BOSTON — Frank Vogel is used to being mistaken for Brad Stevens around the Hoosier state. In Indiana, being the coach of the Pacers often puts Vogel as low as sixth in the pecking order in the basketball-crazed state, behind the coaches at IU, Purdue, Notre Dame, Butler and Valparaiso or Indiana State, depending on the season.
Even Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis superseded the Pacers for a while, thanks to current Pacer George Hill and a few down years for the NBA franchise.
So Vogel got used to being called “Brad” in public when Stevens was leading Butler into prominence. At least Vogel never needed to worry about the mistaken identity outside of Indy — until now.
Now, Vogel is at the helm of the best team in the NBA, yet he still sometimes takes a backseat to Stevens, and in a new location, no less. While at dinner on Thursday night in Boston, Vogel was twice mistaken for Stevens, for which he could only shake his head a day later.
“That’s not uncommon,” Vogel said before his Pacers took on Stevens’ Celtics at TD Garden on Friday. “It’s uncommon for it to happen here. It usually happens in Indianapolis.”
In that case, Vogel and Stevens really must have thrown their server for a loop when they sat down for a three-hour dinner conversation in Orlando shortly after Stevens was hired as the Celtics’ head coach. The two young, innovative coaches share more than just similar slight builds and a passion for basketball. The crossover in their paths to the pros is eerie, even if, in most of the cases, their paths never crossed directly.
Both bolstered their reputations in Indiana, Stevens as a native of the state and a player at DePauw University before joining Butler as a video assistant, Vogel as the unassuming coach of a Pacers team that seems to get better every year. Both have ties to the Celtics, Stevens as the 17th head coach in franchise history and Vogel as a video assistant under former Celtics coach Rick Pitino. Both originally pursued careers outside of sports, Stevens as an economics major and Vogel as a biology major.
They eventually fell into basketball, though, and Vogel beat Stevens to the NBA as an interim coach in 2011. So when Stevens accepted the Celtics’ job offer this summer, one of the first people he called was Vogel, whom he befriended while both coached in Indianapolis. But when asked about their meeting before facing off as coaches for the first time on Friday, neither could agree on who was the inquisitor and who was dropping the knowledge in their July meeting.
“I was picking his brain, because he’s a brilliant basketball mind,” Vogel said. “I was just sharing what the NBA’s like, some of the decisions he’s going to have to make and just gave him some of my insight of what I would do in some of those situations.”
Stevens claimed he was in the interviewer’s chair, and that he wouldn’t mind another three-hour sitdown next summer.
“I’d probably ask all different questions now that I’ve lived it, now that I’ve started to see it, because it’s definitely different than what I was used to,” Stevens said. “But he, like all the coaches I’ve talked to, have been great about, just stay the course and know that you’ve got to keep the big picture in mind, especially when you’re going through stretches like this.”
In the warped reality of NBA coaching, Vogel actually may have had the advantage by not starting out with a decorated college coaching career. One big question about Stevens’ hire is whether he can break the chain of up-and-coming college coaching phenoms who have failed miserably in the pros, such as Tim Floyd, Jim Calipari or Pitino.
But Stevens has an advantage those coaches — Calipari and Pitino, anyway — didn’t have, according to Vogel. Whereas college coaches are able to rule with an iron fist over players who can be in and out of school in less than a year, NBA coaches operate on the same level as their players, or lower. Vogel sees the style Stevens employed at Butler as an easy transition to the Celtics.
“A lot of college coaches don’t run their teams like it’s kind of a partnership with your players,” Vogel said. “It’s not a boss-employee relationship, it’s a partnership. I think he’s always done that, so it’s minor for him to continue to be himself and he’ll be successful.”
Less than an hour later, Vogel’s Pacers took the floor for what would be their 11th win of the season, tied with the San Antonio Spurs for the most in the NBA. The Celtics, despite a promising start to the game and a four-game win streak earlier in the season, suffered their sixth straight defeat. People may get Vogel and Stevens mixed up, but there is little chance anyone will confuse their teams at the moment.
After the win, however, Vogel did not take a metaphorical victory lap. He’s too close to Stevens to rub it in, and he’s seen too much of Stevens coaching up close to believe his team will have such a massive advantage for long. The Celtics don’t look like much now, but Stevens has made a career of developing modest talent in a contender, something Vogel has done himself. There’s no mistaking that.