Commentary

Scott Drew turns Baylor around from black eye to 12-2 start

Originally Published: January 11, 2008
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

When the weekends come and he no longer has to dress for work, Brian Brabazon always reaches for the same T-shirts.

They're tattered and frayed, worn out to the point where the green and gold are faded to near gray. He knows he should have tossed the Ts into the rag pile long ago, but he can't bring himself to do it.

And so when Friday turns into Saturday and Brabazon clocks out as a natural gas controller on the gas pipeline, a lone Baylor basketball fan in Carson City, Nev., dons the school colors.

Brian Brabazon
Damon Winter - Pool/Dallas Morning News/Getty ImagesPatrick Dennehy's stepfather, Brian Brazabon, is a Baylor fan again but said he will never forgive Dave Bliss for his actions.

Brabazon is the most unlikely of Baylor cheerleaders.

Those T-shirts? They belonged to Brabazon's stepson, Patrick Dennehy.

In 2003, Dennehy's murder at the hands of teammate Carlton Dotson was the flint in a firestorm that ended in the revelation of a cover-up, the firing of a coach and athletic director, NCAA probation as well as some of the harshest penalties in the history of the organization, and the demise of the Baylor basketball program.

From the ashes, Baylor is coming back. The Bears are 12-2 as they head into their Big 12 opener Saturday against Iowa State (ESPN Classic, 6 p.m. ET), a legitimate postseason threat awarded a 12-seed in Joe Lunardi's latest Bracketology.

In November, Baylor won the Paradise Jam, its first in-season tourney title since 1971, and in December beat South Carolina for its first nonconference road win in 25 games. For a Nov. 30 date with Washington State, 10,193 packed the Ferrell Center -- the fourth-largest crowd in the gym's history and the largest since 2003, when everything began to unravel.

But perhaps the most telling evidence that Baylor basketball is reborn is the graciousness of a man who hasn't stepped inside a college basketball arena in nearly five years for fear of acting like a "blubbering fool," but who again is rooting for the Bears.

"I don't know if happy is the word, but I'm satisfied," said Brazabon, who entered Dennehy's life when Dennehy was 8 months old. "I'm glad that Scott Drew was named coach. He stepped into a hornet's nest and he withstood all the troubles the program was having. If someone were to invite me to a Baylor game, I'd go in a minute. Not that I'm anyone important, but I would like to shake his hand and say, 'Thank you, congratulations and good luck.'"

"Are you crazy?"


Good luck wasn't the sentiment on most people's minds when Scott Drew left Valparaiso for Baylor, when Ian McCaw took over as athletic director, when guard Aaron Bruce left Australia for Waco, when LaceDarius Dunn took his top-25 prepster skills to the Bears.

Most people wrinkled their eyebrows and asked them, "Are you crazy?"

"Yes," McCaw laughed. "I heard that more than once."

The 2002-03 season already was rife with scandal.

• Georgia, amid charges of academic fraud by assistant coach Jim Harrick Jr. that included passing grades in a basketball strategy course, was placed on probation.

• Fresno State, stung by its decision to give Jerry Tarkanian a second chance, was smacked with probation, as well.

• St. Bonaventure's head coach and president were fired for admitting a talented junior college player who had nothing more than a welding certificate.

• Iowa State coach Larry Eustachy was forced to resign after being caught partying with students.

But Baylor delivered the blackest eye in the history of college basketball.

After failing to hear from their son on Father's Day and learning through friends and teammates that Dennehy, a junior forward, hadn't been seen in a week, Valorie and Brian Brabazon reported Dennehy missing to Waco police.

[+] EnlargePatrick Dennehy
AP Photo/Jake SchoellkopfThe scandal around Patrick Dennehy's death sparked a world of controversy at Baylor that left the program reeling.

That was on June 19. Using a tip from an informant, police zeroed in on Dotson. After they found Dennehy's car abandoned in Virginia Beach, not far from Dotson's Maryland home, they officially named Dotson, Dennehy's teammate and friend, a potential suspect. A month later, Dotson voluntarily spoke with FBI agents and detectives and on July 21, was charged with Dennehy's murder.

Using information from Dotson, police on July 26 discovered Dennehy's body outside of Waco.

Still reeling from that horrific news, the university was dealt a second blow when an unrelated internal investigation revealed that improper tuition payments had been made for Dennehy and another player, and that the basketball staff did not report failed drug tests properly.

Facing NCAA probation and sanctions, Baylor then was stunned one final time. In a secretly taped phone conversation, head coach Dave Bliss was recorded as he threatened an assistant coach with dismissal if he didn't portray Dennehy as a drug dealer in an attempt to cover up the payments.

In 2005, Dotson pleaded guilty without ever speaking in court or saying what drove him to shoot and kill Dennehy two years earlier.

"I've forgiven Carlton, I think, but I want to ask [Bliss], 'Why? What happened?' " Brabazon said. "I don't think I'll ever forgive Bliss."

Bliss and athletic director Tom Stanton resigned on Aug. 8, the day after Dennehy's funeral, and Bliss was barred from coaching at an NCAA institution until 2015. Dotson pleaded guilty in 2005 and sentenced to 35 years in prison. In October, just days before the first official practices, the National Association of Basketball Coaches convened an emergency and mandatory meeting to discuss ethics.

And Baylor basketball, previously climbing the Big 12 rungs, crumbled.

The university imposed its own significant restrictions, limiting scholarships and recruiting visits as well as removing itself from postseason play for the 2003-04 season. In 2005, the NCAA tacked on more. Placed on five years of probation, Baylor also was barred from all nonconference games for the 2005-06 season, an unprecedented penalty. Given unconditional releases and the opportunity to transfer and play right away, three of the Bears' best players transferred -- John Lucas III to Oklahoma State, where he would help the Cowboys to the Final Four in 2004; Lawrence Roberts, who would become the SEC Player of the Year at Mississippi State; and Kenny Taylor, who moved on to Big 12 rival Texas. Because of scholarship reductions, Baylor couldn't replace them. Only the university's strong self-imposed actions saved Baylor from the NCAA's harshest penalty, the death penalty, meted out just once in NCAA history.

"People were still shocked from the scandal when I got here," said McCaw, a Baptist deacon whose faith and belief in Baylor's mission convinced him to leave his post as athletic director at Massachusetts, his alma mater. "The hardest thing to overcome was the morale. It was incredibly low."

The public embarrassment would have stung any university, but for Baylor, the scandal was an especially painful 1-2 punch to the gut. The largest Baptist university in the world, Baylor stresses its Christian commitment. Alcohol is forbidden on the Waco campus and the motto for the school founded before Texas achieved statehood is "Pro Eclesia, Pro Texana."

For Church, For Texas.

"It was incredibly difficult for that very reason," said university president Dr. John Lilley, who took over at his alma mater in 2005. "All schools want to have programs with integrity, but when you are consciously committed to being a great Christian university, it is especially painful. It was a very dark moment."

Into the abyss walked the preternatural optimist.

The right man for the job


Scott Drew is the sort of guy who will chat on the telephone with you about your kids, his kids, the myth of terrible twos and the reality of terrible threes despite the fact that he's never actually met you. Asked a question with a negative connotation, he will flip it into a positive. He is a man, as McCaw perfectly described, whose "glass isn't half full; it's overflowing."

In other words, the ideal idealist for an awful job.

"That's always the critical point, hiring the right people," Lilley said. "Scott was the exact right person."

By way of explaining why he took on the most arduous rebuilding job in basketball, Drew, at the press conference to announce his hiring, said he was a fan of Rocky and Hoosiers.

More reflective now, Drew said he was emboldened by the man who always inspired him, a man who, like Drew, owns such a sunny disposition it borders on corny.

Homer Drew turned Valparaiso, a school that hadn't enjoyed a winning season since 1976, into a mid-major power. Under Drew, who was hired in 1988, the Crusaders have made seven NCAA Tournament appearances, won the Horizon League eight times and in 1998 went to the Sweet 16. For nine years, Drew's son, Scott, served as his assistant. And when Homer took a position in the president's office in 2002, Scott took over, leading the team to a 20-11 record and the NIT.

But the windmills already had been tilted in Indianapolis. Valpo was off and running, a solid mid-major that long ago earned its national stripes. Scott Drew wanted to do what he watched his father do. He wanted to build something from nothing.

In August 2003, Baylor was nothing.

Compared to his son, Homer Drew had it easy. Homer Drew never had to face the stigma of scandal in a town already smeared by a deranged religious leader named David Koresh.

The great thing about building a program is you're always achieving firsts. First win over a conference opponent, first road win. It will be nice when we've accomplished them all, but someone once told me to enjoy the journey. I am.

--Scott Drew

He didn't have to outfit a roster with five non-scholarship players or ask a kid like Robbie McKenzie, a one-time high school valedictorian turned pre-med major, to go from the rec leagues to significant minutes against Kansas.

"The great thing: I never reached the point of, 'What have I gotten myself into?' " Drew said. "I think I was just too busy."

Hired just days before school was back in session, Drew had to assemble a staff, figure out what players were staying and which were transferring, and then scour the campus for kids who would now make up his Division I program.

With visits limited thanks to NCAA sanctions, recruiting was a near impossibility. Yet in 2004, Drew, who cut his teeth as a savvy international recruiter at Valparaiso, convinced Aaron Bruce, a member of the Australian under-21 national team, to come to Baylor. Two of Bruce's best friends, former Utah star Andrew Bogut and Nebraska senior Aleks Maric, tried desperately to convince their bud not to go to Baylor. Bruce couldn't be swayed.

He wanted to be part of something that was bigger than he was, something different. He had no idea how different.

"Oh my, it was like nothing I'd ever experienced before," Bruce said of his early years at Baylor, particularly the penalty-shortened 2005-06 season when the Bears played just 17 games, the first on Jan. 11. "I came from a basketball academy where you played all the time and in the summer I would go to tournaments with the national team. This was almost like torture, all training and no games. It was awful."

Bruce likened home crowds to the sparsely filled stands he'd seen in tournaments in Europe. The only people who came to watch Baylor play were the ones who had to, the families and close friends of the players.

What they saw wasn't pretty. Between the 2003-04 and 2005-06 seasons, Baylor won a total of 21 games. In Drew's first season, the Bears finished 8-21. In 2004-05, they opened 9-5 and promptly lost their last 14 to finish 9-19. In the NCAA-shortened season, they went 4-13 and winless away from home, toppled by an average of 17.6 points on the road.

The idea that someday the Bears would contend in the conference and push for an NCAA Tournament bid wasn't even a pipedream.

"We weren't thinking about being an elite Big 12 team," Bruce said. "We were thinking, 'When can we play a nonconference game? When can we play in the postseason?' It was far more basic wants back then."

Technically the Bears were eligible for the 2006 postseason but with just 17 games to play, they had no chance save for a miraculous Big 12 Tournament title. It didn't happen. Baylor lost to Colorado in the first round.

Not even the cheery Drew could paint a smiley face on that disaster.

"It was so tough when we started playing; we were so far behind," Drew said. "It was like opening a Christmas present in February and it's not what you wanted. The kids were so disappointed."

A normal program


The line began forming a good four hours before tip time. It snaked around the Ferrell Center, stuffed to overflowing with students dressed in green and gold, faces painted, lungs ready.

As he walked onto the court for the tip against Washington State in November, Drew couldn't help himself. He looked around and smiled.

"This is what a normal program feels like," he said. "It just took four years to get to the norm."

[+] EnlargeTweety Carter
AP Photo/Brennan LinsleyTweety Carter, now a sophomore, was Baylor's first McDonald's All-American recruit.

NCAA probation will still loom over Baylor until 2010, but the limitations ended last year. This season, Baylor has a full allotment of scholarships and a full schedule of games for the second year in a row. The Bears won 15 games last season, finishing in a flurry. They won their final two regular-season games, upset Missouri in the first round of the Big 12 tourney and actually led Texas by 18 before falling apart in the quarterfinals.

Drew now has something he hasn't had in recent years -- veterans. The five returning starters entered the season with a combined 246 starts under their belts, the highest number in a decade. Bruce is only the fourth fourth-year senior in the last eight years at Baylor.

But the players behind Bruce really signify Baylor's return. Sophomore Tweety Carter is the first McDonald's All-American in the program's history and Dunn, the rookie, is arguably the best recruit to hit campus ever. A two-time Louisiana player of the year, he averaged 34.3 points and 9.1 rebounds in his senior season.

"People told me, 'Why Baylor? They're never going to be back,'" said Dunn, the team's second-leading scorer with 13.0 points per game. "But we are. We're a factor in the Big 12. It's not about proving people wrong. It's about going forward."

Buoyed by the turnaround, the athletic department even embarked on a $90 million fundraising campaign. Already $10 million has been used to build a practice facility for the men's and women's teams.

The capital campaign is called Victory with Integrity. The word choice isn't accidental.

Baylor recently completed the NCAA certification process and emerged as only the second school in the 15-year history of the self-study process to have no compliance issues.

There are still obstacles to overcome. They would like to run with the elite crowd -- Kansas and Texas and Texas A&M -- in the Big 12. Drew didn't come to town simply to resuscitate the program. His intention is to take it to the pinnacle.

He wants his program to be an NCAA Tournament fixture, a team that can vie for a Big 12 title and eventually go deep into March.

"The great thing about building a program is you're always achieving firsts," Drew said. "First win over a conference opponent, first road win. It will be nice when we've accomplished them all, but someone once told me to enjoy the journey. I am."

Gift from God


Brian Brabazon is remarried. His marriage to Dennehy's mother, he said, was fractured before Dennehy's murder, but the death of their son rendered it broken irrevocably.

"Valorie lost half her heart," Brabazon said of his ex-wife.

Last June, the same month that Dennehy was murdered, Brabazon became a father again. His son is named Matthew, and Brabazon will quickly tell you that means "gift from God."

The baby, he said, keeps Brazabon young but also makes him reflective. Surrounded by photos of Dennehy, his Baylor jersey still hanging somewhere in the recesses of Brabazon's closet, he has struggled to rediscover normalcy. Whatever that is.

For years he couldn't even watch college basketball. Now, he's building up to watching it live. He has had chances to go to games at nearby Nevada but hasn't mustered the courage to do it.

"Patrick's death changed my outlook," he said. "I get emotional very easily."

For 30 minutes, though, he doesn't. He is strong in his convictions about those who wronged Dennehy and amused at the thought of being a father to a newborn again, quickly apologizing for the baby that might cry at any second. He is wistful but not emotional when he talks about Dennehy, and he is genuine when he speaks about Baylor. He knows the Bears' record without being told, is thrilled with the idea that they might make the postseason and said he will be rooting hard for that to happen.

But when he is asked what he will tell Matthew about his brother, Brabazon pauses.

"I'm crying now," he says softly. "I'm so proud of Patrick. I'm not going to put any expectations on Matthew, but of course, he's going to know Patrick. Of course he is. He's going to know everything."

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com.

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