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.
Among the school-imposed sanctions (NCAA penalties would come later) was a reduction in scholarships for two seasons, a ban on all postseason play for the 2004--05 season, and three years of probation, which the NCAA extended to five. Some people called for Baylor, a school that had endured two other basketball-related probations since the mid-1980s, to drop the sport.
Into this smoldering disaster bounded the relentlessly optimistic Drew, then a 32-year-old who had spent the previous 10 years at Valparaiso, nine as an assistant and top recruiter for his equally cheerful father, Homer—who had built the once-downtrodden Crusaders into an eight-time Mid-Continent Conference (now Horizon League) champion—and the last year as head coach. Scott thought Baylor, the country's largest Baptist university, and Valparaiso, one of the country's largest Lutheran universities, had a lot in common. And, says Homer, "Scott loves a challenge." According to his dad, when Scott was a kid and his friends came over to play sports, he would choose his sister, Dana, and his younger brother, Bryce (who'd later become a Valpo star and is now an assistant there under Homer), to be on his team specifically so he would be at a disadvantage. "He was perfect for the job," says Baylor assistant coach Matthew Driscoll. "He's very good at X's and O's, and with his international recruiting experience he could bring in players who didn't know Baylor from Duke, who hadn't been so exposed to the scandal. Also, at this level a coach needs a lot of energy and a thick skin. He's got both."
Drew was hired on Aug. 22, 2003, just seven weeks before the start of basketball practice. Of the eight players he had on scholarship, he would dismiss one in late December for breaking team rules, and two others would be briefly declared academically ineligible, leaving Drew with just five scholarship guys at one point midway through the season. "Hey, it was a walk-on's dream," says Drew, ever the bright-sider. "Not only do you make the team, you get to play!"
Somehow that team won eight games, including three in Big 12 conference play. Moreover, Drew was able to lure a few good international players to Waco, including Bruce, an Australian who would lead the team to a 9--19 record and earn Big 12 freshman of the year honors during the 2004--05 season. (Bruce knew about the scandal, as well as Waco's association with the Branch Davidian cult fiasco of 1993, but he says, "Baylor's pros outweighed the cons.") A year after he signed Bruce and center Mamadou Diene, a 7-footer from Senegal who is getting 1.9 blocks a game off the bench, Drew pulled in a top 20 recruiting class that included guards Curtis Jerrells and Henry Dugat as well as 6'9", 240-pound forward Kevin Rogers, all highly regarded Texans. "I heard 'Why Baylor?' a lot," says Jerrells, a junior who leads the team in scoring (14.4 points a game) and assists (3.5). "It was a joke to a lot of my friends. But it was close to home for me, and I wanted to play right away. I knew I'd get a chance at Baylor."
THAT CHANCE did come, eventually. In June 2005 the NCAA finally handed down its sanctions, including an unprecedented whopper: no nonconference games for the 2005--06 season. Making three straight months of practice interesting was challenging enough—"There wasn't anyone we could call and ask, What did you do that time you didn't have a preseason?" says Driscoll—but starting the season against teams in midseason form was brutal.