During the NCAA tournament, a religion reporter asked me about the faith of Butler University’s basketball coach Brad Stevens. A few of my siblings attended Butler and one of them has a bulldog so surely one of us would know Stevens’ religion, right? We did some Googling and asking around, but it took a while to figure it out. No one had really thought to ask because he didn’t exactly point to the sky after they continued to plow through the tournament.
We tend to see sports stories that include religion when it’s obvious or too hard for the reporter to ignore. You’ll see this in stories on Tim Tebow, Kurt Warner, David Robinson, Brigham Young University, etc. But it’s difficult to find stories where the reporter had to dig to find the surprising religion angle, where religion plays a role but it’s not obvious to everyone else.
Enter Robert King for the Indianapolis Star on this compelling piece on Stevens, the man who led his Cinderella team to the NCAA Championship Game the past two years. King juxtaposes Stevens with former Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy, who you all should know by now.
Stevens — who says he considers himself “about one-millionth” the person Dungy is in terms of character — has always thought faith should be something that’s lived out, rather than talked up. And, at 34, he feels like he’s someone who still has a lot of personal growth ahead of him.
“I’ve always said that part of growth is just doing it every day,” Stevens said in a recent interview about the faith that underlies his coaching and his life.
“Don’t talk about it. Do it. Be it.”
The story mentions the questions people have asked about how Stevens could be content at such a small school, looking beyond his talent for something deeper. King, being the sharp religion reporter that he is, did the digging.
Stevens talked about being happy at Butler and about the school’s values, which have come to be known as The Butler Way — selflessness, hard work, servanthood and humility.
But he never inserted his personal faith into the conversation.
Growing up attending Zionsville United Methodist Church, Stevens said, the most profound influence on his faith wasn’t a sermon or a church service. It was a weeklong youth mission trip to Texas and Louisiana.
“I don’t think we did anything earth-shattering, to be honest,” he said. “We got a lot more out of it than any of the physical or manual labor that we did for somebody else.”
King talks with Stevens’ wife about how she, as a Catholic, handled the church hunt. He writes that they tried several churches — Lutheran, Episcopal, Methodist, Catholic — before settling on a Methodist church, one of the largest in the city. He then explains how that plays out on the team.
Stevens said he considers the values that underpin the Butler basketball program to be “faith-based in their origin.” But when it comes to faith and his players, Stevens said, “I don’t think we preach, but we support.”
Player Ronald Nored, the son of an African Methodist Episcopal minister, said he has exchanged Bible verses with Stevens a few times. But he says his coach is hesitant to bring such things to the team. Even so, the example Stevens sets as a coach, father and husband has made an impression.
Not only does faith generally play a role his life, but his Methodist upbringing influences the way he talks about his faith (which is not very much), the piece argues. King notes the media coverage surrounding Stevens and the fact that while they didn’t note his faith, they noticed something.
Although members of the media covering Butler failed to get a fix on Stevens’ faith, they saw something in him they seemed to like.
The Washington Post described him as “uncontroversial, unjaded, unimpressed by the fame of his peers.” USA Today called him “the rare mid-level coach at the mid-level basketball program who can’t be bought.” The Chicago Sun-Times said Stevens was the “angelic” coach of “the squeaky-clean collection of players from Do-Gooder U.”
And just before this latest championship game, a Philadelphia Daily News sportswriter wrote that “Brad Stevens is Clark Kent. He is mild-mannered. He is intelligent. He clearly has superpowers. He just does not take off his suit to prove it.”
This story uncovers more of the Butler basketball story–maybe not a central one–but one that took some work. If more sports reporters looked beyond the observable stats and sky finger-pointing, they might find similar angles.