young starlets have a longer shelf life than college basketball coaches. Stevens smiled politely at both the questions and the incredulity, trying to explain that what he had at Butler was plenty good, maybe even as good as what else was out there.

To his own way of thinking, he was right then.

Now with Stevens serving as bellboy, carrying the Bulldogs to a basketball penthouse, others might just agree.