INDIANAPOLIS - It should be obvious that the Final Four experience isn’t the same for all four coaches who have survived and advanced to this point in the season. Their backgrounds are different and so are their philosophies and personalities.
But sometimes location, stereotypes and attitudes can define that experience. The open practice day at Lucas Oil Stadium on Friday certainly confirmed that.
Consider what the day was like for Butler coach Brad Stevens, the fresh-faced Wonder Boy of this coaching quartet. The Bulldogs are the hometown heroes, the unlikely entry in this Final Four, playing in a football stadium just six miles from their campus. Indy has gone gaga over Butler, pulling out the Jimmy Chitwood comparisons from “Hoosiers” and opening up Hinkle Fieldhouse like a 24-hour house of worship.
The Bulldogs were the first team to practice Friday and they were greeted by a standing ovation from around 25,000 fans. By the time their hour-long workout was complete, the lower bowl with a capacity of 29,000 was almost full. During his official interview session with the media, Stevens was asked to explain the bus ride to the stadium.
“My first thought was ‘How in the heck are we going to get to Lucas Oil Stadium?’ ” Stevens said. “The cars were lined up, people were waling in the streets. We got a couple of scowls and bad looks from Michigan State and Duke fans. Other than that, it was all cheering and happy.”
Then consider the day’s events for coach Mike Krzyzewski, who has Duke in the Final Four for the 11th time. In case you are wondering, that ties for the second-most appearances in NCAA history. It also comprises one-third of Stevens’ entire life. He’s only 33.
One of the themes during this NCAA tournament has focused on the perception that Duke was given an easy path to Indianapolis. That leads to stories on how much America loves to hate Duke. The Indianapolis Star decided to examine that angle in its Friday’s editions. The headline read “Boo Devils.” A photo of Krzyzewski suggested he plays the role of Darth Vader, coach of the Evil Empire.
And that was the tame stuff. Early editions of the Star turned that photo into an illustration, including blue ink-pen additions to Krzyzewski that included horns, glasses, a curly mustache, glasses, unflattering moles and a target on his forehead. The illustration was pulled from the newspapers’ later editions.
Krzyzewski didn’t bring the matter up but he was asked about it during his time on the podium Friday. He had seen it. At first, he said, he thought somebody had “doodled” on his edition.
“That can’t be,” he said. “How could a newspaper do that? ... It was kind of juvenile. Not kind of, it was just juvenile. You, know my seven grandkids didn’t enjoy looking at it. ‘That’s not Papi.’ It is what it is.”
Duke haters will take that response and turn it against Coach K. There’s nothing he can do about it at this point. Winning — or losing — in Indy isn’t going to change the fact that the Blue Devils have become college basketball’s version of the Yankees. And here, they are certainly villains to all the Butler fans.
“If we’re going to be despised or hated by anybody because we go to school and we want to win ... you know what, that’s your problem,” Krzyzewski said. “If you don’t like it, keep drawing pictures, you know, just keep drawing pictures. Try to do them a little better than that, though.”
The coaches are the stars of this Final Four, so it’s interesting to compare and contrast them. Krzyzewski, with three NCAA championships and 75 NCAA tournament wins (most ever), could be likened to an old wizard here. He views everything through eyeglasses of experience. He’ll never win as many titles as UCLA coach John Wooden, the Wizard of Westwood, but he might be more Yoda than the Darth Vader depiction from the Indianapolis Star.
“He’s probably, I would guess, the most successful coach in the history of the NCAA tournament in terms of longevity and keeping things going,” West Virginia coach Bob Huggins said. “You can’t be considered one of the them until you really are one of them.”
Huggins has become a low talker, the type of guest who would be ostracized on a Seinfeld episode. This is his first Final Four since 1992 when he was with Cincinnati. He has virtually reinvented himself this month, showing a softer side and allowing himself to have tears when West Virginia won the Big East tournament.
If there are fans watching Saturday’s semifinal between West Virginia and Duke and they haven’t seen Huggins in a while, they might be confused by him and his team’s image. The Mountaineers aren’t playing in their hometown but they’ve got the entire state of West Virginia singing along to “Country Roads.”
John Denver would be proud.
“I don’t think I’m a whole lot different,” Huggins said, comparing himself to the 1992 Huggy. “Obviously I’m older. Hopefully as you get older and you experience a lot of things, you get smarter.
“I told our guys when I came in here [in 2007] that we were going to win the national championship. That’s what we want to do.”
Then there’s Michigan State’s Tom Izzo, in the Final Four for the sixth time in 12 years with the Spartans. He can give his career a different level of validation with a second NCAA championship. He may have the most to gain here, but he still carries himself with so much humility.
“It’s easier for me because I’ve had someone to look at and how he’s done it,” Izzo said of Krzyzewski. “I’ve read his books and watched him. I think what’s most incredible is he’s done it in recruiting, he’s done it on the court, he’s done it in the classroom, he’s done it with class.
“I can only say that I feel very fortunate and lucky that we’ve gone to the six. Some of it’s been with good teams. Some of it’s we’ve gotten lucky in the tournament.”
It’s enough to make you wonder if Izzo, Huggins and Krzyzewski envy Stevens. The Butler coach has to face Izzo on Saturday. If the Bulldogs when that one, then it would Stevens vs. Huggy or Coach K. But don’t expect Stevens to look rattled. He’s always calm, cool and collected — and so damn young looking.
Stevens was asked Friday if he stays as calm inside as he looks outside. He was asked where the calmness comes from. He talked about returning from the recruiting period in July two years ago. His flight from Orlando encountered a great deal of turbulence.
“We were probably on [the plane] with 30 kids who had all been to Disney World,” Stevens said. “I swear to you, 20 of them just raised theirs hands in the air and screamed like they were on a rollercoaster. It was a quick reminder to me that attitude is everything, outlook is everything and move on to the next play. Every time I’ve hit turbulence since then, I’ve been pretty excited.”
“When I first got the job at Butler, one of the best pieces of advice I got was from Sean Miller, who now is the head coach at Arizona. He said it’s hard when you take over a program that has always been successful because you’re always thinking about ways that is has to be done. He said, ‘The most important thing you can do is be yourself.’
“So, I am who I am. My age is what it is. My age has no factor on how our team plays. My job is just to try to get them to play as well as we can.”
Pretty wise advice from the Boy Wonder. It’s enough to make you think he’s been here before.