And to think, amid all the commotion about Gonzaga, we had missed what profoundly qualifies as history on this earth. Basketball? Try the cleansing of murder and how a Baptist university in freaky-deaky Waco, Texas — one-time home of David Karesh, Art Briles and heaven knows who else — overcame its sordid past through a preacher man named Scott Drew.
What we witnessed Monday night, a disembowelment of perfection, was the end result of something so much larger. In dominating the so-called Greatest Team Ever from the first offensive rebound to the final three-point gouge of Jared Butler, Baylor completed a story that started on June 12, 2003. That is when Carlton Dotson shot and killed a teammate, Patrick Dennehy, during an argument, which led to an unspeakable act of corruption: Coach Dave Bliss asking team members to participate in a lie that Dennehy was a drug dealer, a ruse intended to distract investigators from Bliss’ illegal payments to players.
Even for the sleazy sport of college basketball, this was sick stuff. It wasn’t a matter of who would win the reclamation assignment, but who’d be foolish enough to want it. That soul was Drew, who was secure for life at Valparaiso, the small Indiana school that manufactured March dreams. His father, Homer, has been a coaching icon there. His brother, Bryce, was an NCAA tournament legend. Why would a man of deep religious faith want to descend into ashes and sabotage his coaching career?
“I prayed about it,” Drew said. “I felt led to come here.”
He’d never played college ball, serving as a student assistant at Valpo and playing on the tennis team without earning a letter. His original aim was the legal profession, until he sensed a larger life mission. Sensing the chance to perform God’s work where he was needed most, Drew met with scandal-dazed Baylor officials, dazzling them in a meeting with imaginary replicas of news stories about the program’s rise to prominence. All they wanted from him was a scrubbing of the toxic spill and a chance to compete again, knowing years of NCAA probation awaited. He told them he could win a national championship.
Today, Drew ranks among the all-time saviors in sports. Not only did he fulfill his prophecy, he and the Bears never trailed in quashing Gonzaga’s pursuit of the first unbeaten season in 45 years. It’s convenient to conclude that the Zags were drained after their stunning overtime victory over UCLA, authored by Jalen Suggs’ buzzer-beater for the memory banks. In truth, Baylor erected a force field inside Lucas Oil Stadium and never let the opponents on the court. Butler and Davion Mitchell attacked and hit threes like future NBA stars while Suggs, swept in social-media adulation across the sports world, drew two early fouls and ended the night in tears. Mark Vital and Flo Thamba ruled the paint, shrinking Drew Timme into a droopy mustache. A voracious defense forced 14 turnovers.
This wasn’t just a clinic. It was a bully pulpit.
“It was just electrifying, especially in that type of environment in the biggest game,” said Butler, named Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four. “Everybody was clicking on all cylinders. … We made a statement.”
The losers were to left agree, again falling short in the defining moment of their upstarts-to-bluebloods odyssey. “It’s a really, really tough one to end a storybook season on, but listen, Baylor just beat us,” coach Mark Few said. “They beat us in every facet of the game and deserve all the credit. Quite frankly, they were terrific. They just literally busted us out of anything we could possibly do on offense. We were kind of playing sideways.”
The sport’s custodians won’t be asking if Baylor is the best team ever. But they really should consider the Bears’ place in history. Certainly, the 86-70 thrashing belongs in any conversation about commanding championship-night performances, which only is magnified by the program’s journey from hell. As the coach and players celebrated on the court amid green and gold confetti, Drew made a demand of famed Baylor alumnus John Lee Hancock, director of sports movies such as “The Blind Side” and “The Rookie.”
“He promised us when we won a national championship, we would get a movie! Yeahhhhhh!” said Drew, finally busting loose with smack talk. “If you’re going to war and I’m coaching, I’m taking these guys.”
Butler and the players were delighted, whooping it up with their coach. Somewhere, Dave Bliss must wonder how so much love could emerge from depravity. “The culture of joy,” is how Drew describes his creation, repeatedly, and he doesn’t speak more than a few sentences before reminding listeners of the real savior. “I feel God has blessed us,” he said. “People have come to our program for 18 years, putting in work. Our fans have been there for us through the lean years. The fans deserve it, the city of Waco deserves it, the state of Texas deserves it.”
He never talks specifically about the murder and fallout, only referring to lessons learned from his father at Valparaiso and how they could be applied at Baylor. “You can take blueprints from that,” he said. “Obviously, any time you’re with someone who is successful and you’ve seen how they’ve been successful, you’re going to use that, try to duplicate it. I thought at Baylor University we could do the exact same thing, being a Christian school, an academics school, a family-oriented school.”
That “family” was rocked, again, by sexual assault scandals on the watch of Briles, the football coach who left the school in shame five years ago. It was difficult to see BAYLOR on jerseys Monday night and not think of the wretched times, but, in fairness, this team is the antithesis of that mess. College hoops is rife with administrations that don’t care if programs cheat, such as Kansas, which ignored an ongoing FBI investigation in giving coach Bill Self a lifetime contract — including a clause that he won’t be dismissed for cause “due to any infractions matter that involves conduct that occurred on or prior to the date of full execution of this agreement.” Baylor, far as we know, has played by the rules in building a beast that has won 54 of 60 games since November 2019.
Besides, does a servant performing God’s work want to disappoint him? If Scott Drew isn’t legitimate, college basketball should shut down forever. He started his post-game interview with a tribute to his friend and fishing partner in the other locker room. “I feel for Coach Few and his team because they’re such class acts,” he said. “And coach Few is a Hall of Fame coach and an unbelievable guy. A better person than he is a coach. And you hate when friends aren’t feeling good.”
It’s no act. The reason America doesn’t know much about Drew is that he never talks about himself. “What we did is history here,” guard MaCio Teague said. “Really happy for coach Drew. He has come back from nothing in a basketball program. He spent a lot of time, put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into this program.”
Once the domain of Duke, North Carolina, Kentucky, Michigan State and other S.O.B.s — you know, Same Old Bluebloods — college basketball is in a transition swirl that might not end well. Once the NBA allows high-school players to leap directly to the league, the best teenagers will bypass the one-and-done experience and dilute the college talent pool. In that sense, Baylor and Gonzaga are positioned to stay on top as programs conducive to attracting three- or four-year players, along with transfers eligible immediately thanks to a one-time waiver process. Already, Vegas has installed Gonzaga as the 2022 title favorite, thanks to an incoming recruiting prize in Hunter Sallis and the likely addition of 7-footer Chet Holmgren, the nation’s top prep player and hometown pal of Suggs. And Baylor has the ultimate transfer success story in Mitchell, who arrived from Auburn in 2018.
But until the NCAA starts giving these essential workers a small slice of the $1 billion annual March pie, the best prospects will reject college. And the ratings will suffer. Yes, Baylor was sensational, Suggs’ shot was unforgettable, and UCLA was memorable, but much of the tournament was ragged. It didn’t help that players were isolated in a COVID bubble for days and weeks, allowing the NCAA and its broadcast partners, CBS and Turner, to make their fortunes. “It’s like we’re in jail and can’t get out,” said Syracuse assistant Adrian Autry, speaking the truth in a Syracuse Post-Standard story. Baylor’s season, remember, was paused by a COVID outbreak that derailed what might have been an unbeaten season. Every team in Indianapolis was dealing with the same health risks.
The offseason will be filled with institutional wrangling and calls for the head of the NCAA’s feeble president, Mark Emmert. For now, we should honor a right that once was the worst kind of wrong. It wasn’t all that long ago when Drew had eight rostered players and had to stage open tryouts on campus. How difficult was it? “Well, obviously going into every game being 30- or 40-point underdogs and half your team walk-ons, and you know as a coach, if we can just keep it close, keep it within 20 by the first half or 10,” he said. “`But really credit the guys who won (four) games that year. They laid a foundation. Those guys have stayed with the program and helped support these guys. And that’s what you love. There’s so many people that put in hard work and sweat.”
Deep into the night, in his native state, he kept talking about everyone else — his players, first and foremost. “When the best is needed, the best is usually provided,” Drew went on. “They love being the first — first to win a national championship. That motivates them. When you’ve got a competitive group like that, it really makes it easy to coach. If you’re going to be in a bubble for three or four weeks, you’d better be with people you love. They’re great basketball players, but better people.”
At some point, much as it pains him, Scott Drew will sit down one night, gaze into the heavens and grasp that HE created this miracle. When he does, it should be the famous final scene in John Lee Hancock’s movie.