How Scott Drew won a national title after taking a job nobody wanted

Jeff Eisenberg
·21 min read

Editor's note: This story was published on March 27. It has been updated to reflect Baylor's national championship victory over Gonzaga.

When he swung open the door to the meeting room he reserved at Chicago’s Midway Airport, Baylor University president Dr. Robert Sloan expected to find the usual mundane conference table and chairs inside.

He instead walked into a room decked out in green and gold crepe paper, streamers and balloons like it was hosting a pep rally, not a job interview.

Scott Drew greeted Sloan and other members of Baylor’s hiring committee and urged them to help themselves to the snacks he had laid out. He then gave them time to check out the mock newspaper front pages he had created featuring fake stories of him reviving Baylor’s scandal-tainted basketball program and leading the Bears to future Big 12 titles and Final Fours.

Those headlines caught the attention of Sloan and the others because in August 2003 the notion of Baylor in a Final Four was preposterous. The school’s basketball program was in the throes of a devastating scandal that began earlier that summer when forward Patrick Dennehy was brutally murdered by a former teammate and worsened with the revelation of severe NCAA violations and an attempted cover-up.

Under the cloud of scandal, the Baylor job was radioactive. Hardly anyone wanted to touch it. Except a 32-year-old with one year of head coaching experience at a tiny Division I school in northern Indiana.

Over the course of his interview, Drew explained in pinpoint detail how he intended to tackle perhaps the most daunting rebuilding job in college basketball history. By the time Sloan and the rest of the hiring committee boarded their private plane to interview other candidates on their short list, they had a clear idea of the style Drew would play, the prospects he would recruit and the goals he felt he could achieve.

“When I met with them, I wanted to make them feel welcome and let them know my vision,” Drew told Yahoo Sports. “Part of that was telling them what I believed could happen and where I wanted to see Baylor go.”

To many of Drew’s coaching peers, his pursuit of the Baylor job was mystifying. They questioned if he should leave a winning Valparaiso program to go to a school that had just self-imposed severe penalties and faced the threat of further NCAA sanctions.

In the wake of Dennehy’s death at the hands of ex-teammate Carlton Dotson, an investigation revealed Baylor coach Dave Bliss violated NCAA rules by not reporting failed drug tests and by making tuition payments for Dennehy and another player. In a secretly taped phone conversation, an assistant coach recorded Bliss threatening his job if he didn’t help cover up the payments by falsely portraying Dennehy as a drug dealer.

Although Drew was not naive to how hard it would be to win at Baylor against that backdrop, he perceived the job differently than others. Friends say Drew liked that there wouldn’t be pressure to reach the NCAA tournament in three years at Baylor and that he’d have the rare opportunity to build from scratch however he wanted.

Sloan did not initially have the son of legendary Valpo coach Homer Drew atop his short list, but that changed after their interview. Scott Drew’s integrity, wholesome image and Christian values were a good fit for what Baylor sought at the time, as was the ambition and salesmanship he demonstrated with his presentation.

“What he did was paint a picture of what could happen,” Sloan told Yahoo Sports. “So much in sports has to do with imagining the future and having hope. It’s one of those things where you know you’re being sold, but then you also kind of believed him.”

On the flight back to Waco, Sloan and the other committee members discussed each of the candidates they interviewed. When the conversation inevitably kept coming back to Drew, they felt the time was right to offer him the job.

Eighteen years later, Drew has turned his mock newspaper headlines into reality. Baylor won its first national title on Monday night after demolishing undefeated Gonzaga 86-70.

How did a 32-year-old with a famous last name but little experience transform a program from a smoldering pile of ash into a national champion? It’s a tale of failed walk-on tryouts, dented trash cans, shaved heads and, above all, relentless perseverance and optimism.

INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA - APRIL 05: Head coach Scott Drew of the Baylor Bears holds up the trophy after defeating the Gonzaga Bulldogs 86-70 in the National Championship game of the 2021 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Lucas Oil Stadium on April 05, 2021 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA - APRIL 05: Head coach Scott Drew of the Baylor Bears holds up the trophy after defeating the Gonzaga Bulldogs 86-70 in the National Championship game of the 2021 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Lucas Oil Stadium on April 05, 2021 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

Scott Drew faces skepticism

Thirteen days after his former basketball coach resigned in disgrace, Baylor guard Matt Sayman felt his phone buzz. A friend called to tell Sayman that Baylor had hired a new coach to replace Dave Bliss.

“Who is it?” Sayman asked

“His name is Scott Drew,” his friend told him. “He’s coming from Valparaiso.”

“Never heard of him,” Sayman replied.

Whereas Baylor’s top scorers from the previous season each hastily transferred after the school offered to release players from their scholarships, Sayman returned by necessity. There was no market for a hard-working but unathletic 6-foot-3 senior who averaged 4.5 points as a junior and shot 31.3 percent from the field.

Rather than approaching the coaching change with an open mind, Sayman regretfully admits he viewed Drew cynically from the start. Sayman looked at the media horde that had descended on Baylor’s campus, the harsh penalties the school had imposed on itself and the threadbare state of the Bears' roster and wondered, “What good coach would take this job?”

Baylor had been poised for a breakthrough that upcoming season before the tragedy reduced an NCAA tournament-caliber roster to dust. Among the 10 teammates Sayman lost that summer were Lawrence Roberts, who would become a first-team All-American at Mississippi State, and John Lucas III, a future two-time all-Big 12 guard whose game-winning 3-pointer sent Oklahoma State to the 2004 Final Four.

“It was depressing to think about all the talent we had lost,” Sayman told Yahoo Sports. “We were supposed to be really good. For all that to change, it was hard to wrap my head around how any good could come out of it.”

To avoid any unwanted media scrutiny, Drew held his first team meeting inside Baylor’s baseball locker room. He addressed Baylor’s returning players with trademark kindness, expressing sympathy for what they had endured that summer and hope that together they could create a better future.

As Drew spoke, senior forward Terrance Thomas sized him up and thought, “C’mon, man. That guy looks just as young as us. He cannot possibly be our coach.” Thomas all but rolled his eyes when Drew promised to make a lifetime commitment to the returners who stayed loyal to Baylor and play for him.

“We were like, ‘Yeah, OK,’ ” Thomas told Yahoo Sports. “It’s like getting out of a bad relationship. Your new mate tells you all these things, and because of the past, you don’t think it will come to fruition.”

The skepticism Drew faced from his new players mirrored the response from many coaches he approached about joining his staff. Between the scholarship restrictions Baylor imposed and the potential for further punishment, assistant coaches with strong resumes saw no upside following Drew to Waco. As a result, Drew cobbled together one of college basketball’s youngest staffs, one long on enthusiasm but light on experience.

There was Matthew Driscoll, a relentlessly energetic 39-year-old who spoke like he was hooked to a Red Bull IV drip. There was Mark Morefield, who graduated from Valparaiso only five years earlier but had shown promise as a recruiter. And there was Jerome Tang, a highly successful Houston-area high school coach and youth pastor with no experience in college basketball.

None had celebrated a 40th birthday yet. Only Driscoll had ever coached at a power-conference program before.

“I think a lot of people in the coaching profession really saw coming to Baylor as career suicide,” Morefield told Yahoo Sports. “We all saw it as an opportunity to build something.”

Scraping together a roster

Before they could begin searching Texas and surrounding states for talent, Drew and his staff first had to mine their own campus for overlooked prospects.

Having only seven scholarship players left Baylor desperate for walk-ons to facilitate 5-on-5 practices and to fill in as needed during games.

On Oct. 20, 2003, Baylor hosted an open tryout at the Ferrell Center. A few dozen would-be walk-ons showed up, including a handful that Drew felt possessed the height and athleticism to help the shorthanded Bears.

Then one of the Baylor coaches asked the walk-on hopefuls to write their names and student ID numbers on a sign-up sheet. Drew and his staff soon discovered that most of the best players in the gym that day didn’t understand the parameters of the tryout.

“We had people show up from Houston or Dallas or from a junior college,” Drew said with a laugh. “Unfortunately, when they realized they couldn’t be on the team without attending Baylor, a lot of the height and athleticism walked out.”

The lone walk-on that Baylor added from that tryout was a 6-foot-5 pre-med student who played varsity basketball in high school. Robbie McKenzie was preparing for a biology quiz when he learned he made the team. The next day, he donned Baylor gear for the first time and went through drills in practice.

Baylor’s search for walk-ons didn’t end with McKenzie. Drew and his staff scoured the football roster for former high school basketball players and wandered campus looking for tall guys.

Late one night, as Drew and Driscoll were leaving an Italian fast-food restaurant on the edge of campus, they stumbled across a 6-foot-8 kid with long arms and an athletic physique. They introduced themselves, asked if he was a Baylor student and invited him to join the team.

“We spent the next week trying to find him but we never could,” Drew said.

Since his bench resembled an intramural all-star team, Drew recognized that top players would scarcely rest during games. As a result, he challenged Sayman, Thomas and a few other veterans to do one round of conditioning at dawn every morning and then work out again at midday after class.

Every preseason morning at 5 or 6, the Baylor players would drag themselves out of bed. Every morning, Driscoll would be waiting to run with them, brimming with energy, sometimes flanked by one or two of Baylor’s other coaches.

“To see that the coaches were willing to go in the trenches with us as well, that meant a lot to us,” forward Tommy Swanson said. “With Coach Driscoll, it was as if he had been up hours before. We thought he was putting on an act and it would turn eventually, but no, that’s just his spirit.”

The more time Baylor players spent around Drew and his assistants, the more their cynicism melted away. They came to realize that Drew was sincere in his positivity and desire to promote a family atmosphere.

While Drew never cursed, rarely yelled and quoted from the Bible often, his players eventually learned not to underestimate his competitiveness. Underneath that Mr. Rogers veneer was a man who would do what was necessary to win.

Baylor head coach Scott Drew does five push-ups at center court after a successful team practice at the Verizon Center in Washington, Wednesday, March 19, 2008 in preparation for the NCAA first round West Regional basketball game. Looking on are Baylor players Curtis Jerrells, center, and Fred Ellis, right. (AP Photos/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
Scott Drew does five push-ups at center court as Baylor prepped for the NCAA tournament in 2008, the school's first trip to the Big Dance under Drew. (AP)

‘This guy is nuts!’

Before his team’s final game at the Surf-N-Slam Invitational in Hawaii in December 2003, Scott Drew struck up a conversation with his coordinator of basketball operations.

Baylor had already dropped its first two games of the round-robin tournament against Division II BYU Hawaii and hapless San Jose State. Drew worried that the shorthanded Bears still seemed lethargic entering their matchup with Northern Illinois.

“What do you think?” Drew asked.

“We’re about to get beat by 20,” Paul Mills responded gloomily.

Only a few minutes later, Drew gathered the team around him and delivered a pregame speech. He told the Baylor players that he believed in them, but not everybody does. Then, turning in the direction of his coordinator of basketball operations, Drew said matter-of-factly, “Mills says we’re going to lose by 20, but we’re going to prove him wrong.”

“My heart just sinks to my stomach,” Mills, now the head coach at Oral Roberts, told Yahoo Sports. “Simultaneously, all the guys’ heads turn around and they’re just glaring at me.”

Minutes later, Mills held up his fist to dap the players on the way out of the locker room like he usually did on game days. Not a single player acknowledged him, aside from those who under their breath told him where he could go as they walked out the door.

While he forgave Drew after Baylor won the game by double figures, Mills also learned a lesson about his head coach’s competitive streak.

“I remember thinking to myself that I will never answer another question this guy asks me because he’s going to use whatever tool is necessary to make sure the team is prepared,” Mills said. “My man is about doing whatever it takes to win. And if that involves me getting thrown under the bus, so be it.”

Drew’s knack for assessing a team’s psyche and pushing the right buttons proved essential during his first couple seasons in Waco. The Baylor teams of that era so often faced a talent or depth disparity. The outmanned Bears had to out-hustle and out-execute many opponents just to stay competitive.

To energize his players before they took the floor, Drew sometimes asked two staff members to pound on metal lockers or trash cans like cymbals or drums. The Bears would then burst out of their locker room ready to run through a wall.

“We probably went through a dozen metal trash cans that season,” Mills said. “By the second game, we usually had dented those things so much that we had to throw them away.”

Sometimes the emotional lift helped, as did Drew’s tactic of slowing the pace to a crawl. Against all odds, Baylor won three Big 12 games in Drew’s debut season and improved down the stretch, putting major scares into Oklahoma, Missouri and Oklahoma State.

Other times no amount of banging on trash can lids could offset that Baylor was overmatched. A handful of Baylor’s conference games were over before halftime, including a blowout loss at Texas in which walk-ons McKenzie and Will Allen were the first players off the bench.

“I was guarding this guy named James Thomas, who went on to the NBA,” McKenzie said. “I had no business being on the floor with that dude.”

Once in a while, Drew’s motivational tactics went too far off the rails. Eager to snap his team out of a pregame malaise one night, Drew ordered everyone in the locker room to grab a partner, face that person and “wake them up a little bit.” Drew then turned toward his partner, Driscoll, and smacked him across the face.

“I make a fist and I react like I’m going to hit him,” Driscoll said. “He says, ‘Go ahead, Drisc! Hit me!’ I’m like, ‘This guy is nuts!’ ”

In Year 1 under Drew, Baylor overachieved to finish 8-21. In Year 2, the Bears again drew praise for their effort but won only one Big 12 game. There was no mystery what needed to change for the Bears to begin climbing the Big 12 ladder.

They needed better players.

A few lean years

In addition to the self-imposed sanctions, the ongoing investigation and the fact that Baylor had last won an NCAA tournament game in 1950, Drew had one other obstacle to overcome when trying to recruit top players to Waco.

An antiquated locker room and no practice facility left him little to showcase when top prospects came to visit campus.

Undaunted, Drew recruited donors as relentlessly as players early in his tenure. Raising money to install a smoked glass door inside the locker room was an early victory. “That’s what we were selling,” Driscoll says with a laugh. Eventually, Drew cajoled a donor into funding the remodel of the entire locker room, giving him a badly needed showpiece.

Drew also was a master at painting a picture of what was possible for a recruit, just like he did for Baylor’s search committee. Before NCAA rules rendered it illegal, Drew would have Baylor’s radio play-by-play guy record a mock call of a recruit sinking the basket that sent Baylor to the Final Four. Then he would play that recording at a strategic moment in the recruit’s visit.

The murder of Denehy and the ensuing cover-up damaged Baylor’s reputation among prospects and their parents. Drew and his staff worked long hours trying to find Big 12-caliber players and persuade them to give the Bears a chance. Drew’s assistant coaches would often leave the office to have dinner with their families and put their kids to bed, then come back again to work until 2 or 3 in the morning.

“I know it was obviously a grind but it didn’t feel like a grind because you weren’t doing it by yourself,” Tang told Yahoo Sports. “Coach Driscoll was there, Coach Morefield was there, Coach Drew was there. We were a bunch of young guys who weren’t going to be outworked.”

Drew immediately got his foot in the door with higher-level prospects than previously considered Baylor, but it wasn’t until the 2005 class that the Bears started to win some of those recruiting battles. Plenty of available playing time and the chance to be part of a historic turnaround sold Rivals 150 prospects Curtis Jerrells, Henry Dugat and Kevin Rogers on coming to Baylor.

The arrival of that trio instilled hope that Baylor would no longer be a punching bag in Drew’s third season. Then, just as quickly as optimism returned, it vanished. In the middle of a dinner with donors at his house in June 2005, Drew received word that the NCAA at last had determined Baylor’s punishment. Instead of merely accepting Baylor’s self-imposed sanctions, the NCAA’s committee on infractions barred the Bears from playing any non-conference games during the upcoming season.

The ruling didn’t render Baylor ineligible for the postseason again, but it might as well have. No team would be prepared for Big 12 play under those circumstances, let alone one that would be heavily reliant on freshmen.

“There was a lot of resentment in my heart when I heard that,” said Swanson, a senior on that 2005-06 Baylor team. “Everyone involved in that situation was gone, but we were still suffering the consequences of someone else’s actions. It was a hard pill to swallow. It felt like we were being robbed of an opportunity.”

The lone sign of hope for Baylor was that none of the incoming freshmen asked to be released from their letters of intent. Jerrells, Rogers and Dugat stuck with Baylor through an endless preseason that stretched into early January.

To break up the monotony of practice, Drew sometimes let the Bears play dodgeball. Once, they even simulated the feel of a Big 12 road trip by playing an intrasquad game at American Airlines Arena and staying overnight at a Dallas hotel afterward.

It was creative … but not effective. Bob Knight’s worst Texas Tech team throttled Baylor 79-61 in Lubbock to open Big 12 play. The Bears dropped their first six league games by an average of 20 points and finished 4-13 that season.

Those were tough times for even the eternally positive Drew, but two recruiting developments helped replenish his optimism. Baylor received early commitments from two coveted guards from Louisiana, future McDonald’s All-American Tweety Carter and talented late bloomer LaceDarius Dunn.

Those two helped spearhead a long-anticipated breakthrough two years later, spurred by a bet that will forever be part of Baylor basketball lore.

(From left) Jerome Tang, Paul Mills and Matt Driscoll show off their shaved heads, courtesy of a bet they made with their team in 2008. (Courtesy of Matt Driscoll)
(From left) Jerome Tang, Paul Mills and Matt Driscoll show off their shaved heads, courtesy of a bet they made with their team in 2008. (Courtesy of Matt Driscoll)

Shaving heads

In February 2008, near the end of Drew’s fifth season at Baylor, a few players began needling Matthew Driscoll that his hair was getting too long.

“Why don’t you win a game and I’ll let one of you cut it?” Driscoll sarcastically retorted. “You can make me bald for all I care.”

After storming to a 16-2 start that culminated with a five-overtime victory at Texas A&M, Baylor hit the toughest part of its schedule and abruptly began to backslide. The Bears dropped six of their next seven games, leaving them in danger of plummeting out of contention for the NCAA tournament.

When the players asked if Driscoll was serious about putting his hair on the line, he realized that he had unintentionally struck motivational gold. The Baylor staff soon agreed that every time the Bears won a game for the rest of the season, a different coach would shave his head.

Baylor’s first victim was Michael Beasley-led Kansas State. The Bears celebrated by taking a hair clipper to Driscoll’s head in the locker room.

A convincing road win at Colorado came next. After made baskets the Bears shouted to Tang, “We’re coming for you, Tang. We’re coming for you.”

Baylor won four of its next five games to surge back onto the NCAA tournament bubble. Only a Big 12 tournament loss to Colorado kept the Bears from being locks, prompting mock outrage that Morefield had purposefully botched the scouting report to protect his hair.

Four days later, Baylor hosted a Selection Sunday watch party at the Ferrell Center so that fans could celebrate the Bears’ return to the NCAA tournament after a 30-year drought. Baylor felt confident about its chances after ESPN’s Joe Lunardi told Drew that the Bears were likely to be one of the last teams in the field of 64.

CBS unveiled the East, Midwest and South Regions. No Baylor.

Then came the top half of the West Region. The Bears again did not appear.

“Lunardi had said we were in, so I had no worries at first,” Drew said. “But when it got down to the last few sports, I got to thinking, ‘What if we don’t get called? What am I going to tell everybody?’ ”

The very last team revealed in the bracket was the West Region’s 11th seed. The Ferrell Center held its breath before erupting when Baylor’s name popped up on the screen.

“Pandemonium,” Drew said.

“There was this explosion of emotion,” Mills recalled.

Sixth-seeded Purdue outclassed Baylor in the first round of the NCAA tournament, not that it detracted whatsoever from the Bears’ accomplishment. Besides, they would become postseason regulars from that point forward as Drew began stacking strong recruiting classes one after another, developing a winning culture and evolving into a well-respected, in-game tactician.

In 2010, Baylor advanced to the Elite Eight and nearly waylaid eventual champion Duke.

In 2012, Baylor again lost to the eventual champ in the Elite Eight, this time running into Anthony Davis’ Kentucky juggernaut.

The Bears have reached every NCAA tournament but one since 2014, a run highlighted by their 54-6 record over the past two seasons. And now a national championship.

“If your son is 17 or 18, they only know the last 10 years of Baylor basketball, and the last 10 years have been pretty special,” Tang said. “I remember when we got here, Baylor had never beaten Rick Barnes. Our players don’t remember that. Me and Scott, we remember.”

Matt Sayman encounters something similar whenever players he coaches or their parents find out that he played for Baylor.

“Their eyes widen and they’re like, ‘Oh wow, you must have been really good,” ” Sayman said with a laugh. “They don’t quite understand when I got in the door.”

More from Yahoo Sports: