By Matthew Soderberg | Editor-in-Chief
Scott Drew came to Waco with a bare cabinet. The head coach’s new squad had severe sanctions put in place for the first several years he was at Baylor. Then came an unprecedented 14-year run heightening to the pinnacle of men’s collegiate sports.
These were no normal sanctions. It wasn’t just misconduct at Baylor that sent the school to the eighth ring of hell. Patrick Dennehy, who transferred to Baylor from New Mexico in 2002 and redshirted the 2002-2003 season, was found shot and killed outside Waco in the summer of ‘03. Carlton Dotson, his former friend and teammate, pleaded guilty to Dennehy’s murder in 2005.
The NCAA and the school itself destroyed the men’s basketball program. Investigations revealed drug use and payments of players, cardinal sins for student-athletes. Scholarships and paid visits were revoked, a season of postseason play was disallowed and former coach Dave Bliss resigned as a 10-year show cause penalty was given as punishment. Drew recalled after the Arkansas win in this year’s tournament how optimistic he was despite the situation.
“Once we got into the season and you found out that most of your team were walk-ons and most of them weren’t over 6’2”, then you realized it might be tougher than you originally thought,” Drew said. “But obviously the goal was always to build a program that could consistently compete and have an opportunity to play in March.”
The Bears finished 21-53 in Drew’s first three years on campus, including 4-13 in their conference-only schedule in 2005-2006. Slowly but surely as the now-renowned coach got his players into town and the sanctions subsided, the tide turned. He remains thankful to this day for the dedication those early players have
“They laid the foundation. Those guys have stayed with the program and helped support these guys,” Drew said. “And that’s what you love, over 18 years, there’s so many people that put in hard work and sweat. All our past players that constantly come back in the summertime, constantly help our young guys, send them messages, encourage them. I mean, it’s their championship as much as ours.”
The First Swell
In Drew’s fourth year at Baylor, the team won 71% as many games as it had the previous three years combined, for a 15-16 record. Over the next 14 seasons, the Bears wouldn’t come close to having a losing record again.
The Green and Gold ran off records of 21-11, 24-15, 28-8, 18-13 and 30-8, including three trips to the NCAA Tournament and two to the Elite Eight. The Bears lost to Duke and Kentucky in their two fourth-round trips, both of which went on to win the title.
Drew built the foundation of success on the backs of both great and unheard of high school athletes. Curtis Jerrells (0 star recruit), LaceDarius Dunn (4 star), Ekpe Udoh (3 star transfer), Tweety Carter (4 star), Perry Jones III (5 star), Quincy Acy (0 star) and Pierre Jackson (3 star) all made major contributions on the team’s run to success in the first half of the coach’s tenure.
In non-consolation NCAA Tournament games prior to Drew’s arrival, Baylor was just 3-4 and had not made it to March Madness since 1988. Drew matched the school’s win total in his second appearance.
The former Valparaiso head coach was starting to leave a mark at a small Baptist school in Central Texas where no one thought anyone could succeed.
The Second Surge
After two trips to the penultimate weekend in three years, the Bears made one stop as NIT champions before posting six trips to the big dance in seven tries (and seven in eight if you count a probable No. 1 seed in 2020 before it was canceled). Baylor’s dominance in recruiting began to shine through as he built a powerhouse in Waco.
According to ESPN, Drew brought home the fifth-ranked class in 2012, No. 16 in 2013, No. 22 in 2020 and No. 10 in 2021.
The 2012 and 2013 classes brought memorable names for many fans to the Brazos. Isaiah Austin scored 13 PPG with 8.3 rebounds alongside Rico Gathers’ 5.7 and 5.7 in their freshman season. That class also set in concrete the length and size Baylor would be known for over the ensuing half-decade. Johnathan Motley continued the tradition in the next year’s class. Current senior MaCio Teague said Drew’s love for each and every player on the team is what stood out as he transferred in.
“He truly cares about the people and the program, truly cares about people and trying to put people in the best situation as possible,” Teague praised. “And I feel like that’s the reason that Coach Drew connects with people, because we feel that he cares about us.”
While recruits flowed in and the streak of 18+ win seasons continued, the team never did reach the pinnacle they had touched in 2010 and 2012. Nevertheless, the desire for more success maintained. Then came Jared Butler, Mark Vital, Davion Mitchell and Teague.
“That was one of my goals and I know some of my teammates’ goals, just to leave a legacy at Baylor, create Baylor as blue blood, and get guys coming to Baylor and seen as a highly touted, respected program,” Butler said. “And Coach Drew is the coach for it, and the staff is the staff for it. And that’s what I wanted to do.”
The core of the past two seasons stands untouched. Complemented by Freddie Gillespie, Devonte Bandoo and Tristan Clark last season and Flo Thamba, Matthew Mayer and Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua for the completed title, the Bears completed two seasons of unmatched success in program history.
A major change in coaching philosophy also contributed to the improvement. Drew modified from zone defense to aggressive man, capitalizing on the superior athletes in house.
“My dad’s a hall of fame coach for a reason. He taught me the good coach adjusts your style to the personnel you have,” Drew said. “We wanted to let them get after it. And we thought that would better suit our team. And credit to Coach [Jerome] Tang, Coach [Alvin] Brooks, Coach [John] Jakus for doing a great job implementing it. And because of that, we’ve been successful.”
With that change, the Bears started 24-1, including the first win at Kansas in program history. Baylor was slated for a one seed in the tournament and was among the top teams projected to make a run for the title. The Bears were 26-4, led by Butler’s All-American season and breakout campaigns from multiple of his teammates.
Then came the pause of all pauses and a ruling by the NCAA to not give an extra year of eligibility to winter sport athletes. After losing the chance for a title for the seniors, Drew said this season was all about honoring their efforts.
“It was great to see Freddie and Devonte and Tristan in the stands,” Drew said monday after winning the championship. “We knew last year they really wanted to have a chance to do this. And we weren’t going to have any regrets with this tournament. We wanted to leave it all on the court.”
And they did.
The team started a program-record 18-0, won its first conference championship since 1950 and advanced farther into the tournament than any other in school history. Butler won AP Big 12 Player of the Year alongside an All-American distinction, Mitchell won Naismith Defensive Player of the Year and Butler capped it all off with Most Outstanding Player of the NCAA Tournament.
And it all comes down to a coach hired in the midst of scandal and ridicule. A coach who treasures the institution of coaching.
“I value coaches,” Drew said. “Do they make their players better spiritually, academically, character wise? Are you preparing them for life? We call it champions for life at Baylor. So, really blessed that we were able to get to a Final Four and win a national championship because they’re hard to do.”