TULSA, Okla. — The list of places where Baylor representatives feel unconditionally welcome may be dwindling, and understandably so. The BOK Center here is nevertheless on that list, if the lunch spread outside the team locker room on Thursday was any indication. There were chopped fresh fruit parfait shooters. There were salad cups. There was a choice of two sandwiches: Peanut butter and jelly or the more exotic Nutella and jelly option. Lastly, but not least in any sense, there were heaping mounds of strawberry shortcake resting atop small black plastic plates.
“Make sure you help yourself,” Scott Drew said a bit furtively, before clapping a visitor on the shoulder and laughing a very contagious laugh.
On the eve of the NCAA tournament, the agreeability of the school’s 46-year-old men’s basketball coach remained robust. No other Baylor team had won more regular-season games than the 25 won by this crew. No other Baylor team had ever been ranked No. 1, and no team, period, had gone from unranked in the preseason to the top of the polls faster, with the Bears achieving the feat in nine weeks. But, of course, all this was done in the shadow of a massive sexual violence scandal that engulfed anyone affiliated with the school. There was no escaping it, and no sympathy for the fact that there was no escaping it. Those in Waco, Texas, would argue this is unfair. Those outside of Waco might note that Baylor hasn’t demonstrated a real solid grasp of fairness itself.
If Drew was wearied by any of this, he didn’t betray Thursday. Even when a television reporter brought up recent NCAA tournament failures, he pointed to Elite Eight runs past and declared himself a glass half-full guy. And so one of the most successful seasons in program history might also end in a crossroads: If the school is to ever recover its reputation, it helps to have a positive, propulsive personality like its 14th–year head coach at the forefront of the effort. The question is whether that personality will be around to help the healing. Even before the coaching carousel spun off its axle with Indiana’s firing of Tom Crean, it was not outrageous to wonder if the stigma at Baylor makes a move to less turbulent air attractive to Drew, especially with some fairly reasonable landing spots available.
“The great thing is right now our staff is 100% committed to our team and making sure we finish in a way that can make Baylor Nation proud,” Drew said in an arena hallway, when asked about his comfort level and how he would approach it if his name came up for open jobs elsewhere. “We’ve all worked too hard this year to have our mind on anything else but the next game and hopefully making sure it’s not our last.”
Baylor and Drew are a terrific fit. He’s a guy who’s big on faith and family at a place that, from his perspective, values both. “I come from a family atmosphere, where it’s a culture of hard work, doing the right thing,” he said. This phrasing indeed may cause a bit of snickering or a spasm of rage. It was in 2012 that Baylor was sanctioned, under Drew’s watch, for NCAA violations that hundreds of illegal calls and texts to players made by basketball staff members. (The program went on three years of probation after self-imposing several penalties including two lost scholarships.) In this case, anyway, Drew refers only to what he sees when, say, NBA All-Star Weekend rolls around and former Baylor players trek to Waco instead of hitting a beach or a big city somewhere thousands of miles away. That’s a connection he has forged as the school’s all-time wins leader (275 of them). The program is inextricably his, and with a reported salary near $2.8 million, Baylor has taken care of Drew in return.
Under any circumstances, good or bad, that dynamic is to be valued. “I wouldn’t be surprised if they named the court after him,” senior forward Ish Wainwright said. “‘Coach Scott Drew Court.’ I wouldn’t be surprised if they named a building after him, or something like that.”
The reality is less sunny. Drew coaches basketball in a football state. He could use an upgraded arena. (Who couldn’t?) And it will be some time, possibly an exceedingly long time, before Baylor moves beyond this latest mess of its own creation. It was only in January that a federal lawsuit landed alleging 52 “acts of rape” by football team members over a four-year period. The fallout is hardly near its end.
While the operators in Bloomington, Ind., may not get to Drew, a product of Butler and Valparaiso, consider the possibility at a school just a few hundred miles away. Illinois needs a coach. It may be difficult to procure talent from Chicago with blue-blood programs circling like vultures for it … but that talent is there, and it would be there for a coach who managed this run at Baylor without a single top 50 recruit. It is a school prepared to offer its new coach as much as $25 million, per a Chicago Tribune report, and doubling someone’s salary is always a decent incentive. (And without casting aspersions on any administrators in charge, concerns over NCAA issues have a way of dissolving in five years’ time.)
Under normal circumstances, that package alone, or something like it in a different venue, may not be enough to lure Scott Drew away. But these are far from normal circumstances.
How long is a high quality coach willing to answer for problems that aren’t directly his? How far will Scott Drew’s love of Baylor go?
For the moment, it has carried him to the third seed in the East Region, a first-round matchup against New Mexico State in Tulsa and around the questioning that is unlikely to cease anytime soon. “The great thing about coaching is that it keeps you so focused and busy on your team,” Drew said. “You try and control what you can control, making sure that your program is representing the university in a way that the alumni can be proud and the school can be proud. Every coach will tell you, we recruit these guys, their parents trust us with them. That’s a full-time job, to make sure we’re doing everything we can to raise them in the right manner on the court and off the court.”
Baylor needs good things going for it. An optimistic, energetic basketball coach is one of those good things. It must hope that, in the coming weeks, the good outweighs the undeniable bad in Scott Drew’s calculations. It must hope that the coach who used “All In” as a rallying cry for this season’s unprecedented success is in no rush to get out.