Brandon Miller cannot replace Brad Stevens, but he must be the best replacement
Whomever was hired to succeed Brad Stevens at Butler was going to have to deal with impossible expectations, following in the footsteps of the man with the winningest first six years in college basketball history. It’s pretty certain that no one would be able to match or surpass what Stevens did there, since no one had ever achieved to that extent anywhere before.
Butler is not in a unique situation in this respect. Very few programs are able to replace a legendary coach — and, yes, despite having just a handful of years on his resume, Stevens achieved legendarily at Butler. Kansas did it with Bill Self, and the man he replaced, Roy Williams, is doing a strong job of returning North Carolina to Dean Smith levels. You can argue other modern examples, but it’s rare, and it’s never coming from a guy who has not been a head coach before.
So it’s folly to examine Brandon Miller, the newly re-hired assistant coach who was bumped up to Butler’s big seat on Saturday, under that comparative prism. It is fair, though, to ask whether Butler, in sticking with the in-house succession process that has served the school extremely well to this point, did the best thing this time around, with its maiden season in the Big East looming.
Had he not left earlier this spring for South Alabama’s head job, Matthew Graves almost certainly would have been tapped as Stevens’ replacement. Graves’ work was a huge piece that helped fuel Stevens’ teams over the past several years, and his hiring would have made perfect sense. A standout Butler player and long-time assistant, he would have hit every checkbox for a good hire for this program at this time.
Stripped of that option, though, Butler only considered Miller and current Michigan assistant LaVall Jordan, an excellent recruiter and former Bulldog who was thought by many earlier this week to be the more likely of the two choices. Miller is also a former Bulldog star, having led the team in scoring as a senior in 2002-03, and having been hired twice by Stevens is as good a referral as a prospective coach could have. After the news broke that Miller would be the choice, Stevens immediately endorsed him.
Congratulations to the Millers. Brandon is an inspiring person and coach – just like he played! One of BU's all-time greats.
— Brad Stevens (@BCCoachStevens) July 6, 2013
Miller had to be hired the second time, though, because he left coaching for a year after the 2010-11 season, when he was working at Ohio State (under former Butler coach Thad Matta). After a year away from the sport, he returned as a special assistant at Illinois last season before being hired back by Butler in April after Graves left the staff. He’s ascended to the head coaching job without working a single game as an assistant in his second stint at the school.
Miller was widely regarded as a rising star in the business before he left it, so this is not a case of an unqualified hire. An inexperienced one, maybe, in terms of head-coaching expectations, but being young certainly didn’t hurt Stevens, or a number of other coaches thriving nationwide.
Should Butler have considered other options, though? The speed with which Barry Collier made the replacement speaks to a man with certainty about his fallback options, and the process has worked multiple times before for the school. But this is a new era of Butler basketball, with national expectations that make the job a bigger deal than any time in its history.
Stevens’ success set the school up to become part of the Big East, but now the head coach will have Fox Sports 1 money as part of his war chest. Miller shouldn’t be expected to win 28 games a year for the next six seasons, as Stevens just did at lower levels, but he will be expected to elevate Butler’s base standards. That means recruiting, scheduling and performing at a major-program level. For years, high-major fans scoffed that Butler could never survive a Big East schedule. Now, that’s the mandate.
It’s quite possible Collier made the best possible hire, and it’s understandable that he would trust a process that has worked before, but Collier’s process decision sets up the real question that will chase Miller as he builds Butler in his own mold. It’s not about whether Miller can be the next Brad Stevens. It’s about whether he was the best choice to follow him.