Coach Drew spearheads Baylor's rise from unimaginable depths

NCAA First Round: Radford Highlanders v North Carolina Tar Heels

NCAA First Round: Radford Highlanders v North Carolina Tar Heels (Streeter Lecka, Getty Images / March 19, 2009)

NEW ORLEANS

Scandal and college sports have been linked from the start. Academic fraud, point shaving, cash-stuffed envelopes.

But nothing compared to Baylor basketball. Nothing was this tragic, despicable and outrageous.

The program was broke — ethically, morally, athletically. A player was dead, a teammate charged with his murder, their coach exposed in a cover-up.

Tonight, less than seven years later, Baylor faces Old Dominion in the second round of the NCAA tournament in New Orleans.

The seismic change is testament to faith, luck and a young coach's power of persuasion.

That coach is 40-year-old Scott Drew, who for reasons only he fully understands left a comfortable gig at Valparaiso for the decidedly uncomfortable task at Baylor.

"First of all, (I'm) not going anywhere without prayer," Drew said Friday, "and I felt led to go there, and I really felt comfortable with the leaders of the school at the time and their vision."

With more than 14,000 students, Baylor, located in Waco, Texas, is the nation's largest Baptist university and the only private school in the Big 12 Conference. Aside from reaching the "final four" of an eight-team NCAA tournament in 1950, the Bears were irrelevant, though well-acquainted with misfortune.

En route to a 1927 game at Texas, the team bus was hit by a train, killing 10 passengers. An on-campus monument honors the "Immortal Ten."

The summer of 2003 and its aftermath were all about dishonor.

It began when basketball player Patrick Dennehy, a transfer from the University of New Mexico, went missing. His abandoned SUV was discovered in Virginia Beach, his body in a gravel pit near Waco.

Former Baylor teammate Carlton Dotson was quickly charged and later pleaded guilty to the murder — Dennehy was shot in the head. Dotson is serving a 35-year prison sentence.

As the saga unfolded, Bears coach Dave Bliss encouraged players to portray Dennehy as a drug dealer to authorities. They refused, and as Bliss' lies unraveled, university and NCAA investigations uncovered rampant rules violations.

That August, after one season as head coach at Valparaiso, the school where his father as coach and brother as player found fame with a 1998 run to the NCAA Sweet 16, Scott Drew took over at Baylor.

The school and NCAA saddled the program with scholarship cuts, recruiting restrictions and postseason bans. In 2005-06, the Bears were prohibited from playing non-conference games.

"It wasn't as if they were in an average spot," ODU coach Blaine Taylor said. "They were basically bankrupt. I would say this: I'm not sure that everybody in that whole place didn't pull themselves up by the bootstraps and say, 'We have to do things a little better, a little differently.' "

"Better" started with recruiting, and Drew found his cornerstone in Tweety Carter, a heralded guard from a small, Christian school in Reserve, La. Connecticut, LSU and Mississippi State also offered Carter a scholarship, but he chose Baylor, the first McDonald's All-American ever to sign with the Bears.

"Baylor was the perfect opportunity to … be a part of something special," said Carter, a senior and the team's No. 2 scorer.

Carter, in turn, helped recruit LaceDarius Dunn, another guard from a Christian school in Louisiana. But it was Drew who closed the deal.

"I got that vibe from him," said Dunn, a junior and the Bears' top scorer, "that father-figure love that made me want to play for him."

After winning just 36 games in Drew's first four years, Baylor has won 71 in the last three, including a school-record 26 this season. The Bears are seeded third in the South Region, and Thursday's first-round conquest of Sam Houston State was the program's first NCAA tournament victory since 1950 — Baylor won at Virginia Tech en route to last year's NIT final.

"We needed players to come in and help build a program," Drew said, "a program that needed positive attention and needed a chance to build history. Some players really respond to an opportunity to play right away and have a chance to build something rather than be a follower."

Said Dunn: "We don't get caught up in the things that happened at Baylor when we weren't here. So the main thing we focused on was just getting this team together and getting the chemistry as tight as it is right now, and even tighter to do great things."

David Teel can be reached at 247-4636 or by e-mail at dteel@dailypress.com. For more from Teel, read his blog at dailypress.com/teeltime.

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