Good News Bears
Five years after being devastated by a player's murder and then NCAA probation, Baylor -- buoyed by irrepressible coach Scott Drew and a fired-up fan base -- is off to its best start in 62 seasons
Posted: Tuesday January 29, 2008 11:15AM; Updated: Wednesday January 30, 2008 6:12PM
Scott Drew was four months into his job as men's basketball coach at Baylor when he tried a well-worn motivational ploy. Soon after his undermanned squad lost 72-67 to Division II BYU-Hawaii in the Surf 'n' Slam tournament on Oahu in December 2003, he sent out a manager to buy a boxed set of The Rocky Collection. For much of the next four years, as his depleted team struggled to emerge from the wreckage of one of the worst scandals in college basketball history, Drew showed his players the Rocky movies, as well as Seabiscuit, Hoosiers, Cinderella Man, Miracle, Remember the Titans -- all classics of the David-versus-Goliath genre, which happens to be Drew's favorite.
He would keep up the motif in practice too, frequently playing the Rocky theme song on the gym stereo at the beginning or end of a session. Eventually the players revolted. Now when Drew tries to put it on, a player hurries over and switches the song. "There's only so much Rocky one can take," says senior guard Aaron Bruce.
It's just as well that the soaring crescendos of Gonna Fly Now are rarely heard in the Whetsel Practice Facility anymore because the underdog label no longer fits the Bears. Just 4 1/2 years removed from a grim series of events that almost destroyed the program, Baylor is off to its best start in 62 years -- 16-3 (4-1 in the Big 12) -- and ranked (at No. 25) for the first time since 1969. With depth (10 players average more than 14 minutes), experience (four starters are upperclassmen) and a quintet of guards who make up the best perimeter attack in the Big 12 next to Kansas's, the Bears are a threat to make their first NCAA tournament appearance in 20 years.
Students are pitching tents outside the ticket office, and fans are flocking to games. A throng of 10,393, the third-largest crowd to watch a men's basketball game at the 20-year-old Ferrell Center -- and about 6,000 more than Baylor was averaging three seasons ago -- squeezed together last Saturday to watch the Bears lose a 77-71 thriller to Oklahoma. Says athletic director Ian McCaw, "I really believe we're in the final stages of one of the greatest turnarounds in college basketball history."
The wins, the student support, the swelling of alumni pride, the positive national attention the Bears are enjoying -- none of it was imaginable back in July 2003, when junior center Patrick Dennehy was found dead in a gravel pit outside Waco with two bullets in his head. His teammate and roommate, Carlton Dotson, was charged with the murder and eventually pleaded guilty, receiving a sentence of 35 years in prison. Adding egregious insult to the tragedy, coach Dave Bliss was recorded attempting to cover up improper tuition payments he had made to Dennehy and a teammate by trying to get his players and assistants to say Dennehy had paid his tuition by dealing drugs. On Aug. 8, just two weeks after Dennehy's body was discovered, Bliss and athletic director Tom Stanton resigned. Because of the unusual circumstances the NCAA waived its requirement that transfers sit out a year, and the team's three best players departed: forward Lawrence Roberts to Mississippi State, where he became the SEC player of the year in 2003-04; point guard John Lucas III to Oklahoma State, where he helped the Cowboys get to the 2004 Final Four; and shooting guard Kenny Taylor to Texas, where he became a key reserve.