WACO, Texas -- On campus, from the Ferrell Center to those on the periphery of the basketball program, the hushed tones and exchanged looks told the story. The men’s basketball team, a stunning success story and legit March Madness contender, still couldn’t escape the kind of scandal its head coach had saved it from 14 years ago.
Now, yet again, it was fallout from the Art Briles saga.
But when Scott Drew first arrived in this small, religious Texas city high on pride but low on basketball tradition, the men’s team faced a much deeper and more devastating moral reckoning than poor on-court play. Player Patrick Dennehy had been murdered by one of his teammates, a horror that turned into a full-blown scandal involving drug use, NCAA violations and the kind of conduct by then-coach David Bliss that would be abhorrent anywhere, but particularly at Baylor, where faith affects everything.
Drew stepped into this quagmire and pulled off nothing short of a miracle, on and off the court. Since his arrival, Baylor has had nine 20-win seasons, made two Elite Eight appearances, won the NIT and earned six NCAA Tournament appearances. As the No. 4 team in the country heading into Saturday’s showdown with No. 3 Kansas, the program has solidified itself as a Big 12 power.
It is also a different culture, the basketball program, where players return each year from NBA careers and other post-graduation endeavors to help raise up the next generation of Baylor Bears. A place that could not win basketball games, and that was an embarrassment to Waco, now wins routinely and has become one of Baylor athletics’ saving graces.
“It would’ve taken John Wooden a while to right that ship,” Kansas coach Bill Self told me this week.
So why bring this up at all? Why, with Baylor poised to again make another deep run come March, dredge up the old, ugly stuff here in Waco when my conversation with Drew could exclusively focus on basketball and what he’s built?
Because the scandals for Baylor, and therefore unfairly but in a very real way also for Drew, have not abated with his success. The sexual assault scandal under former football coach Art Briles has again turned Baylor into a place where the worst side of college athletics were on gaudy, ugly display.
The judgment on that horror should have been swift and resolute, and in the end, at least, punishment has arrived. But it’s also true that the football program’s sexual abuse scandal has painted an entire campus and its other athletic programs with the same brush. Drew must now deal with rival recruiters eager to point out to parents what happened in Waco, and why even basketball would best be avoided. Reporters — including me — will and should ask Drew about it.
As with Penn State and the Sandusky nightmare, such awful things and their fallout are not contained to the guilty. The fallout is far-reaching and, at times, unfair.
So it was for Drew the week I arrived. The Big 12 had just announced it would withhold potentially millions of dollars from Baylor until the conference is convinced Baylor has adequately implemented the proper reforms following the sexual assault scandal.
So Drew, who I’ve known and liked for years, entered his own practice gym for a basketball conversation surely aware I would ask about the football scandal as well. Which I did.
“Well, I think what we’ve done is try to control what we can control,” he said. “And what that means is each and every day we want to continue to get better as a team. We want to have a chance to be successful at the end of the year and reach our goals and dreams. And we’ve let everything we can’t control stay out of the picture.”
He acknowledged the football scandal has an effect, including on recruiting: “And that’s where when recruits would ask about this it gives us an opportunity to talk about the changes and reforms, additions, what we’ve done at our university to make it better again with the goal to make it the safest university in the country,” Drew said.
It was a good, fair answer. But underneath it is the paradox of the situation for both Baylor and Drew: There is no denying that something rotten at Baylor, for whatever reason, has led to two of the worst and most disheartening scandals big-time college athletics has seen. Yet at the same time both scandals -- the one Drew inherited, and the one currently tarnishing his school’s other major program -- are reminders that Drew has pulled off one of the most impressive success stories in sports.
He’s winning despite all these obstacles, on and off the court.
I can remember, when Drew first started to have success, how many other college coaches did not like the man. It was weird, and I thought unfair. Drew is a really nice guy, funny and charming without having that overriding <ITAL>it<ITAL> factor some big-time college basketball coaches have. There’s an authenticity in its place.
Back then, I asked a Big 12 coach if Scott was a bad guy, if I was missing something -- I wanted some context in what is a pretty collegial fraternity of college coaches. And his answer was interesting: That Drew was indeed good people, and that his early success, at a program where no one expected anything, meant that coaches whose teams he beat early on could be fired for that loss.
Drew started to win games, and athletic directors who hadn’t caught onto what was emerging in Waco held their own coaches accountable.
That’ll make you unpopular. And that is also a mark of real success: Drew took a joke of a program that was in utter disarray and turned it around so completely people who should have known better still thought losing to Baylor said more about their own coaches’ competence than Drew’s emerging excellence. They just couldn’t get their minds around Baylor basketball being something to fear, or respect.
“What I like the most in that is when we beat a team now someone’s not being fired, because of it because it shows you that people respect our program and they know that we are one of the best in the country,” Drew said. “That’s 100 percent accurate there was a year where four or five coaches lost their job after losing to us. You feel bad because you know your team’s good and you know you’re getting better, and it’s unfair for them because that’s the parody in college basketball.”
This is the crux of Drew’s career at Baylor, a place he has pulled off one of the most impressive turnarounds in college basketball history, and also a job that includes off-court obstacles that have nothing to do with him.
So on Saturday, when Baylor hosts Kansas, enjoy the game. And don’t let Baylor football off the hook for what happened under its watch. But also take in the Bears basketball team, and its coach, as a reminder of what a remarkable accomplishment that basketball program has become.
Sometimes the best of what we can be in sports exists right next to the worst.