Q&A with Kent Millard

Under Brad Stevens, the Butler University men’s basketball team has built an amazing record, twice reaching the NCAA Finals in a field of much bigger schools.

Coach Stevens and his wife Tracy are active members at St. Luke’s UMC in Indianapolis, Ind. The Rev. Kent Millard, retired pastor at St. Luke’s, has co-written with Judith Cebola a new book from Abingdon Press called Lead Like Butler: Six Principles for Values-Based Leaders, which elaborates Mr. Stevens’ philosophy.

Dr. Millard answered questions from UMR’s Sam Hodges, who edited the interview as follows.

If Butler is David and the big schools are Goliath, what is Butler’s slingshot?

Teamwork. It’s a college of 4,000 with a modest recruiting budget and is always recruiting fairly unknown talent. Brad Stevens brings them together as a well-oiled team that cares about each other. It shows over and over again that in basketball, as in life, team players are ultimately more fruitful than solo performers.

Are you enough of a student of basketball to say how the “Butler way” translates into court action? Is it more passing, grittier defense, a higher percentage of free throws?

Kent Millard

I think it is complete focus and attention on the present moment, on doing what’s necessary, whatever that is. The Butler players seem to be fully present and aware in every action. No one’s mind is wandering.

And Brad Stevens is a basketball savant, in terms of studying the game and knowing his players.

In the foreword to the book, Coach Stevens gives four bullet points for the “Butler Way”—“Place the well-being of teammates before individual desires.” “Embrace the process of growth.” “Execute the Butler system.” “Demonstrate toughness in every circumstance.” But your book is divided into chapters devoted to character traits: humility, passion, unity, servanthood, thankfulness, accountability.

These are the six characteristics that Brad maintains are the basis of developing character. In the introduction, I use the pyramid that Brad uses when he speaks publicly. The base of the pyramid is character. He says you work on character first. Then, he says, you work on preparation. So they have intense practices. I’ve been to closed-door practices, and they rehearse every inbound play, over and over. Then you have performance, which is the game, and you have results, which is whether you won or lost. He says everybody focuses on the top of the pyramid, but when you lose a game you should go back to the base and ask, “What character traits were we not practicing?”

Dick Bennett and Barry Collier (former coaches at University of Wisconsin and Butler, respectively) had the first five principles. Brad added the sixth, accountability, after he read the book QBQ! The Question Behind the Question by John G. Miller. Miller says the only thing we should do when something goes wrong is ask, “What can I do to make it better?” You don’t blame or complain. Brad requires every player to read that book and write a paper on it. So when they’re practicing or playing a game, and a player starts down the road of criticizing or complaining, he just says to them, “QBQ.”

You were Coach Stevens’ pastor. How would you sum him up as a practicing Christian?

Brad and Tracy would always come late to a service and sit in the back and leave early because they didn’t want any recognition. When I was invited back to St. Luke’s recently to preach on the book, he said he didn’t want to come and sit there and hear himself spoken of positively. There’s a deep well of humility.

About his personal faith, he’s very private. But I was over there once, doing some interviews [for the book], and he told me I could go in his office and see the signs on the walls. He had his Bible in there—a Fellowship of Christian Athletes Bible. I picked it up and found lots of things underlined. He had slips of paper where he’d written out verses he wanted to remember.

If you ask him, he would say, “I don’t pray enough. I don’t study enough.” But I found him admirable in his practices.

I shouldn’t be talking about people’s giving record, but he and Tracy are very generous about supporting the church.

In the introduction, you describe his approach to recruiting as “countercultural,” noting that he has sometimes discouraged highly talented prospects because he didn’t think Butler would be a good academic fit for them. Isn’t there a lot that’s countercultural about Butler, beginning with Coach Stevens’ deciding to stay there rather than bolt for a bigger program?

That’s important. The first year Butler made the NCAA Finals, he had offers. After the second time, he was pressured greatly, offered huge salaries to go to other universities. I asked him about that, and he said, “I’m overcompensated here. Why would I leave my family, my friends, a university I love, just for money?”

While the book is mostly about the men’s team, the women’s team at Butler, under Coach Beth Couture, also get mentioned. What’s the story there?

One of the things that Brad insisted on is that we talk to Beth, because the women’s team also models these values and virtues. She and the women’s team obviously don’t get the same exposure. Brad bemoans that.

For pastors and church staffs, what would be the most important lessons to learn from basketball as it’s done at Butler?

One of the biggest problems we have is the egos of clergy. Clergy don’t get along with each other. Clergy have a hard time in succession issues, when one pastor leaves and another comes. A lot of clergy have a hard time working on

Coach Brad Stevens, an active member of St. Luke’s UMC in Indianapolis, has taken underdog Butler University to two NCAA men’s basketball finals. BUTLER UNIVERSITY PHOTO COURTESY UNITED METHODIST NEWS SERVICE

staff together because of a lack of humility and teamwork and seeing ourselves first of all as servants, and living with gratitude as a fundamental attitude. These are qualities that all leaders need.

In the United Methodist Church, one of the four main emphases is developing principled leaders. I think if lay and clergy leaders practiced these principles, they’d not only be more fruitful and effective, but more fulfilled.

Is there anything the UMC as a denomination, as it faces internal division and membership decline in the United States, can learn from basketball as it’s played at Butler?

I think when congregations see themselves as compassionate servants to their community, people will respond positively. As people see the UMC more as a servant to improving people’s lives physically, spiritually, relationally, in a community, then the United Methodist Church will rebound.

Butler is ranked in the top 20 and in December beat top-ranked Indiana by two points in overtime. What’s your prediction for how Butler will finish?

It’s hard to predict. Every team that plays Butler knows that Butler is capable of beating any particular team on a given night. . . . They’ll be contenders. Let me put it that way.


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Sam Hodges, Former Managing Editor, UMR

Sam Hodges

Sam Hodges was the managing editor of The United Methodist Reporter from 2011-2013. A formee reporter for the Dallas Morning News and the Charlotte Observer, Sam is a respected voice in United Methodist journalism.

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