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Butler Boise State: Can Culture Be Duplicated?

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Butler and Boise State both entered into the national college sport consciousness at the beginning of the decade,

their first steps hesitant, with modest initial success quickly snowballing into an avalanche of accolades by the decade's end.


Butler, the overachieving unknown tournament heartbreaker (and scourge of the mighty Horizon League) has now notched improbable NCAA tournament wins over the likes of Wake Forest, Louisville, Maryland, now Syracuse, in the last few years. Currently featured prominently in the Elite Eight, as I'm sure all of your brackets reflect.

Boise State, the overachieving, underestimated giant slayer (and scourge of the WAC) with a 2-0 record in BCS games and a 39-1 record over the last three years; a likely Top 5 team in the preseason polls.

Both teams are non-traditional powers and it's safe to contend that no one considered metro Idaho or the fourth most famous basketball school in Indiana to be ripe for athletic dominance. Neither team is the beneficiary of a favorable demographic trend.

In recruiting, Boise State and Butler get the dregs: too small, too slow, too Caucasian, too fundamental. If the Butler Bulldogs put together an And 1 mix tape, it would be a bunch of guys hitting open three pointers, taking charges, and boxing out on rebounds. Their street handles would be Senzible Annuity and Plenny O Fiber. They prove the coaching motto that to score, you don't have to do it fast, you just have to do it well.

Boise State always features a towheaded QB, an iris-straining field surface, a penchant for taunting minor felons, and they sucker college football fans and opposing coaches into believing that they're a gadget, trick play team while they bludgeon defenses with a power running game and six-seconds-standing- in-the-pocket play action. They are gridiron gym rats.

Both teams turn it over as often Dick Vitale doesn't mention Duke.

Oh, one other thing: Both teams have created individual school cultures that engender wild success that aren't necessarily fungible or duplicable at better jobs. Despite what much of the media, athletic directors, and Joe Fan may tell you.

Since 2000, Boise State has had three head coaches; Butler has had four. I thought turnover at the top is the bane of collegiate success?

Let's dig into the Butler and Boise State exception.

Boise State has had three coaches responsible for their ten year run.

Dirk Koetter - Idaho kid, offensive genius, young hotshot - was the guy that brought the Broncos up from obscurity at the beginning of the decade. From 1998-2000, he went 26-10 at Boise (20-5 in his last 2 years) and he was the hottest young coaching prospect in college football.

He went to perpetually sleeping giant Arizona State and the Pac 10 titles did not roll in. Koetter went 40-34 there over six seasons, sporting a smooth 2-19 record against ranked teams. He was promptly fired and now is the offensive coordinator for the Jacksonville Jaguars.

His successor, Dan Hawkins - former Boise assistant, offensive genius, young hotshot - went 53-11 at Boise State over five years. Four WAC titles, three time WAC Coach of The Year. Was there a brighter young coaching prospect in 2005 than Dan Hawkins?

At Colorado, Hawkins channeled his promise into a 16-33 record, including a stellar 2-20 mark on road. This. Ain't. Intramurals?

The current coach at Boise - and the school's most wildly successful - is Chris Petersen. Guess what? He's an offensive genius. Young hotshot. Former Boise State assistant. Are we seeing a pattern yet? He's currently sporting a 49-4 record and is a two-time college coach of the year. Major teams have shown interest in Petersen, but he's staying put for now.

I wonder if he knows something that we don't?

Let's (seemingly) switch gears...

Butler has had four coaches responsible for their success since the beginning of the decade.

Barry Collier - the second winningest coach in Butler history after only 11 seasons - played for Butler in college and brought Butler to the NCAA Tourney in 3 of his last 4 years and had five 20+ win seasons at a school with only two 20+ winning seasons in its school history.

Collier left Butler for the greener, flatter pastures of Nebraska. There he amassed a smooth 89-91 record over six seasons, never made the NCAA tournament, and "resigned" to take the AD job at...Butler.

Butler assistant Thad Matta succeeded him for one year, went 24-8, and moved on to success at Xavier and Ohio State. It's worth noting that Matta is considered a solid X & O coach but distinguishes himself primarily as a recruiter. Some consider him the best recruiter in college basketball, second only to World Wide Wes. Should we link his success at bigger jobs with that attribute?

Yes, we should.

Former Butler assistant Todd Lickliter succeeds Matta and he's the next hot coaching prospect. In six seasons, he makes the NCAA tournament four times and wins the conference three. He's promptly snapped up by Iowa after the disastrous Steve Alford reign and Lickliter doubles down on Alford's failure with a 38-57 three year run at Iowa. Iowa fans yearn for the days of Dr. Tom Davis. And for a time when we called head coaches "Doctor" without irony.

Lickliter is now coaching junior high girl's basketball in Dubuque.

(He's not)

Right now, former Butler assistant Brad Stevens is the hottest young coach in college basketball. The Bulldogs are 89-14 in his three years and the program is at its apex. He is their Chris Petersen. Kevin Berger says back up the Brink's truck. Maybe.

The blueprint is clear at both Boise State and Butler: Continuity. Culture. Collaboration.

Former assistants replace a departing head coach, a system is kept intact, a shared culture unaltered and reinforced, a collaborative environment between AD, coach, alumni, players fostered. Alterations are made around the margins, never at the core. The recruiting knack for identifying undervalued talent is institutionally internalized, the development system carries on, and a society of gridiron and fieldhouse gym rats marches on.

That's the Butler Bulldog and Boise State Bronco way.

There's no doubt in my mind that Chris Petersen and Brad Stevens are very good coaches, but they're excellent in a very specific context.

Replicating their success should be as easy as hiring the current caretaker, right?