Pressed against a cool cinder block wall in a gym in Denton, Texas, where the autograph hounds haven't yet found him, Clyde Drexler looks and sounds like any other college coach going through the eye-glazing rituals of the July evaluation period. Wearing a red polo shirt with UNIVERSITY OF HOUSTON emblazoned on the chest, he placidly watches a high school tournament game unfold, remarking occasionally on the size of some kid's feet or the number of players who say they are 6'9" when they really are 6'6". Then Drexler sees something that causes him to perk up. Driving for an uncontested layup, a skinny point guard in a blue jersey abruptly passes the ball behind his head and out-of-bounds. The kid cracks up, and so does Drexler. "Did you see that?" asks Drexler. "I loved that he laughed after he made that mistake. You gotta have fun. That's what this should be all about."
Is that what Drexler's unexpected change of careers is all about? When he announced on March 18 that he was retiring from the NBA after the Houston Rockets' season and would take over a Houston program that had just lost 20 games for the first time in school history, friends and fans alike were stunned. For one thing, though in the 15th year of a stellar NBA career, Glide still had game: The night before his announcement, he had scored 15 points and had nine assists against the Milwaukee Bucks, and he was leading the Rockets in scoring with an 18.6-point average. And since when had the supremely laid-back Drexler, who had often been criticized for not being the leader his teams needed, been cut out for coaching? Most baffling of all, why would the 10-time All-Star, who had made millions and could do whatever he wanted, choose to join one of America's most ulcer-inducing professions, even if the job was at his struggling alma mater?
"I do plan on retiring someday and traveling the world with my family," says the 36-year-old Drexler, a father of four, a dabbler in foreign languages and a collector of art and antiques. "But I decided two years ago that this would be my last season in the NBA, and I didn't want to leave the game without sharing some of my knowledge and expertise. I couldn't pass up this chance to coach at my alma mater and get it back up to speed, because there are a lot of things wrong with it."
Since the early '80s, when Drexler, Hakeem (then Akeem) Olajuwon and the other members of the storied Phi Slamma Jamma teams took Houston to three consecutive Final Fours, the Cougars have fallen on hard times. They haven't won an NCAA tournament game since their Final Four appearance in 1984, the year after Drexler left to join the Portland Trail Blazers following his junior season. During the five-year reign of Drexler's predecessor, Alvin Brooks, who was fired in March, Houston's record was a dismal 54-84. Last season the 10,000-seat Hofheinz Pavilion, once the host to standing-room-only crowds, drew barely 2,200 fans a game.
Worse, as athletic director Chet Gladchuk discovered in a series of meetings after being hired in July 1997, former Houston stars like Drexler, Olajuwon, Otis Birdsong and Elvin Hayes had lost interest in associating with a program that no longer resembled the one they remembered. "The sense of unity, family, camaraderie and fun, and of having a distinguished past, had disappeared," says Gladchuk. "I wanted to get that back."
Enter Drexler, who during his conversations with Gladchuk had expressed an interest in coaching. After Gladchuk announced on March 1 that Brooks would be replaced at the end of the season, Drexler became a serious candidate for the post. The athletic director tried to lay out everything the job would entail; for visual effect he even showed Drexler an eight-inch-high stack of NCAA rules and regulations. "Nothing would dissuade him," says Gladchuk, who signed Drexler to a five-year contract that pays a base salary of $150,000 (a considerable cut from the $5.5 million Drexler earned last season with the Rockets), with incentives that could double that amount. At Drexler's request, the contract includes a clause that encourages the new coach to work toward completing the 43 hours he needs for his B.A. in education.
Drexler admits that his friends and relatives thought he was nuts to go back to the college game. "They said, 'Do you know how much work it is?' " he says. "And it is a lot of work. I've been surprised by what an all-day job it is, 8 a.m. to 7 p.m., every day. And that's just in July. But I want this chance to help shape young men. I'm having fun. I'm really happy I did this."
No one knows if Drexler can coach, but he apparently knows how to recruit. After all, he persuaded former Cougars teammate Reid Gettys, the point guard who fed the frat brothers of Phi Slamma Jamma their alley-oops and who still owns every major assists record at the school, to put his law career on hold and become his assistant and fellow missionary. "Clyde and I didn't get into this for any reason other than to return the program to its tradition and glory," says Gettys, who had a brief, unhappy tenure as a graduate assistant under former Cougars coach Pat Foster in 1989-90 and has since followed the game as a TV analyst. "If we succeed, I don't want the Appalachian State job. This is all about the University of Houston. Clyde and I both have an enormous learning curve, but we have a passion for UH that Chet Gladchuk can't hire. And you know what? I've laughed more in the last three months than I have in the last five years."
Drexler has also added to his staff George Walker, an assistant to Guy Lewis during the Phi Slamma Jamma years who most recently was the coach and assistant athletic director at South Florida Community College. Walker is amazed by the stacks of letters, résumés and videotapes—not to mention the moms, dads, aunts and uncles with boys of all ages in tow—that have been arriving almost daily at the basketball office since Drexler was hired. "Everybody thinks he has a son or nephew who can play for Clyde Drexler," says Walker.
Even if Drexler never wins a game, he has brought about a remarkable financial resurrection. Season-ticket sales have already shot up to 4,200 from last year's 1,200. All 24 of the new corporate luxury boxes in Hofheinz have been sold for the next three seasons at $45,000 apiece, and sales of courtside seats, which cost $1,000 per game, have increased from 65 to 265.