By all rights, the biggest mismatch between Duke and Butler in tonight's NCAA championship game should be the one on the sidelines. The Blue Devils' Mike Krzyzewski is at the top of the coaching pyramid and is going for his fourth national title. The Bulldogs' Brad Stevens is in only his third season as a head coach and, at 33, is the second-youngest coach ever to reach a title game.
But when you stand the two side by side, what you see in Stevens is a young Krzyzewski.
The Butler coach exudes confidence and calm during games, demonstrates intelligence and coaching acumen by how well-prepared his teams are and possesses an outward humility that expresses itself in his sincere respect for role models such as Krzyzewski while not allowing himself to get carried away by his own remarkable achievements.
"I think your description of him is right on," Krzyzewski said Sunday when I asked for his impression of those qualities in Stevens. "He's very smart. He's composed. He has shown amazing humility. I hope he takes all those attributes as he attains the success he's going to attain and he keeps them and [sets] an example for other coaches. He'll be somebody a lot of people will try to emulate. That's a good thing."
In the past two weeks, Stevens' team has taken out Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim and Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, two veterans who are just a cut below Krzyzewski. Stevens allowed as to how humbling it is just to share the same sideline, adding that they don't need to shake his hand, almost as if he's not worthy.
"I think the best way I can put it is: They write books, and I get to read 'em," Stevens said.
As a matter of fact, Stevens said the book he read on the flight to Italy for a preseason exhibition tour with the Bulldogs was Krzyzewski's "The Gold Standard" about his experience coaching America's top NBA pros to the gold medal in Beijing at the 2008 Olympics.
"When they decided he was going to be the Olympic coach," Stevens said, "that was thrilling to me because you knew he was going to get guys to all play together and really care about one another."
Asked later about the task of matching wits with Krzyzewski tonight, Stevens said, "He's a great game coach, a national champion, 11 Final Fours, an Olympic gold medalist. He's the best of the best. What I need to do is be as good as I can during that game. That's the only thing I can control."
As much as he respects the top coaches, Stevens said the only time he permitted himself to reflect on facing the greats was in his first year as head coach when Butler played Texas Tech, which was coached by former Indiana icon Bob Knight.
"That was really meaningful, not because of me coaching against him but because I grew up watching him," said Stevens, an Indiana native.
Knight, of course, hardly was the picture of calm on the sideline. He threw chairs, grabbed players and berated officials like few others.
Stevens is at the other end of the spectrum. He said the poem "If" by Rudyard Kipling always resonated for him. "I certainly believe, if you can keep your head while all about you are losing theirs, it's a good thing," Stevens said.
If it's close in the final seconds tonight, that calm reserve should serve Stevens well. To this point, he's tried not to think about the magnitude of Butler's accomplishment, but he admitted it hit him after beating Michigan State when he walked into his hotel room and saw his wife, Tracy.
"She kind of stared at me like, 'You guys are playing for the national championship,' " Stevens said. "I said, 'Yeah, but we're playing Duke.' "
And Mike Krzyzewski.