Baylor’s national championship is arguably the most unexpected and unforeseen title in over half a century.
Go back through the list of championship teams. The eye might linger on Villanova in 1985 but that’s influenced by the size of the upset. It takes nearly 20 years before the eye stops at 1966, when Texas Western won the trophy while also striking a blow for racial equity in the sport.
The 55 years between teams from Texas – a state where football has and will always be king – is just one reason to marvel at Baylor’s achievement. A year after the Bears would have been a Final Four contender as a likely No. 1 seed, they dominated college basketball’s dominant team and ended top-ranked Gonzaga’s bid for the first perfect season in 45 years.
In 2013, Baylor won the NIT (Nobody’s Interested Tournament) championship, and that second-tier accomplishment was a fitting metaphor for an after-thought program. The celebration on April 5, the confetti shower, the net cutting, the Baylor Bears are the 2021 national champions, had a surreal quality. The fairy tale ending has co-authors – the Brothers Grimm and Disney.
Baylor, the world’s largest Baptist university, is in Waco, 90 miles south of Dallas and 90 miles north of Austin. The town has polar-opposite fame thanks to the Branch Davidians and the husband/wife conglomerate of Chip and Joanna Gaines. The school’s ban of on-campus dancing (ended in 1996) is a quaint footnote considering that its football and basketball programs have drawn national spotlights for scandals both grievous and egregious.
When the Southwest Conference dissolved in the mid-1990s in the first round of conference realignment, Baylor was the only private school included in the birth of the Big 12 Conference. And its “rescue” came about only because of Texas state politics. Its athletic program was not prepared to compete. The Bears won only eight conference football games in its first 10 seasons and Baylor is the only Big 12 school with winless league seasons in both football and basketball.
Baylor’s basketball program entered the Big 12 in 1996 having been whacked with NCAA sanctions. During the school’s last two seasons in the Southwest Conference, coach Darrell Johnson had managed to entangle the Bears in mail fraud, wire fraud and conspiracy that led to his ouster and the federal convictions of three of his assistants.
Johnson’s digressions were misdemeanors compared to those perpetrated by Dave Bliss, who was hired in 1999. In 2003, Carlton Dotson murdered teammate Patrick Dennehy, a transfer from New Mexico. Bliss had been providing money to Dennehy, who was not on scholarship. Fearful that NCAA violations would be revealed, Bliss concocted a story that Dennehy was a drug dealer. The scheme blew up. The truth led to NCAA sanctions second in severity only to SMU’s football death penalty.
Into this swampy, scandalous mess stepped fresh-faced, 32-year-old Scott Drew, hired in August 2003 after one year of head coaching experience at Valparaiso. At his introductory news conference, Drew spoke of Baylor winning a national championship. That sunrise optimism drew eye rolls and skepticism. The Bears hadn’t won an NCAA game since 1950 - winning six games in an NCAA Tournament was the kind of million-to-one odds that would cause even Lloyd Christ to lose hope.
Drew’s first team had six scholarship players. His third season NCAA sanctions from the Bliss sins dictated no non-conference games. Resurrecting a program takes time and Drew had shrewdly built that into the 26-page contract he signed. It was a six-year deal, but the clock didn’t start until the NCAA sanctions were over.
As the Bears began the climb to respectability, they began signing players like LaceDarius Dunn (ranked in the top 50 nationally) and Tweety Carter (the top-scoring prep player in U.S. history). And the whispers began. Drew’s glass of overflowing optimism seemed too good to be true and when he started signing nationally ranked recruits for a program that had no cachet, his fellow coaches became suspicious.
Five years ago, CBSSports.com conducted an anonymous poll of coaches and Drew was chosen as the second-dirtiest coach in the sport. No specific charges were leveled, but the vitriol was vicious.
“I don’t even have to blink when I say the answer,” one coach told CBS. “He’s despised by a lot of people because he comes off holier than God. Meanwhile, everyone knows he’s had to cheat big-time to get the program to where it’s at. If it wasn’t for the God stuff he wouldn’t rub people the wrong way as much.”
That’s how much one coach despised Drew. He not only considered him a cheater, he disparaged his faith. That’s a double-down diss.
Ten years ago, a low-profile NCAA investigation did a cavity search of Baylor that found nothing but misdemeanors.
"We went through a three-year NCAA investigation, and I think that's when people stopped making allegations about us," Drew said. "It's not fun to go through, just so you know."
That criticism also included the “can’t coach” denunciation. After coming within a victory of the Final Four in 2010 and again in 2012, those March Madness trips appeared fluky when the Bears lost first-round games in 2015 and 2016 as three and five seeds. Talented teams, regular-season success, NCAA Tournament flameouts are trademarks that lead critics to question Drew’s coaching acumen.
“I’d be lying if I said it didn’t bother me,” Drew told Jeff Goodman of Stadium. “We’re all human. We all want to be praised and not criticized. I couldn't control that noise, or what other people might say. I know the truth."
Only Kansas coach Bill Self, a Hall of Famer, has been coaching in the Big 12 longer. Each have won a national championship. There has never been questions about Self’s coaching ability.
“Scott’s teams have been very consistent and difficult to prepare for,” Self said in the story written by Goodman. “It’s one of our game’s best coaching jobs to do what he did, and take it from where it was when he inherited it to where it’s now been for years.”
Two years after making the school’s first NCAA appearance in 20 years and the first under Drew, Baylor pushed eventual national champion Duke into the final few minutes before losing in the 2010 Elite Eight. That was the Bears’ flag-planting moment. But over the next decade, Drew adapted and altered his program.
· The 2009-10 Bears utilized a solid matchup zone that featured center Ekpe Udoh in the middle as the vocal director. Udoh was a transfer from Michigan. He was an early influencer regarding players who would benefit from transferring to Baylor. He would be followed by players like Davion Mitchell and MaCio Teague (starters on last season’s team), Brady Heslip, Mario Kegler, Freddie Gillespie, Manu Lecomte, Adam Flagler and Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua (those last two were key reserves on the national title team).
· The attention brought by the Elite Eight run helped Baylor land a number of highly rated high school players (more on that it later). The Bears roster was stocked with 4-star and 5-star post players like Perry Jones, Quincy Miller and Isaiah Austin (all three were consensus top 10 nationally ranked recruits). That height kept Baylor in its zone defense but so many post players often gummed up the offense and led to questionable shot selection.
· Programs that rely on junior-college transfers are often rolling dice at the craps table. Unlike transfers who sit out a season after arriving from another school, JC players are plug-and-play. And if they don’t play well, it can lead to losing records – especially if they’re point guards expected to be leaders. Drew and his staff hit on a succession of wonderful two-year star guards, starting with Pierre Jackson in 2012 and continuing with Kenny Chery and Lester Medford.
· The last two seasons when Baylor compiled a 54-6 record, the defense was a swarming man-to-man that often appeared to be six players and an offense that relied on versatile guards who could drill 3-point shots and break down defenders with drives and finishes. In short, the Bears played vastly different styles compared to past teams.
· That the starred recruits failed to make major impacts can be attributed to the one-and-done culture and fate (Austin’s career ended because of a health issue). Had some of those players not opted for the NBA, it’s likely they would have raised their games. Baylor’s player development has been impressive. Transfers like Gillespie went from playing at Division III to now being in the NBA. Recruits like Mark Vital, Cory Jefferson and Johnathan Motley sat out a redshirt season to improve their skills and strength.
The new instant eligibility rules for transfers has turned the transfer portal into the autobahn. That means Drew won’t be able to curate his roster. The title team’s starters were in at least their third with the program and the top three bench players had been with the team for at least two seasons. Baylor’s player development might not rely as much as having players sit out. But the Bears’ profile is high and its resume glittering; Kansas is the only other major conference school to win at least 18 games each of the last 13 seasons. It’s no coincidence that 2021 signee Kendall Brown is the school’s first 5-star recruit since 2012.
“We’ve had some program-changing level players,” Drew told the Waco Tribune Herald. “At the same time, they had to sit out a year, which allowed them to develop and become the players they wanted to become when they were eligible. Sometimes with a player redshirting and not having the pressure to perform or think about the minutes they’re playing, they can develop their game for a year without added pressure.”
ESPN analyst Fran Fracschilla, who has been working Big 12 games for as long as Drew has been at Baylor, says that coaches must be crisis managers. Those crises range from managing foul trouble, calling up a late-game out-of-bounds play to tweaking the program’s philosophy to managing a pandemic.
Because of COVID protocols, Baylor didn’t take the court for three weeks in February. When the Bears returned to competition on Feb. 23, they found that rust never sleeps. Baylor had to rally to beat Iowa State, the Big 12’s basement dwellers, then suffered its first loss, falling at Kansas by 13. Rescheduled games led to five contests in 13 days. Losing in the Big 12 Conference Tournament semifinals on March 12 was a blessing. The Bears had time in Waco to regroup and practice to prepare for the NCAA Tournament.
“It was play, recover, prep, and no practice,’’ Drew said. “At the end of the day, you can’t be good at defense if you can’t practice.’’
A year after March Madness was canceled and five months after a regular-season game in Indianapolis between Baylor and Gonzaga was canceled because of COVID, the Bears rudely canceled the Zags’ hopes for their first national title. Rarely is a championship game decided in the first two-and-a-half minutes. Baylor’s 9-0 start established a “take no prisoners” attitude. Gonzaga trailed by double digits for all but 26 seconds of the game’s final 34 minutes.
In its two Final Four victories, Baylor trailed for three minutes and 41 seconds and had the lead for the last 55:48 in the two games. There was no drama, just determination and ownership. There was nothing fluky, there were no questions. The Bears’ combined 35-point victory margins was the best at a Final Four since 1990 (UNLV, 39 points) and they averaged a 16.1-point edge in six NCAA wins.
"To me, (winning a championship) never defines a great coach,” Drew said. “Just like there's so many players, NBA players who never won an NBA championship and great college players that never went to a Final Four. I value coaches. Do they make their players better spiritually, academically, character-wise? Are you preparing them for life?
“You don’t get these opportunities often, and we were on a mission to make the most of it. In the coaching fraternity, getting to a Final Four is very similar to winning a national championship — there’s usually some luck that goes into it.
“We didn’t even have to be lucky because our guys were so dominant this entire tournament.”
Just a few minutes after the buzzer sounded, Drew walked to the press area located behind the baseline. Instead of a “see, I told you so” moment, he thanked the media for its coverage of his team.
Scott “Too Good to be True” Drew, a national championship coach whose program had survived and evolved, was 18 years older but the same man who had spoken a dream that had become reality.