If you’ve read the “about” page on this website, you know I grew up admiring Boston Globe writers Bob Ryan, Jackie MacMullan and Leigh Montville, so it was quite a career accomplishment when the Globe magazine accepted my pitch about the little-known friendship of Celtics coach Brad Stevens and Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels.
They believe relationship-building, a continued education in the craft, and a compulsive attention to detail are essentials to creating a winning culture, and those themes form the core of their camaraderie as they chase the legacies of Red Auerbach and Bill Belichick.
I’d like to thank each of you for helping me achieve this goal. There’s no doubt the content you’ve supported here helped me build the relationships to get this story off the ground and better prepared me to write it. I’m excited to continue reaching new heights with your help.
The story ran online this week and will appear in Sunday’s Boston Globe Magazine. I hope you read it. The original version was nearly twice as long. I cut a bunch for space reasons, and they cut some more to cater to their audience. Many of the deleted scenes were geared to diehard fans like yourselves, so I figured I’d share them here to read as an addendum:
McDaniels and Stevens are New Englanders now.
“When I first came here, I knew some of the history of this area, but certainly nowhere near what I know now,” says the 42-year-old McDaniels. “I came from the Midwest. This is definitely the East Coast. It’s a completely different atmosphere, and now this is home. Back in ‘01, when I first came here, it wasn’t home to me — yet. I didn’t know what to expect, and now three of my four kids have been born here, and the memories that we’ve made here and all the things that we’ve been able to do, this is home. It’s such a unique place.
“The history of the Celtics, the Red Sox, the Bruins, the Patriots, it’s such a tremendous, tremendous area to be a part of, and really these last 18 years have been pretty special. The Celtics won in ‘08, the Red Sox won three times, we’ve won a handful of championships, and the Bruins have, so it’s been a pretty cool time to grow up in this area with my my young family, my kids, my wife, and it’s one of the reasons why I first extended a hey and a welcome to Brad, because it’s different. It’s not Ohio or Indiana or anything like that.
“It’s a different place. It’s a tremendously supportive and fanatic environment, because they love their teams here. It’s a great place to coach and a tremendous place to raise a family.”
That was among Stevens’ first questions when they moved from Indianapolis five years ago.
“This is all brand new to us, to have a 12- and a 9-year-old, but it’s been great,” Brad says. “It’s been a great move for us. Our family loves the Northeast, and we have tried our best to open up our schedules in the summer to experience more of it. The connection to people like Josh with the Patriots or the Red Sox or the Bruins or some of the college teams has been really fun for my son and daughter and wife. We’ve all really enjoyed our connections to Boston sports. It did not take them long, nor me, to become a rabid sports fan.”
‘Grit’ and the continued education of a coach.
“You can talk about communication, you can talk about leadership, you can talk about development, you can talk about practice format, you can talk about meetings,” says McDaniels. “There are a lot of things that cross over in a lot of different sports that have nothing to do with a football play or a basketball set. We deal with a lot of the same challenges, and then when it comes down to X’s and O’s and all that, it’s different.”
“To be able to share thoughts,” adds Stevens, “knowing you’re talking to a coach who’s used to thinking that way, thinking about those things and sharing similar experiences is fun.”
Their idea of fun might be different from yours. The last book McDaniels read for fun was “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” If he can’t apply it to coaching, there’s not much use for it.
“The more you learn, the more you can incorporate that into coaching, the better chance you have to win,” says Brad’s wife, Tracy Stevens. “So, I think Brad is constantly trying to learn in a multitude of ways — listening to podcasts, reading. Anything he can find, he’s trying to learn from it, and I think that’s all driven by his desire to discover stuff he can use to help him make his team better. My sense is that Josh is very much the same way.”
If there’s a book about a coach, Josh’s father Thom McDaniels has it in his library. “Bo,” the story of Michigan football coaching legend Bo Schembechler, and “Sum It Up,” the autobiography by Tennessee women’s basketball coach Pat Summitt, are favorites. Thom has a tough time coming up with Christmas gifts for his fortunate son, and he’s found books like these to be his best option. In turn, the lessons find their way to Brad.
Their curriculum goes well beyond sports. McDaniels draws from his bible study group. Stevens discovered the work of Penn psychology professors Adam Grant and Angela Duckworth on the value of teamwork and perseverance, and their players reap the benefits. Stevens assigned Duckworth’s “Grit” to Gordon Hayward and set him up with McDaniels.
“They were getting ready for a Sunday game, and that was really cool,” says Hayward. “I got a chance to sit in on all the meetings — the main team meeting, met Belichick, and then I was with Josh the whole day, so I watched the offense, sat in the quarterbacks’ meeting. I got a chance to experience the whole thing. They are as prepared as they can be, and they know everything that they’re going to come across when they play their opponent.”
Sweating the small things.
Belichick credited McDaniels for his level of foresight against the Texans this past season. After a miscommunication between defensive backs left Patriots receiver Chris Hogan open for an 11-yard out, McDaniels noticed Houston’s Andre Hal and Jonathan Joseph setting their coverage straight, so he called the same play again, this time accounting for the adjustment, leaving Hogan open on an out-and-go that resulted in a 47-yard touchdown.
“It’s fun to see how how deep thinking they are with regard to every little nuance of every play,” says Stevens. “Then knowing how many of those you have to have prepared in a football game.”
The same can be said of Stevens. Hayward remembers making a last-minute shot to put his Jazz up one against the Celtics in March 2015, only to fall prey to his mentor’s preparation. Stevens knew from watching film that Utah’s Rodney Hood and Derrick Favors would switch when Tyler Zeller set a screen for Jae Crowder, so he told Zeller to slip to the basket, where he was open for a lob from Marcus Smart that resulted in a buzzer-beating layup.
Where Stevens credits McDaniels for pushing him to take an obsession to detail to a maniacal degree, McDaniels says his friend helps him better communicate that intricacy to his players. Neither will accept any credit for teaching the other, though.
“I’ve probably learned a lot more from him than he has from me,” says McDaniels. Counters Stevens: “He came to a practice of ours this year and just kind of watched and compared and contrasted things that we do with what they do, and probably walked out of here and said, ‘That guy doesn’t know what he’s doing.’”
The value of relationship-building.
Those closest to McDaniels will tell you his firing from the Broncos was the worst experience of his life. He arrived in Denver with a chip on his shoulder, resolved to prove he could meet every challenge the NFL threw at a 33-year-old and his young family. That his tenure there lasted all of 28 games and was marred by well-publicized clashes with star players was no doubt humbling.
“The easiest way for me to explain that to you is that the worst experience of his life, getting fired from Denver, has become the best experience of his life,” his father says. “That speaks to some maturity and growth, that you can take a very disappointing experience and learn from it.”
Two of the most important lessons McDaniels took from two years in Denver and a third as the offensive coordinator for a 2-14 Rams team in 2011: 1) Don’t ever let that happen again, and 2) The value of building relationships with players is worth every bit as the X’s and O’s, if not more.
Stevens understands this, too. When Hayward fractured his ankle five minutes into last season’s opener, Stevens was one of four people who lifted him onto the team plane. Back in Boston, Brad and Tracy sat with Hayward and his wife Robyn at the hospital until 3 a.m. When Hayward requested a basketball, Stevens delivered one the next day, before another game that night.
“For him to take the time like that, that definitely meant a lot,” says Hayward. “I know he had a lot on his mind, not just with the game we just played, but the Milwaukee game and then trying to figure out what he’s going to do for the rest of the season, so it definitely meant a lot to me.”
Networking in the industry is probably the topic Stevens and McDaniels discuss most — how best to relate to players, each with his own individual learning style, from different generations.
“I’ve probably learned a lot more from him than he has from me,” says McDaniels.
“I respect so much the effort that he puts into his craft, how much time and thought he does,” counters Stevens. “[…] Talking to leaders in any industry can be really helpful to us, but I think there’s just a uniqueness in these jobs that when you’re talking with people who are dealing with the everyday of professional sports and the challenges that come with trying to beat the other team, it just makes it even more special.”
Stevens and McDaniels find their way in the field.
Thom McDaniels had pull in Midwestern coaching circles, and when he set his son up as a graduate assistant on Nick Saban’s staff at Michigan State 19 years ago, he told him, “This is where your old man’s influence ends. It’s all about what you do for this guy and how well you do it. Whatever task he gives you, my advice is to do it better than anyone else has done it before.”
“I saw a guy who was extremely motivated, really had great work ethic, but he was very bright,” says Saban. “So, when you have a combination of a guy who really, really wants to learn and he’s very bright and he’s quick on the uptake and he’s got great work ethic, great people skills, could always relate to other folks, I knew that he would have a very, very bright future.”
Belichick didn’t work directly with McDaniels when he was hired as a personnel assistant at age 24 in 2001, but it didn’t take long to notice his impact. “He was smart,” says Belichick, “he picked up things quickly, was a great worker.” Within a year, McDaniels was a defensive assistant. Within three, he was Tom Brady’s quarterback coach. Within five, he was offensive coordinator.
Coaches and teammates saw diligence and brilliance in Stevens at an early age, too, and they were confident whatever path he chose, he would be a leader in the field. They just didn’t know then he would quit Ely Lilly to join Thad Matta’s staff as an unpaid assistant at Butler University.
Stevens’ high school teammate and friend Brandon Monk remembers an early 2000s trip to Alaska, where between fishing trips Stevens and Micah Shrewsberry would break down film.
“It was the first time I noticed Brad had really become an incredible student of breaking down offenses and defenses,” says Monk. “So much of Butler’s success was finding the niche in the other team and really taking that away and being able to articulate to every one of those players, ‘Hey, here’s the strength of your guy. Here’s what you’re going to try to take away.’”
Inside of a year at Butler, Stevens rose from low-level coordinator of basketball operations to full-time assistant. Less than six months after his 30th birthday, he was named head coach.
When brilliance meets determination.
Their wives will tell you that to call them brilliant, if not geniuses, isn’t entirely inaccurate, but it does ignore the amount of work they put into meeting the moment. (They will also tell you that their husbands’ abilities to fulfill household chores, like properly loading a dishwasher, contradicts this notion.)
“It’s not necessarily that he’s just a genius, it’s that he watches hours and hours of film,” says Tracy Stevens. “He knows what’s going to happen because he studied it. Sometimes it’s easier to just say, ‘Oh, he’s a genius,’ than to appreciate how much time he’s studying the game.”
“He was made for that job,” Laura McDaniels says of her husband. “I don’t know enough about the sport to be able to label someone a genius. I try not to take it for granted that we’ve had this success with the Patriots, because I really know that in five years we could be on the flip side of this, but I do use the word enigma a lot when I think about Bill and when I think about Josh. I know they’re super, super good at their jobs, and I know that that’s not everyone. … I just know that they are very unique.”
Both Stevens and McDaniels are quick to deflect praise, and they certainly don’t want to be labeled geniuses.
“Well,” says Stevens, “I think my IQ score, my SAT and other things would argue that pretty directly.”
— 30 —
Thanks again for reading. Can’t believe we’re reaching August’s end, and another training camp is almost upon us. I spoke to a number of players on the 2008 U.S. Olympic “Redeem Team” for a story that will run on Yahoo Sports on Friday. I asked some of them about their best Celtics stories, and I’ll have those for you next week. I think you’ll like them. Until then.