WACO — On the morning after his team rose to No. 1 in the country for the third straight season, Scott Drew, at the appointed time, opened his office door with a welcoming smile and souvenir T-shirt.
Naturally it was a Baylor 2020-21 NCAA men’s basketball national championship shirt. A wearable reminder of the first such title by a Texas school in 55 years and a subtle way to spread the gospel of Bears basketball.
Eight months after its One Shining Moment, Baylor’s afterglow has hardly dimmed as this season’s Bears have surged to the top ranking with a rebooted roster, relentless defense and 11-0 record.
“For us as a staff it’s really exciting,” Drew said. “Because normally when you win a championship you lose too much talent and experience to graduation or the pros to even have a chance the following year.”
T-shirts eventually fade, but unlike 1966 champion Texas Western and Lone Star State schools since, Baylor under 19th-year coach Drew appears to have entrenched itself as a national force with staying power.
Baylor’s 65-6 record since the start of the 2019-20 season is the best among Power Five schools. Had the coronavirus not caused the cancellation of the 2020 NCAA Tournament, who’s to say that season’s fifth-ranked 26-4 Bears wouldn’t have won it?
“We’d have had a chance,” Drew said with a hint of wistfulness, but quickly brightening. “But as I said, exciting times right now.”
Prolonging this Baylor-gold beacon is important to Drew, Baylor’s fan base and the university itself for deeper reasons than wins, titles and prestige. Those reasons are symbolized in three letters on the national championship T-shirt.
Every avowed Baylorite knows what it means, but for the unaware, it’s the acronymic proverb that Bears coaches and players say describes the program’s culture and was a guide star to the championship.
Jesus. Others. Yourself. Always in that order.
Such spiritual overtness is uncommon for most colleges, perhaps even dissuaded, but the story of Baylor basketball cannot adequately be told without JOY and its larger meaning.
Yes, it’s also a two-decade story about Bears basketball’s rise from the ashes of academic scandal, murder and cover-up under Drew’s predecessor, Dave Bliss, but for Drew it’s mostly about God’s role in the journey. JOY is as much a part of Drew’s program’s fabric as the T-shirt’s.
At 51, Drew is the youngest active coach with a men’s or women’s Division I basketball title, but of greater significance to him, a passionate evangelist for the world’s largest Baptist university and its tenets.
As Baylor prepares for this week’s start of Big 12 play, and defense of the program’s first conference title in 71 years, the national championship and current top ranking provide wider, positive visibility.
“At the end of the day, it’s God’s platform,” Drew said. “That’s what we care about.”
Here in Waco, the self-proclaimed if not-quite geographic heart of Texas and home of Chip and Joanna Gaines’ Magnolia empire, God’s platform has never been more elevated.
Baylor’s sixth-ranked Big 12 champion football team is preparing to play in Saturday’s Sugar Bowl, coronavirus-willing. Despite three-time national champion coach Kim Mulkey’s stunning exodus to LSU last April, the Lady Bears women’s basketball team is No. 10 in the country under coach Nicki Collen.
Last week, Waco’s city council unanimously approved a $700 million joint project with Baylor that includes construction of a $185 million downtown home for the men’s and women’s basketball teams, Foster Pavilion, along the Brazos riverfront.
Men’s basketball recruiting is sizzling. The 2021 class, headlined by 5-star forward Kendall Brown, already perhaps college basketball’s most dynamic dunker, was ranked No. 4 nationally by ESPN.
The 2022 class, ranked 13th nationally, is led by iSchool of Lewisville product Keyonte George, at No. 3 the highest-ranked recruit in program history.
When Brown chose Baylor over Kansas and Arizona, he said one of the draws was the program’s foundation in faith, which reminded him of his Kansas high school, Sunrise Christian.
“You know, this is the first place I’ve been to where we pray to have the right kids in our program,” said Bears assistant coach Alvin Brooks III, in his sixth season at Baylor after tenures at Midland Junior College, Bradley, Sam Houston State and Kansas State. “Obviously at other schools you can’t involve God as much, but by us being a Christian school, we can.”
Brooks says the coaching staff prays before every meeting, and the team prays before and after every practice and game.
He recalls a day four years ago when an elite recruit told Baylor he was committing elsewhere. Consumed in their innate competiveness, several assistants became upset. Then, Brooks says, the staff noted the moment of hypocrisy.
“We just prayed for God to send us the right people, so how can we be mad when, on the same day this kid calls and says no to us?”
During his season at Kansas State, Brooks weighed offers from TCU and Baylor. He initially committed to TCU, heeding the advice of many in his inner-circle because, they said, going to Baylor meant “career suicide.”
The next morning he woke up with a knot in his stomach, began praying harder and ultimately changed his mind. Not long after moving to Waco, Brooks and his wife, Tiffany, learned that their two young sons have autism.
It so happens that the Baylor’s education school’s center for developmental disabilities has one of the nation’s most renowned autism resource clinics.
“We came here based on God,” Brooks said. “Only God could do that.”
The tight rectangle of coaches’ offices in Baylor’s Lt. Jack Whetsel Jr. practice facility line a short hallway that leads to Drew’s corner office, overlooking the practice court.
All seven assistants have been at Baylor for at least five years. Associate head coach Jerome Tang has been on staff for all 19 of Drew’s seasons. Special assistant and director of player development Jared Nuness is in his 12th season.
Five years ago Drew hired Bill Peterson, who spent more than a decade with the Mavericks (1999-2000), Bucks and Magic, adding an NBA-like player-development structure, unusual for a college program.
Five Baylor products are on NBA rosters, including title-team stalwarts Davion Mitchell and Jared Butler. Peterson says Brown, too, is destined for the NBA, though early this season Peterson bluntly informed Brown that he needed serious work on his left-hand dribbling.
Peterson says Brown has devoutly worked after practices to remedy that weakness, and in a recent game crossed over from his right hand to his left as he passed midcourt, dribbled three times and knifed to the rim. During the next timeout, Brown winked at Peterson.
“Most college coaches won’t bring in someone with an NBA background,” Peterson says. “There’s a connotation out there that NBA guys sometimes come off as know-it-alls.
“Scott always says to me, ‘I’m not stupid. I’m smart. I want to win, OK? And if I think it’s going to help me win, we’ll figure out how to do it.’”
Of the Baylor assistants, Nuness has the most unique perspective on Drew’s coaching evolution.
Nuness played point guard at Valparaiso from 1997 to 2002 under Drew’s father, Homer. Scott Drew was an assistant from 1993 to 2002, forging a reputation as an exceptional recruiter and culler of lengthy numbers- and tendencies-driven scouting reports well before analytics came into vogue.
“We had so many foreigners on our team, at one point there was three that didn’t even speak English,” Nuness said with a laugh. “Here I was, trying to call plays. But they were such good players because that’s who he is, going above and beyond to find the right kids.”
Two of this season’s Baylor anchors and title-team returnees are the rugged 6-10 Flo Thamba of the Republic of Congo and 6-8 Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua of Cameroon.
And scouting reports are so fine-tuned, Bears players are even apprised of individual referee tendencies, including how many times they dribble before tossing the ball for the opening tip. Every possession matters, after all.
“Sometimes our biggest strength is our biggest weakness,” Nuness said. “And sometimes we have to tell Coach, ‘We’re good. We got it. We’ve covered everything.’ There’s always something that he’s worried about, that maybe we didn’t prepare the guys enough.”
On the night of March 5, after the final seconds ticked down in Baylor’s 86-70 championship game victory over Gonzaga in Indianapolis, Nuness found himself shoulder to shoulder with Drew, watching “One Shining Moment” on the JumboTron, through showering confetti.
Nuness says he thought about the misperceptions he’s heard about Drew and Baylor through the years:
Coach Drew can’t coach.
How do they get things done, being Christians?
They must be cheating.
“I just said, ‘Coach, the most important thing for me about winning this championship is that you will finally get respected the way that you deserve to get respected,” Nuness said, adding that for a few seconds Drew looked uncomfortable, the way he usually gets when people talk about him.
What thoughts were swirling in Drew’s mind in that moment?
“I was focused on the J and the O, seeing our players’ excitement and joy and our fans’ excitement and joy,” he said. “And, obviously, the platform God blessed us with.”
COVID-19 caused that entire NCAA Tournament to be played in Indiana, with limited game attendance and players and coaches sequestered even from their families.
The virus, though, didn’t prevent thousands of fans from greeting the victorious Bears at the Waco airport. Or from the city feting the team with a parade.
The Bears were honored at the state Capitol and by Dallas County at a mid-May Mavericks game, although in the latter case social-distancing measures confined them to the American Airlines Center’s mezzanine level.
The virus has contributed to the delay of the title team being honored at the White House, but Drew says discussions continue and he’s confident a visit will happen, adding “President Biden’s pretty busy, too.”
Drew’s staff refers to the extra time commitments as fortunate “championship problems.” A production crew has spent recent weeks with the Baylor men’s and women’s teams for an upcoming 12-episode ESPN-plus documentary titled Our Time.
Drew says he isn’t sure whether screenwriter, director and Baylor alumnus John Lee Hancock will follow through on his pre-Final Four pledge to produce a movie about Bears basketball’s rise from scandal and disgrace.
“The only thing I know is they have to find a better-looking actor than me; that should be easy,” Drew said. “But I know as a coach, it’s a great story to talk about: What the players were able to achieve and winning the first championship at Baylor.
“If that provides inspiration for young kids out there and brings recognition and honor to the players for what they’ve done, that’s great.”
Two weeks ago, Baylor hosted Villanova in the Ferrell Center in a showdown between schools that have combined to win two of the last three NCAA titles.
It also was a Catholic school against a Baptist university, on a Sunday afternoon, on ABC.
The pregame prayer offered thanks and blessings to all participants, including the referees, culminating with a collective “Amen” from seemingly all 10,284 gatherers.
During then-No. 2 Baylor’s 21-point pummeling of the Wildcats, fans in the arena concourse took turns posing with the gleaming national championship trophy.
“It’s exciting,” guard Adam Flagler said of the Bears’ impending rise to No. 1. “But we honestly don’t really think about that. Like Coach Drew says, the most important thing is being No. 1 at the end.”
How long can the sheen remain bright? Age-wise, Drew is in a career sweet spot, with a strong recruiting class and new arena on the horizon.
“I prayed about coming to Baylor, felt led to come here,” he said. “And as long as Baylor University and God want me here, I’ll be here. Each and every day, it’s such a blessing to have an opportunity to pour into young people.”
How long might that be? A decade? Already, Drew is nearing the 22-year tenure that his father, Homer, had at Valpo. Scott Drew sees no value in pondering timetables.
“I think in life and in sports, we know that the most important thing is to win the day,” he said. “And if you start playing it too far ahead. You never know what God has planned for you.
“At the end of the day, his plans are better.”