Baylor basketball bursts onto the national scene.
A version of this piece was originally supposed to run in SLAM 147–which will debut on the site in a few days–but with the team having a bit of an off year, and a whole slew of even more timely college features and featurettes already set up, we decided to leave this one out of the book. But we couldn’t entirely hide this from our readers, as our man Rus Bradburd did a great job documenting Baylor basketball’s rise from little at all to a legitimate hoops program. Enjoy.–Ed.
by Rus Bradburd
At the end of the 20th Century, Baylor Basketball fans had little in their rear view window to be thankful for. The Bears had once qualified for the NCAA Tournament in 1988. Before that, you had dig deep: the 1950 squad went to the Final Four. Baylor basketball, it seemed, could not sink any deeper. Or could it?
Dave Bliss was hired to coach Baylor in 1999 and it seemed that after years of being lost in the wilderness, Baylor’s prayers were answered. Bliss was highly respected: he’d won nearly 500 Division I basketball games before he ever arrived in Waco, Texas. He had a long record of success, first at Oklahoma, then SMU, and New Mexico, where his teams played in seven NCAA tournaments and he remains the winningest coach in school history. But Bliss, like every one of his predecessors, struggled at Baylor. His best year? Baylor made the NIT tournament in 2001 after finishing in 8th place in the Big 12 Conference.
Then, in 2003, one of the most shocking scandals in basketball history shook Baylor.
In June of that year a red-shirted transfer named Patrick Denehy went missing. When his body was recovered, the news of whodunit sent shock waves through the world of college hoops – he’d been murdered by Carlton Dotson, a former Baylor player. Denehy and Dotson had been shooting pistols for target practice when an argument ensued. Not exactly the coach’s fault, but Bliss resigned soon thereafter. His troubles were just beginning.
Things got stickier when school officials learned that Denehy, who was not on scholarship, had a substantial amount of his tuition paid for by Bliss. That wasn’t good news by any measure, but neither was it the kind of thing that would make you disconnect your cable package for the college season. The news would get uglier, though.
In the August of 2003, it was revealed that Bliss had been involved in a terrible breach of ethics: when the investigation was closing in on him like a swarming press, he had gathered some players to tutor them on keeping their stories straight. And the storyline surrounding Denehy and his murder, Bliss said, should be that his death was related to a fictitious rumor of his being a drug dealer – in fact, drug money, he said, probably paid for Denehy’s tuition. Bliss didn’t count on that pep talk being tape-recorded by one of his assistant coaches.
Bliss never coached in college again, although he recently resurfaced as a high school coach in Texas.
Baylor, of course, got hammered with serious sanctions. Their probation included playing a 17-game season in 2005-2006, the first time an NCAA member school was not allowed to play pre-season games. Baylor was a terrible job, the common thinking among basketball coaches went; a basketball coach could not succeed in Waco, and certainly not while they were still in the Big 12.
Valparaiso University is less than an hour from Chicago, and a world away from Baylor. Their coach since 1987, the unassuming Homer Drew, has set the standard for over-achieving Division I schools, particularly in the second half of the 1990s, when Valpo was the Gonzaga of the Midwest. Remember the incredible run Butler had last season? It was unprecedented, sure, but folks in northwest Indiana were used to NCAA bids – Homer Drew has earned seven of them – for the often-overlooked and upset-minded Valparaiso Crusaders.
Valpo didn’t just rely on Chicago or Indiana for their recruiting, though. They spanned the globe and pulled in sleepers from everywhere. Leading the recruiting charge was often Homer’s eldest son, Scott Drew. Scott worked alongside his Midwestern-folksy father for ten seasons, taking over the team in 2002-2003 when Homer briefly retired.
Experts and media alike were perplexed, though, when Baylor, of the mighty Big 12, went to the little-known Mid-Continent Conference to hire Scott Drew away from his father. An assistant from Valparaiso? Surely a Big 12 school could do better. The hire didn’t make sense.
Scott Drew was perhaps the only one who imagined that the Valparaiso and Baylor jobs were actually similar. But after a closer look, he has a valid point. First, Valpo and Baylor are both medium-sized church-related schools. Valparaiso is Lutheran; Baylor is Baptist. While the recruiting challenges of being a Baptist school might have caused some coaches anxiety, Drew immediately sensed it was an advantage: the Baptist tradition is strong in many African-American communities, particularly in Texas and the South – just as the Lutherans are still a force in the Midwest.
Scott Drew, like the overly-optimistic Baylor administration, believed he was the perfect guy for the job. “You have to identify your niche,” Drew says today. That niche was clear to him in the subtle recruiting advantages. “Chicago is known as a melting pot, and that was just an hour from Valparaiso,” he says. “But Baylor is in Waco, and that’s a quick drive from Dallas-Fort Worth, San Antonio, or Houston.” Drew has taken advantage of that – this year’s Bears can count seven Texans on their roster.
Drew saw other positives where others saw drawbacks. He’d use the Baptist affiliation as a recruiting plus, and also the fact that Baylor could offer the only private school education in the Big 12. Waco isn’t known as a hotspot of culture or nightlife in Texas, but Drew even considered that in a new light: Waco, he learned, had the highest percentage of African-Americans of any Big 12 town. On top of that, Baylor boasts of the largest percentage of black students in the league
In fact, Baylor has a history of taking a progressive stance toward black athletes. For example, they were the first school in the old Texas-based Southwest Conference to put a black football player on the field, when, in September of 1966, John Westbrook played for the Bears. Tommy Bowman was the first black basketball player and played on the freshman team that same autumn. Baylor didn’t forget Bowman’s pioneering leadership role: he’s now serving on their Board of Regents.
“Our university had the foresight to push for equality long before other schools in our region,” Drew says. He reminds recruits and their parents of these plusses constantly.
Drew is happy to talk about the great recruits Baylor has, even his highly ranked incoming classes. But lost in all the talk about top-ranked recruiting classes is this fact: Drew, if the Baptists will excuse the expression, is also coaching the hell out of the Baylor Bears.
Take, for example, the story of last season’s star, Ekpe Udoh.
Udoh was considered a solid player at University of Michigan, where he averaged 6 points and 5 rebounds per game as a sophomore. Michigan finished 10-22 that year, though, and Udoh’s transfer to Baylor after that season was generally regarded with a shrug. But on last year’s 28-8 Baylor team, Udoh averaged 14 points and 10 rebounds, and he was the 6th player taken overall in the 2010 NBA Draft. His improvement, from role player on a weak team to star of an Elite Eight team, was nothing less than spectacular.
Yet Drew, who is quick to rave about the advantages of being at Baylor, is refreshingly modest, downplaying his own role in Udoh’s ascent. “My assistants did a great job with Ekpe,” he says, “and he learned a lot of fundamentals from [coach] John Beilein at Michigan.” And he won’t let anyone discuss Baylor basketball’s success without mentioning how well the university is doing in other sports.