Kim Mulkey, Scott Drew and the Big 12: How Baylor basketball went from overshadowed to elite

Baylor basketball has seen drastic changes since joining the Big 12 in 1997. Josh Aguirre | Multimedia Editor

By DJ Ramirez | Sports Writer

Basketball in the ’90s was characterized by larger-than-life athletes and the birth of a serious sneaker obsession.

It was a decade marked by major moments on the hardwood, beginning with the assembly of the 1992 U.S. national team, more commonly known as the “Dream Team,” who won the gold at the Barcelona Olympics after steamrolling their international competition with a 8-0 record.

It was the era of Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, Larry Bird, Scottie Pippen and many other Hall of Famers.

On the college level, Kentucky continued to build on its basketball legacy and Duke was just beginning to grow theirs.

But for Baylor University, a school in the heart of Texas football country, basketball was not that big of a deal.

Baylor journalism senior lecturer Maxey Parrish, who worked as the sports information director for Baylor athletics and managed media relations for all of the sports programs at the university from 1980 to 2000, said basketball really took the backseat during the ’90s.

“I think it was more of a regional sport then. Very popular in the Northeast. Popular on the west coast, Midwest,” Parrish said. “But the South and Southwest, football country you know, and in many cases unfortunately basketball was kind of an afterthought. It was just kind of something you had to do. So back then it was much more regional in nature.”

For the Bears, the ’90s began with their only postseason appearance of the decade, their third under Gene Iba, who had coached them since 1985. Baylor was awarded a spot in the NIT but lost in the first round 84-75 to Mississippi State.

The biggest thing that happened for Baylor basketball in the ’90s was the switch from the Southwest Conference into the Big 12. Baylor Athletics assistant director for broadcasting John Morris, more commonly known as the “Voice of the Bears,” said it was a tough move since the Bears were “not at a good point.”

“Moving into the Big 12, we were the dregs of the Big 12 when we first started and unfortunately, in football and basketball,” Morris said. “So here’s all these new schools and new fans, who were Big 8 fans and were just discovering the new schools, and they look at Baylor who was like, you know, the cellar dweller. Which at that point we were. So it was unfortunate timing in that respect, that we were so far down in those two major sports as we went into the Big 12.”

A big reason the program struggled during that time was the fact that it had three coaching changes over the course of the decade. Iba left in ’92 and was replaced by Darrel Johnson, who was fired two years later for breaking NCAA rules. Harry Miller replaced him and was tasked with ushering the team into a new conference. The Bears finished ninth in their first year in the Big 12 with a 6-10 record and only improved to 8-8 in their second year. Dave Bliss then took over the program at the end of the ’90s and into the new millennia, but was also forced to resign due to another scandal that involved an NCAA investigation.

But two major things have changed for Baylor basketball: stability and funding.

According to Parrish, the latter is what’s changed the game the most in the past 20 years.

“There’s a far greater emphasis and a lot more money at stake today than there was in the ’90s. Basketball, particularly in this part of the country, really took a back seat to football. Football was king,” Parrish said. “But then basketball in this part of the country began to get better and better, and so schools started to put more emphasis on it, put more money into programs and things began to change tremendously as a result of the funding and the emphasis.”

Comparing things to how they are now, less money meant a smaller coaching staff. It meant traveling by bus anywhere you went instead of taking a chartered flight. When Parrish first became Baylor’s SID in the ’80s, the coaching staff for the basketball team was composed of two people. Then-head coach Jim Haller was also in charge of concessions at Floyd Casey Stadium during football games, and his assistant coach served as the academic adviser for every single athlete at the university.

Now there’s more funding in athletics, and not just by the schools but by outside sponsors such as Nike and Mountain Dew, there’s more opportunity for a larger staff to help run the program.

Which brings up the second biggest change in Baylor men’s basketball: the hiring of Scott Drew in 2003.

In the 16 years since Drew became head coach, he has mounted one of the most daunting and successful rebuilds in college basketball. More importantly, he has brought stability, which according to Morris has been a huge impact on the men’s program.

“From Baylor’s perspective we have great stability now. You know Coach Drew has been here 16 years. […] There’s been very little change in his staff during that time,” Morris said. “So that consistency of the staff has been really, really big. To me every time you change coaches, you take maybe one step forward and two steps back, until that coach gets established in recruiting and everything. So just to have the stability of Coach Drew for the past 16 years, that’s the biggest thing.”

In contrast to Baylor, the ’90s were significantly successful for Drew. While working as assistant coach under his father Homer Drew at Valparaiso, he helped lead the Crusaders to nine Mid-Con titles and was named National Recruiter of the Year in 1999. His younger brother, Bryce Drew, was also playing for Valpo late in the decade and is responsible for one of the most shocking wins in NCAA history when he hit a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to complete the a 70-69 upset of fourth-seeded Ole Miss to the 13th seeded Crusaders.

Morris said the Drew family has recently been named one of the top three coaching families in college basketball.

“The coaching Drews are the third winningest coaching family of all time. Like the Ibas, the Suttons are number two and the Drews are number three, so that’s pretty impressive for the Drew family,” Morris said.

If men’s basketball was taking a backseat to football in the ’90s, then women’s basketball was basically nonexistent. The Lady Bears recorded losing seasons in 13 of the 17 years prior to the Kim Mulkey era. If Drew had to rebuild the men’s program, Mulkey basically invented the women’s program.

When Morris was a student at Baylor, the women would play before the men and the only people who would show up were the fans who got to the stadium early in order get a good seat for the men’s games.

“You know, there just wasn’t a fan base for women’s basketball, but Coach Mulkey’s really cultivated that fan base and has a very, very loyal following. That’s a huge difference from the 90s till now with women’s basketball,” Morris said.

The thing that has changed for women’s basketball is not only that the players have more opportunity to develop their skill and athleticism, but the level of coaching is on another level. In the 19 years that she has been in Waco, Mulkey has coached the Lady Bears to 10 regular season conference titles as well as 10 conference tournament championships.

Parrish thinks Mulkey’s coaching has really been the difference in the growth of women’s basketball at Baylor.

“Kim Mulkey could coach a men’s team. There’s no doubt about it. She’s a great coach,” Parrish said. “Maybe of all sports, the greatest coach in Baylor history. They do a phenomenal job and it shows. Now they’re number one in the country.”

The women’s program has two national titles under Mulkey and is making its fourth trip to the NCAA Final Four this year. According to Parrish, women’s basketball is a “true team game” and the Lady Bears exemplify this by the way they play unselfishly on the court, and that might be the key to Mulkey’s team winning another national title this year.

Taking a look back at where the game was and where it is now, the future seems bright for the sport as a whole, especially at Baylor. Basketball in general continues to gain popularity. At Baylor, the expectations for success are higher, but so is the quality of play.