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Baylor reaching unimaginable heights

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Reid Forgrave

Reid Forgrave has worked for the Des Moines Register, the Cincinnati Enquirer and the Seattle Times. His work has been recognized by Associated Press Sports Editors, the Livingston Awards for Young Journalists and the Society for Features Journalism. Follow him on Twitter.

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WACO, Texas

The man who has engineered the most unlikely program turnaround in college hoops history is sitting in the corner of a downtown Waco diner, the very same place he brings all his recruits.

This is Scott Drew at work: Guzzling coffee, smiling and joking with the waitress, chattering away with his iPhone’s ear buds plugged in his ear, which is how most of his days are spent. He’s talking to his strength coach, then he’s talking to his trainer, and then he turns his attention to you.

Today we live in a world of skeptics. Conspirators will always paint a tinge of doubt when something amazing happens where it’s not supposed to. And the Baylor basketball program, which before Drew had been to one NCAA tournament since 1950, had always been a place where nothing amazing ever happened.

The hierarchy of Big 12 basketball was clear. Baylor was the bottom, the wasteland of college hoops. And that was even before a player murdered his teammate in 2003, which led to a widening scandal that caused the previous coach to resign and the NCAA to levy heavy sanctions.

Surrounded by this ugly cloud, joining a scandal-tainted program that aspired to mediocrity, Drew began his first season at Baylor in 2003.

Now, his program is one of only five schools that have made the Elite Eight in two of the past three years. The others in that list are the elite of college basketball: Kentucky, North Carolina, Kansas and Florida. Only two schools — Kentucky and North Carolina — had more players selected in the 2012 NBA draft than Baylor’s three.

For Baylor to be mentioned in the same breath as these schools is indeed amazing — and also something that causes people to wonder, to doubt, to guess at the sins this Baptist school committed to reach these heights.

But when he focuses on you, and you realize you’re now the one he’s recruiting for the Baylor basketball program, the secret of his unlikely success is laid plain.

It’s simple: Scott Drew is an impossible person not to fall for.

He may be the most energetic and positive person you’ll ever meet. He tells you why Waco might be the best college town in the Big 12 (the weather, the proximity to big cities like Dallas and Houston, the excellent Tex-Mex), and you start to believe him.

He talks about Christianity in an evangelical way that’s far from preachy. He gives you his favorite Christian book (“The Shack”) and over the next few weeks he texts you again and again to see if you liked it.

He asks your wife’s and kid’s names and he doesn’t forget. He talks more about his own family than about basketball — his wife, his three young kids and his father, former Valparaiso basketball coach Homer Drew. To call him charming is like calling LeBron James a good basketball player.

First rule of a great salesman: Before you sell a thing, make sure the buyer likes you.

“Recruiting is sales,” the 42-year-old Drew explained. “Recruiting is really about people, and I like spending time with people. But unless you have a product that’s worthy at the end of the day, then you don’t have anything.”

That was the rub at first. The product Scott Drew was selling was one of the worst, most scandal-ridden programs in college basketball, and his main selling point was that, well, come here and you can play right away.

There can be something inherently unseemly about a great salesman who gets you to buy something you otherwise wouldn’t have considered. At first, before Drew could sell a successful basketball program, he had to sell other things. He had to sell himself, he had to sell potential, he had to sell Baylor’s religious foundation — and selling religion is always a sticky proposition.

Now the salesman has a product that’s more blueblood than doormat. Even in a down year, Baylor still sits on the bubble for the NCAA tournament. They’re a draw nobody would want in the Round of 64.

When its three stars — agile 7-footer Isaiah Austin, speedy point guard Pierre Jackson and bruising power forward Cory Jefferson — all play well, this long and athletic Baylor team can beat anyone in the country.

At breakfast, Drew puts down his fork and swallows his last bite of pancake. He wants to tell you how he learned his trade: part basketball coach, part salesman. Drew’s voice gets a bit more serious. This is important. This is meaningful. And suddenly you realize: The story of how Scott Drew became the best salesman in college hoops is really a story about a father and a son.

Scott Drew was 3 or 4 years old. He was excited. He got to go on a long car ride with his dad. He remembers playing with a toy airplane in the car. He remembers his dad getting pulled over for speeding, and he remembers the police lights sparkling in the night.

This was before his father, Homer Drew, ignored his friend Digger Phelps’ advice (“You can’t win at Valpo”), took the job and turned Valparaiso basketball from nothing special into something amazing.

This was when Homer Drew was the basketball coach at tiny Bethel College, and he was wearing out the roads of Indiana and Michigan in search of talented high school kids who’d give his little program a try.

And this was Scott Drew’s earliest childhood memory: Going on a recruiting trip with his dad.

* * * * *

There is a giant elephant in the room whenever kind words are spoken about Drew. It's something his assistant coaches bring up unprompted, then roll their eyes and vigorously defend him.

It is the first reaction of an editor when you bring up writing this story. It is something Drew himself would rather not be mentioned — focus on the positive, always — because he hates that this is a society of guilt by association, and he hates being associated with the innuendo and the whispers.

The giant elephant is this: Scott Drew is dirty. A cheat. A coach who, yes, pulled his program from the doldrums but must have done so through unsavory means. It’s a view that colors the perception of Drew within coaching circles. A CBSSports.com survey of nearly 100 college coaches last year named Drew the second-biggest cheat in the sport, behind Kentucky’s slick operator, John Calipari.

It comes from things Drew did as a young coach, like when he forever made an enemy of Bob Knight with a flier he sent recruits. A picture had Drew between Knight and former Texas A&M coach Billy Gillispie, with the caption, “Which of these Big 12 coaches has signed a McDonald’s All-American?” Big red X’s were over both Knight and Gillispie (Drew regrets that flier).

It comes from when Texas coach Rick Barnes chastised Drew for creating a staff position for the AAU coach of John Wall, a program-defining recruit coaches coveted (a since-closed loophole in NCAA rules).

Or it simply comes from the fact that Drew and his staff swim with the sharks of big-time, big-money college basketball while bathing themselves in a Christianity that to outsiders feels holier than thou.

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After last year’s Elite Eight run, the headlines blared about Baylor: Drew was finally caught. A nearly three-year NCAA investigation found “major” violations in the Baylor men’s and women’s basketball programs. The violations? More than 1,200 impermissible phone calls and text messages, sent over a 29-month span. (Drew explained the majority of the phone-logging violations this way: Say he calls a recruit 50 times in one month, but the recruit never picks up. If he doesn’t log the first of the 50 calls, the next 49 are considered violations.)

Wait — what? This is the second-biggest cheat in all of college hoops? He cheats by being on his phone too much? He doesn’t log his calls properly? His big punishment is a two-game suspension and two months where he can’t make recruiting calls?

“The biggest thing the NCAA was able to charge Baylor with after a lengthy investigation is that the staff got kinda crazy with their iPhones,” Gary Parrish wrote in a column on CBSSports.com. “The NCAA didn't find an agent funneling a prospect to the program (as was found at Connecticut under Jim Calhoun) or a fraudulent SAT score (as was found at Memphis under John Calipari) or a compromised drug policy (as was found at Syracuse under Jim Boeheim).”

All the rumors of cheating seemed to boil down to this: Baylor did the impossible, so Baylor must be a cheat. Baylor outrecruited other Texas schools for McDonald’s All-Americans like Perry Jones III and Isaiah Austin (both from Dallas) and Tweety Carter (from neighboring Louisiana), so Baylor must be a cheat. Baylor has made more Elite Eights in the past three years than Duke, Syracuse, UCLA or Indiana, so Baylor must be a cheat.

In this age of cynicism — where Lance Armstrong’s amazing feats ended up being fueled by doping, where Bill Belichick’s amazing feats ended up being tainted by spying, where Major League Baseball’s amazing feats ended up being a juiced-up house of cards — doubt is a natural reaction.

The same sort of whispered accusations were tossed about when Billy Donovan turned lowly Florida into a national power, or when lowly Ole Miss this month signed the nation’s top football recruit and the nation’s fifth-best recruiting class.

You know what it feels like? It feels like jealousy.

* * * * *

Still, you can’t help but wonder: How can this be? If five-star recruit and likely NBA lottery pick Isaiah Austin is being courted by the likes of Kentucky, why on earth would he choose Baylor?

So call up one of Drew’s prize recruits yourself. Ask him. Why did future NBA player Quincy Acy end up at Baylor, anyway?

“You meet the guy and you can’t hate him,” Acy said after finishing practice with the Toronto Raptors, who drafted him after his senior year at Baylor. “He’s got this open and bubbly personality. [Drew and two Baylor assistant coaches] came down to visit me. They came to my church. My uncle’s a preacher at that church. They went up on stage, and they talked to my church. Our families just fell in love with them. That solidified it right there.”

Acy’s recruitment — Baylor beat out Oklahoma and Florida — personifies what Drew has tried to do at Baylor. The basketball program recruits its two niches: Texas basketball players and Christian basketball players.

Austin’s reasons for coming to Baylor were simple: He grew up Baptist, he wanted that influence in college, he liked being close to home. It didn’t hurt that Drew was the first college coach he met back in eighth grade and that Drew continued building that relationship through high school.

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Acy, from nearby Tyler, Texas, also liked the idea of going to the nation’s largest Baptist school. He liked the idea of a school where coaches text Bible verses to their players, and a program where nearly every player ends up getting his college degree.

“That meant a lot,” Acy said. “I was raised in church. The program and the school was everything I was about. It was good academically. A religious school. The program was on the rise, it was overlooked, an underdog, and that’s how I felt I was and still am. I want to be part of something that fights hard and gets recognition and puts itself on the map.”

But so many assume Drew’s program is dirty.

“I just don’t think it’s fair,” Acy said. “Because we don’t have a long history of winning, he has to be cheating to get good players? Kentucky, North Carolina, they get good players every year. Are they cheating? I don’t think it’s fair he gets judged like that when dudes are just choosing the school for the right reasons.

“People ask me, ‘Was he paying you guys?’ I hate that. I never received any money. You don’t know how hard I was struggling in college. Ekpe [Udoh, now of the Milwaukee Bucks] and I were roommates. We were on a diet of Quaker Oats oatmeal and Earl Campbell hot links. Oatmeal and sausage links were our breakfast, lunch and dinner.

“It’s not fair he gets judged and we get judged. Coach Drew really builds a relationship with you. He brings you into his office, makes sure you stand in The Word, makes sure your life off the court is good. He genuinely cares about people outside of basketball.”

* * * * *

You are standing in the Baylor Bears locker room before a recent game. This might be the loudest locker room in sports. A high-tech speaker system blares hip-hop — “I Did It For My Dawgs,” by DJ Khaled, “I’m Different,” by 2 Chainz — and it’s so loud you have to lean in if you want to hear anyone talking (Coaches put clean versions of the songs on their pre-game playlist, not explicit versions. This is still a Baptist school, after all). This is so much a part of this team’s identity that they bring their speaker system to road games.

The philosophy of how Baylor treats its players is borne right out of Drew’s personality: Be positive. Nurture these kids, don’t tear them down.

Call it a country-club mentality if you like, but Drew happily goes on making his players feel special. He wows them when they’re recruits by showing them the fingerprint-scan security system into the basketball facility. He keeps wooing them as players with flat-screen TVs at every locker and a top-of-the-line weight room that other Big 12 strength coaches ask to tour before games.

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Hints of impressive futures dot their facilities. Ten framed NBA jerseys of former Baylor players hang in the film room so these kids’ NBA dreams are never far from mind. But coaches strive to keep the kids focused on what this university stands for.

The music is turned off. Tip-off is near. Sometimes players lead the prayer, but today it’s Drew. He asks God to give them a focus.

“Heavenly Father, we thank you for the opportunity to play the game we love with the people we love.”

You think back to how things used to be. Before Drew’s first season, the school had to hold a campus-wide tryout for walk-ons. When Drew’s Baylor teams started winning Big 12 games, coaches who lost to them ended up getting fired.

Assistants still joke about “The Curse of Losing to Baylor” — so embarrassed were schools about losing to the Big 12 doormat that four coaches were fired after losing to Baylor in Drew’s first few seasons.

You think back to when Drew invited fans to the Ferrell Center in 2008 for a Selection Sunday watch party. Baylor was the last at-large bid called, and the place erupted.

Now Baylor is so often in play for the top recruits — so often a Top 25 team, so often a tournament team — it can be easy to forget how difficult the early days were. Now success no longer comes as a surprise. Now a season in which they are 16-9 and two games off the lead in the Big 12 feels like a down year.

You think back to something Drew told you earlier, about how selling Baylor’s program has to be about the players more than about him.

“If it’s about you, people aren’t going to want to join," he said. "If it’s about them, people are more apt to come. How do you help them? You just have to genuinely care.”

You want the five-star recruits to know you care, sure, but when you’re building a program from nothing, you treat everyone as if they’re Baylor basketball’s next recruit.

The prayer is over. The music is turned back up. Drew starts clapping, even dancing a bit. There’s some swagger in Waco now. The players walk out of the locker room, then jog through a cloud of nitrogen gas and onto the court. The fans go nuts. Austin blows a kiss at his mom. His teammates jump in the air and high-five the fans.

But Drew stands back, letting the players soak in the attention for what Baylor basketball has become.

Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com.

Tagged: North Carolina, Kentucky, Florida, Baylor, Texas, Quincy Acy

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