WACO, Tex. — When Scott Drew was in the early stages of perhaps the greatest rebuilding job in college basketball history, Texas Coach Rick Barnes was among those patting him on the back, saying nobody could have done a better job. Five years later, Barnes was among the many college coaches hinting that Drew was using negative recruiting tactics.
So Drew initiated a telephone conversation with Barnes to discuss concerns the Longhorns coach had about Drew’s recruiting efforts. The tenor of the 90-minute call was professional, and the back-and-forth, collegial conversation served as a seminal moment in Drew’s young head coaching career.
Over the past nine seasons, Drew has rescued a Baylor program in the wake of the murder of former player Patrick Dennehy and the ensuing scandal that ensnared former Coach Dave Bliss. But along the way, the perception of Drew changed from the author of the back-from-the-ashes narrative to one of the most unpopular coaches in college basketball.
“A dog doesn’t bark at a parked car, but once you make some noise . . . ,” said Matthew Driscoll, the head coach at North Florida who spent six seasons as Drew's assistant when he arrived at Baylor. “If you lose, people shake your hand. When you start winning, they will start throwing darts at you.”
In recent years, college coaches across the country have privately characterized Drew as a phony, a cheater and a bench coach who can’t get out of his own way. The other change in recent years is this: Baylor, the No. 3 seed in this year’s NCAA tournament South Region, has become an unlikely national title contender, disrupting the balance of power in the Big 12.
“Competition definitely changes things,” Drew said with a laugh during a lengthy visit with a reporter in the heart of the conference season.
Drew, 41, wears a perpetual smile and is as optimistic a coach as one will find in a profession laden with the paranoid, the cutthroat and the workaholic. He is a skilled recruiting salesman who can attempt to sell Waco as a city by reciting the number of movie theaters (three), shopping centers (two) and nearby airports (three), as if on cue.
He’ll call up Google Maps to show a visitor that the Branch Davidian compound resided nowhere near city limits. One prominent Texas-based summer-league coach likes Drew personally but said that his efforts to always “sell, sell, sell Baylor” can grow tiresome.
“If you are the way he is, people say, ‘No way is he really that way,’ ” Driscoll said. “We had to deal with that every year, every day. Not only did they think he was a phony, but that nobody would ever be like this in that profession.”
Drew led Baylor to the 2008 NCAA tournament just five seasons after he and assistants scoured campus to fill roster spots because of the dearth of scholarship players. But Drew began to face criticism after that 2008 first-round loss to Purdue because the Bears played a permissive defense that seemed suited for an AAU tournament. Drew laughs at it now.
“We were not there long,” Drew said. “The defense was not there either. It didn’t make it through the airport!”
Two years later, Drew knew he had a team good enough to win a national championship. And third-seeded Baylor had top-seeded Duke on the ropes in an Elite Eight game played in Houston, just three hours from Baylor’s campus. But a controversial charging call contributed to Baylor unraveling in the final minutes in a loss that served as more fuel to the perception that Drew was a subpar coach. It took Drew two years to watch the tape.
Securing a commitment several years ago from guard Tweety Carter was significant because it was Baylor’s first-ever McDonald’s all-American. But Drew pushed the envelope on the recruiting front, making at least one aggressive move that he regrets. He sent a flier to prospects with images of himself, then-Texas Tech Coach Bob Knight and then-Texas A&M Coach Billy Gillispie.
The question posed: “Which one of these Big 12 coaches has signed a McDonald’s All-American?” An X was made over the images of the other two coaches. Drew now calls it a mistake and addressed it personally with Knight and Gillispie in the ensuing months.
Then there was the hiring of Dwon Clifton as Baylor’s director of player development. Clifton was the former AAU coach of John Wall, and the move, while not uncommon, was seen in recruiting circles as a desperate attempt to secure a commitment by a head coach who purports to be pious.
All things considered, Drew is on the short list of the sport’s most hated coaches. He does not like the criticism. He hopes a potential national championship someday could change at least the notion that he is an inferior coach. And much like his players improve every year, he said so do coaches.
“We get so wrapped up with trying to please the other people, we neglect the people that matter most,” Drew said. “Hopefully we’re blessed to live to 85 and on our deathbed, you never hear anyone say I wish I would have spent more time at work or I wish I would have spent more time pleasing people that didn’t matter.”