Baylor basketball bursts onto the national scene.
However, success for the chronically optimistic Drew didn’t come quickly at Baylor. He was a late hire, getting to Waco in September of 2003, and he wouldn’t have been faulted for turning around and driving home to Valparaiso after the first season. Drew was 3-13 that year in Big 12 play. And things would get worse. A lot worse.
The Bears were 1-15 in the conference in 2005. And beginning the next year they wouldn’t win a single road game for the span of a couple more seasons. The experiment, hiring a young, inexperienced coach from the Lutheran school wasn’t working, nonbelievers said. Well, not yet. The turnaround – the Baptists would say it’s a miracle – took four full seasons.
The 2007-08 season, his fifth, was Scott Drew’s breakthrough year. His team finished with 21 wins, including a 9-7 record in the Big 12, and an NCAA bid. The team slipped a bit the following year, settling for an NIT bid before nearly winning the whole thing in NYC.
But 2010 was the year that Drew finally got the Bears singing from the same hymn sheet. They were 11-5 in the Big 12, and won three NCAA tournament games, beating a feisty St. Mary’s squad to qualify for the Elite Eight for the first time since 1950. Only Duke stood in the way of Baylor’s first Final Four appearance in over half a century. 47,500 fans – many in the green and gold so fashionable in Waco – saw Baylor lose to the eventual champions, 78-71 in Houston.
This year’s Baylor Bears are loaded again. Lacedarius Dunn, a 6-4 sharpshooter, set a Baylor record last year for points in a season. AJ Walton plays the point and leads the team in assists. The front line is a long-armed trio of talented Texans: Quincy Acy, Perry Jones III, and Anthony Jones are nearly impossible to even see over, especially when Baylor goes to their 2-3 zone. And Baylor is deep, too: a faithful flock of four subs also get substantial playing time.
But no player represents to Baylor spirit more than this year’s 6th Man, Fred Ellis, one of the few guys on the team not from Texas or the South. Ellis remembers how he got from Calfornia to Waco. “My mom was so excited when Coach Drew came to meet us,” he says. The family had (surprise!) a Baptist background.
Now a junior eligibility-wise, Ellis has already graduated: he was the first Baylor student to walk across the stage in his cap and gown at semester break in mid-December, and Ellis was even allowed to go first so he wouldn’t be late for practice. (Ellis isn’t the only graduate for Scott Drew’s Bears, either. In fact, the last nineteen seniors have graduated. Not coincidentally, this past December, Baylor had nearly two weeks of no games, and that lull happened during finals week in Waco.)
Like Baylor itself, Fred Ellis has had some dark days. He was buried deep on the bench in his first two seasons and scored a modest total of eighty points in that era, getting just six minutes of clock per game. With all that sitting around, he had plenty of time to consider the Baptist message and catchwords. “You have to have faith in yourself, too,” Ellis says now. “Coach Drew preaches that you never know when your opportunity will come.”
Some Baylor fans still thought Fred Ellis didn’t have a prayer for more playing time. But Ellis’s full name is Frederick Douglass Ellis Jr., and he seems to have inherited the relentless determination of his abolitionist namesake. Last fall he abolished his benchwarmer status, and he’s averaging nearly double figures while playing more than half the game. He even dropped in 14 points in the season opener.
Ellis’s degree is in Speech Communication, and he’s watched Scott Drew’s leadership skills closely, as well as Baylor’s impressive ascent as a consistently Top 20 team. It’s no wonder he’s applying for grad school in Sports Management. “Coach Drew is energetic, he’s positive, and he always has a plan,” Ellis says. “He could sell water to a whale. I guess you could say he’s a believer.”