Outside an empty hotel ballroom on a sleepy Saturday morning many Novembers ago far, far away, the college basketball head coach just wanted to talk college football.
Notre Dame football.
Baylor coach Scott Drew was in Year Five of his tear-down/reconstruction program in Waco, Texas. That 2007-08 season would deliver Drew his first 20-win campaign and a trip to the NCAA tournament. More of both would follow. Drew and his staff would construct rosters that rivaled anyone, especially at the guard spot where the Bears often could overwhelm opponents with their athleticism and execution.
On this November day, as the sandy beaches and clear waters of the U.S. Virgin Islands beckoned out the windows of the Marriott’s Frenchman Cove resort, Drew and Baylor prepared for an early-season tournament game the following evening against Notre Dame.
Once he talked up his team for a few minutes and the voice recorder was put away, Drew turned the tables on a South Bend reporter and started asking questions. All of them were about Notre Dame football. A game against Duke at Notre Dame Stadium was hours away for the Irish. Drew planned to watch and wanted to know about Charlie Weis. He wondered about quarterback Jimmy Clausen and the disaster of a season that was limping toward 3-9.
Will they ever win a national championship again, wondered Drew.
Thirteen years and a few months later, Notre Dame football has yet to experience what Drew did Monday night in Indianapolis — a national championship.
There Drew sat early Tuesday in the underbelly of Lucas Oil Stadium, a white and green and gold national championship hat on his head, a black and gold title t-shirt on his torso. In his right hand, he clutched a plastic bottle of Coke. He even took a sip, because nothing tastes better after the biggest win of your life than cola. Around his neck lay the net just cut down following the 86-70 victory over Gonzaga.
“You don’t get these opportunities often,” Drew said. “When you do, you’ve got to make the most of them. I thought we were really on a mission to make the most of them. We wanted to leave it all on the table.”
Leave it on the table because there’s no guarantee that Baylor and Drew might ever get another chance. Not next year or the year after or ever. The school went 71 years between Final Fours, so max out the moment in the moment.
“It’s hard to do,” Drew said.
Baylor made it look ridiculously easy. Midnight had come and gone, but sleep wasn’t anywhere near the radar of the 50-year-old Drew, whose basketball roots run deep in Northern Indiana. His father, Homer, coached 11 years at Bethel University and one at IU South Bend. Drew attended Penn High School for three years. He coached one season at Valparaiso University, then lit out for Waco to take a job many begged him not to take.
A man with a plan
First year down there, Drew held walk-on tryouts just to have enough players to practice and play games. The Bears would routinely lose three, four, five in a row, often by really wide margins. They went 8-21 overall, 3-13 in the Big 12 his first year. Routine trips to the NCAA Tournament seemed worlds away.
“If we could just keep it close,” Drew said of that first season. “They laid the foundation. It’s their championship as much as ours. That’s why it’s a ‘we’ thing.”
Seventeen years later, Baylor had guys who were scary good. It had dudes, and you win titles with dudes. Go find a team with four guards better than Jared Butler and Davion Mitchell and MaCio Teague and Adam Flagler. You won’t, maybe not even in the NBA.
“When the best is needed, the best is usually provided,” Drew said of that perimeter. “Our guys, the better the opponent, the better they play. They love being the first. That really motivates them.”
Motivated them from the start. This one was a championship game in name only. It was more a clinic. Baylor raced to a double-digit lead barely four minutes in, then spent the rest of the game simply doing what it does — turning the screws from all angles on an opponent that had few answers. It led for a staggering 39:27 and by as many as 20 points. It never even trailed.
As he settled in for his 17-minute post-game Zoom presser, Drew couldn’t stop smiling. It all didn’t seem real, but then again, it all did.
Drew arrived in Waco in 2003 and immediately talked of winning championships. National championships. Many thought he’d been cooped up too long in the cold and snow of Northern Indiana. Win a national championship at Baylor? Be one of the best in the Big 12? Yeah, right.
Drew wasn’t joking. His program proved that Monday night. It was supposed to be Gonzaga’s night to step into history and become the first program since Indiana in 1976 to sail through a season without a loss. Instead, it was Baylor, the private Baptist school that could. And with Drew, now a little older, a little wiser than that afternoon in the Virgin Islands. But still with that aw-shucks, this-sure-is-swell disposition.
Why Baylor? Why not?
“Our team has been special,” Drew said of a squad that’s gone 54-6 the last two seasons, most wins among any power-five conference program. “We’ve been really, really good.”
Along the way, Baylor often played beautiful basketball. The Bears didn’t so much win Monday’s game as it wrestled it away with its focus and its defense and its shot making. As good as Baylor was in rolling through its first five tournament wins by an average of 18.6 points, the Bears were even better in the finale. It takes a little luck to be the last of 68 tournament teams standing. Win a close tournament contest on a last-second shot or stop and advance. But the Bears never needed luck in Indy.
“Our guys were so dominate this entire tournament,” Drew said. “That just speaks volumes to them.”
Drew’s team beat Mike Brey’s bunch by four that November, 2007 night in the Virgin Islands. The Bears were too deep and too talented and too good for a veteran Big East team to handle. You could see it then that if Drew ever got it rolling in Waco, they’d perennially be a problem. Maybe not elite as they were Monday, but good enough to do stuff that Drew once dreamed of Notre Dame football doing — standing on the sport’s mountain top and soaking in the view.