OK, Butler's a great story, and I realize that a certain amount of, "Hey, it's like that one movie where Gene Hackman gets to hump Barbara Hershey!" is inevitable here, but can we please leave John Wooden out of this?
Hoosier triumphalism is at high tide today, and Wooden, an Indiana native, is popping up again, saying nice things about Butler and delivering his standard basketball encyclicals with the air of the last good man in Gomorrah. Yahoo!'s Dan Wetzel sees a lot of Wooden in Butler's young coach, Brad Stevens:
Here in this era of wild men on the college sidelines –- screamers and stompers and showboats -– Stevens is a throw back to the days of Wooden, who like many from his day, rarely left his seat on the UCLA bench during games.
It is Wooden that Stevens acts like though. Both are sons of Indiana; Wooden from Martinsville, Stevens from Zionsville. They both strive to stay as straight as a row of corn.
"I enjoy watching [him] and very much enjoy their style of play," Wooden said. "It looks much different than most other teams today."
Wooden was a believer in preparation. He was a stickler for doing everything the right way –- on the first day of practice he famously would teach his players how to tie their shoes properly. He always felt if he did the preparation properly, the game would turn out fine. Stevens isn't all that different (minus the shoe tying lessons).
I'm on the record elsewhere as being somewhat circumspect about the legacy of Wooden, a great coach and by all accounts a swell guy who every year becomes less and less a man and more like something sculpted by the Borglums. Wetzel's one of the best columnists around — and he has written perceptively about Wooden in the past — but I think he gets the old coach wrong here. The 33-year-old Stevens may very well be the "kid coach with the old-school demeanor," but in every other way he is decidedly new school, and no more like John Wooden than Coach K is like Harpo Marx. (Imagine this guy bouncing Walton out of practice for having long hair.)
In fact, if you're looking for the spirit of Wooden — the real Wooden, not the one Rick Reilly carries around like a human binky — you'll find it all over this year's tournament, and I don't mean Brad Stevens's placid expression. The anal retentive who told his players what to eat (from Wooden's Practical Modern Basketball: "The meal usually consists of a ten-to-twelve-ounce steak broiled medium or an equivalent portion of lean roast beef, a small baked potato, a green vegetable, three pieces of celery, four small slices of melba toast, some honey, hot tea, and a dish of fruit cocktail. Occasionally, I let the player eat as he thinks best.") and what kind of socks to wear (50 percent wool) has a worthy heir in a relentless taskmaster like Mike Krzyzewski. The faux-naif who always pleaded ignorance while a UCLA booster named Sam Gilbert played Secret Santa with his starting five is not so different, in the end, from the oily guy who simply had no idea about Derrick Rose's SAT scores. And the dispenser of lame fortune-cookie platitudes about leadership is the spiritual ancestor to Rick Pitino and all that "success is a choice" crap the boy genius wrote in those spare moments when he wasn't choosing to succeed all over the tables of Kentucky restaurants.
These people, not Brad Stevens, are the true heirs to the Wooden legacy, and to the game's cult of the coach that sprang up in his wake. We prefer to think of Wooden's career as the divine grace from which basketball has fallen, but I don't see all that much difference in the sport today than in Wooden's time, except that it's better played and a lot more fun to watch, and that there are thankfully many more coaches like Stevens now — guys who approach basketball coolly, rationally, as a puzzle to be solved, not as a morality lesson to be delivered while meting out vegetables and checking the wool content of socks.