When Drew Timme is allowed to wear his Drew Manchu in public view — a handlebar mustache so hideous and 1981-ish that even his mother hates it — you know the NCAA tournament has become forgiving. Normally, the gods of March are punitive, known for forcing cheaters to vacate victories and remove banners. But this year, even in its vulnerable, Supreme Court-threatened state, March Madness has opened the Final Four doors to redemption.
Kelvin Sampson made impermissible phone calls not once but twice as a coach, a double-jeopardy disgrace that led him to college basketball’s gates of hell. Thirteen years later in Indiana, the state where he committed his second set of transgressions, he’s two victories from a national title with Houston, a program he willingly inherited in tatters.
Have mercy on Sampson, says the tournament.
“You’re not a loser in anything until you quit. Don’t quit,” he once said of his exile. “Get up. Regardless of how it happened or why it happened, you get up — and you fight.”
The Baylor program was guilty of sins far uglier than recruiting violations. Patrick Dennehy was murdered by teammate Carlton Dotson in 2003, all while coach Dave Bliss was trying to cover up the homicide with a lie that Dennehy was a drug dealer. Enter Scott Drew, a coach of deep faith and ample patience amid substantial probation penalties. Eighteen years later, he has completed a historic sports resurrection by leading the Bears in their first Final Four since 1950, with the team best equipped to spoil the unbeaten championship season of Timme and Gonzaga.
“I felt led to come here,” said Drew, a spiritual presence amid all the sports-related wrongdoing in Waco, which should be spelled Wacko.
Have mercy on Baylor, says the tournament.
In the most imperfect season the sport has known, how preposterous that these two stories would emerge as the final potential disruptors to perfection. Houston and Baylor will meet Saturday not in the heart of Texas but in Lucas Oil Stadium in downtown Indianapolis, for the likely right to play the Zags in the national title game. It’s startling to see Sampson, looking every bit his 65 years, climbing a ladder and cutting down nets. He hasn’t spoken much about the broken rules that led to his purge from Indiana and the college game in general, opening up most memorably when he told the Washington Post, “I was angry after Indiana. I was angry at myself. I blamed myself. I was mad about how it all went down. I had a lot of emotions, but I also had a wife and a family. I had to take care of my family. That was my No. 1 goal.”
He has shared hugs with his wife and grown children after the Cougars’ four tournament victories. They’ve been with him every tortured step since 2008, when he was banned by the NCAA for five years and banished to assistant coaching roles on NBA benches. Working in Houston with the Rockets, he kept an eye on the campus crosstown, wondering if he might kickstart a sleeping giant that hadn’t won a March Madness game in 30 years and toiled in worse facilities than some YMCA leagues.
“I knew how bad it was,” Sampson said. “There was no guarantee this thing was going to get turned around, it was so bad. The thing that drove me back then — and I appreciate everybody on the wagon with us now — was the apathy. It doesn’t take much to motivate me. It doesn’t take much to activate this chip I have on my shoulder. You’re either with us or against us. If you want to be against us, we’re still going to do it anyway.”
Channeling his chip without bitterness, he recruited players who would adopt his toughness. He made a lunch date with Tilman Fertitta, the Rockets owner and avid Cougars booster, and said a national title was winnable with better facilities. Fertitta wrote a check for $20 million. Phi Slama Jamma, the brand name of those long-ago explosive teams that never won a title, was now Phi Swarma Jama — built on defense and snarl. Every bit of that swagger will be needed to beat Baylor, blessed with the country’s best guards and two-way dominance recently on display. The concern is that Houston hasn’t faced top competition, having played only one top-30 team all season — Texas Tech — and sliding through the NCAA brackets against 15th-seeded Cleveland State, 10th-seeded Rutgers, 11th-seeded Syracuse and 12th-seeded Oregon State.
“We may not have the brightest lights, but our lights shine as bright as anybody else’s because it’s all about team,” Sampson said. “We’ve taken a group of kids to get them to believe, and they’ve accomplished something nobody can take from them. They’ll always be known as a Final Four participant. They earned it too. I mean, they earned it.”
Like Gonzaga, Baylor has ascended into the ranks of the new bluebloods as the almighty likes of Kentucky and Duke wobble in uncertainty. The American sports mainstream is just getting to know Davion Mitchell, Jared Butler and MaCio Teague, but they all share a common denominator — they fit Drew’s vision, which prioritizes team over NBA lottery dreams. “I think it all comes back to one thing, and that is knowing your team and knowing your culture: who’s going to fit in and represent your program how you want it represented, if you bring in people that add to that,” Drew said. “No matter which avenue you look to bring in someone, do they meet what you’re really looking for?”
From the tragic stench of the Bliss era to the sexual assault crisis in the football program, Baylor has been a sickening example of how not to run big-time athletics. This team is hoping to change the national perception, with a championship perhaps easing the pain of what could happen June 15: Dotson, serving a 35-year prison sentence, is eligible for parole.
For a time, it seemed Waco could host champions in men’s and women’s basketball. But the officials didn’t blow their whistles when Baylor’s DiJonai Carrington was fouled in the final seconds, preserving a Connecticut win in a women’s regional final more compelling than anything the men have produced. The social media mobs erupted, including LeBron James. “It doesn’t matter,” Baylor coach Kim Mulkey said. “It doesn’t matter what you write. It doesn’t matter what I say. It doesn’t matter what we saw. It doesn’t matter what we think. Life goes on.”
Life might not go on if Mulkey was put in charge of the infectious disease initiative in America. In a bizarre comment, she demanded the NCAA stop testing the Final Four teams for COVID-19 at the women’s and men’s sites. “They need to dump the COVID testing. Wouldn’t it be a shame to keep COVID testing and then you got kids that test positive or something and they don’t get to play in the Final Four?” she said. “So you just need to forget the COVID tests and get the four teams playing in each Final Four and go battle it out.”
The NCAA is damned fortunate only one outbreak has impacted the tournaments — when Virginia Commonwealth’s men’s team reported several positive tests and forfeited a first-round game to Oregon. And the referee who collapsed in the first half of the Gonzaga-USC regional final — might Bert Smith have been dealing with symptoms? No one needs Kim Mulkey acting like a COVID-iot, flip-flopping from her January comments after she contracted the virus. Said Mulkey at the time: “The answer is this: The season will continue on. It’s called the almighty dollar. The NCAA has to have the almighty dollar from the men’s tournament. The almighty dollar is more important than the health and welfare of me, the players or anybody else. One conference does this, one conference does that. The CDC says this. Everybody is confused. I’m confused. I’m uncomfortable coaching. I understand, COVID is real. I’ve had it — come talk to me sometime.”
Maybe it’s a good thing the refs swallowed their whistles. We don’t have to hear her 180-degree ramblings this weekend in San Antonio.
The biggest college basketball story of this and other year begins today, when the Supreme Court considers whether “student-athletes” — currently treated like slave labor as the NCAA accepts another $1 billion payout from CBS and Turner — should be paid. This while Gonzaga tries to complete the first perfect season in 45 years, an apparent fait accompli after a rout of seemingly formidable USC.
Baylor, Kelvin Sampson, the First-Four-to-Final-Four UCLA Bruins … can anyone give the Zags a game? Or coax Timme, the best player of March, to shave his ‘stache, which is accompanied by a Will Ferrell headband? Did he actually pretend he was slicking down the ‘stache after a two-handed dunk Tuesday night?
“It’s something that really can’t be tamed,” Timme said. “I can’t even control it. I’m just glad everybody is having fun with it. That was the whole point of it.”
“Every time he has that ‘stache, he’s been playing well,” teammate Andrew Nembhard said. “I’m all for the ‘stache, honestly. He’s that type of person with that type of personality. It fits, and we’re all for it at this point.”
Have mercy on the Drew Manchu, says the tournament.