Commentary

Bryce Drew and the family business

Originally Published: June 30, 2011
By Eamonn Brennan | ESPN.com

VALPARAISO, Ind. -- Bryce Drew doesn't play basketball. The man responsible for The Shot -- one of the most memorable plays in the history of the NCAA tournament -- can't pinpoint the last time he took a shot.

Bryce Drew
Matthew Stockman/Getty ImagesBryce Drew led Valpo to the Sweet 16 in 1998. He'll now try to do the same as head coach.

No pickup runs with friends. No shootarounds. No lighthearted games of one-on-one with the players he's been coaching for the past six years as an assistant at Valparaiso.

But why? Doesn't he miss it? Isn't that jump shot -- the one that made Valpo famous with its tip-catch buzzer-beater over Ole Miss in 1998, the shot that earned Drew an ESPY and a permanent spot in March's "One Shining Moment" reel, the one that launched him to a six-year career in the NBA -- worth keeping in storage, if only for old time's sake?

"Frankly, I don't want to open Pandora's Box," Drew said. "I'm a competitive guy, and if I don't play well, then I'll feel the need to get back in the gym and start working on things, and that's not a good idea for anyone. Plus, what good does that do? It's not like me making jump shots now -- or any of the shots I made in my career -- are going to help our team win now.

"My playing days were great," Drew added. "I was incredibly blessed. But I'm a coach now."

Drew pauses, then continues.

"Plus, our players are under the impression that I was pretty good. I can't have them finding out otherwise."


This is Bryce Drew: affable but driven, lighthearted but focused, unassuming on the surface but compulsively, even obsessively competitive beneath.

That makes the 36-year-old former All-American, NBA journeyman and six-year Valparaiso assistant coach -- who also happens to be the most important basketball player in the history of his school -- a lot like his father, former Valpo coach Homer Drew. When Drew retired in May, he did so as the seventh-winningest active coach in men's Division I hoops and one beloved by the Crusaders' fan base for his dedication to a small private school in a small town in northwest Indiana.

And so this is Bryce Drew's challenge: Not only does he have the unenviable task of succeeding a program's legendary patriarch, that patriarch also happens to be his own father. And if that weren't unique enough, Drew is doing so in front of a fan base that treats his crowning achievement as a basketball player with the type of "Where were you when?" reverence typically reserved for events far more important than the passage of a ball through a hoop.

It's a coaching archetype triple-whammy. In Drew's case, the son of an all-time legend (think Pat Knight), the successor of the program-defining icon (think Matt Doherty) and the provincially beloved former star (think Fred Hoiberg or Sidney Lowe) come wrapped in one bright-faced, 36-year-old package.

When Drew takes the floor for the first time as a coach, does he risk ruining his legacy as a Valpo icon? What if he fails? What if fans start to remember him differently? What if losses in the present obscure the glories of the past?

This a lot of pressure for your first coaching gig. Does he feel it? How could he not?

"For me, when you're playing, the pressure you put on yourself should always exceed the pressure others put on you," Drew said. "It's the same thing when you're a coach."

Drew is hesitant to call his unique situation a challenge, because in many ways, it's also an advantage. Thanks to his father, Drew has been around the game since he was a toddler. He recalled a recruiting trip he took with his dad when he was merely 4 years old. His dad nourished his talent as an adolescent, watched it bloom as a high school star and helped harness it when Bryce, despite offers from a handful of top-tier basketball schools, chose to play for his father instead.

[+] EnlargeScott and Bryce Drew
Liam Foley/Icon SMIBryce's brother Scott (right) has been head coach at Baylor for the past eight seasons.

In 2005, after six years in the NBA and one year in Europe, Bryce decided he'd had enough of professional basketball. He wanted to get into the family business. (Bryce's brother, Scott, is the head coach at Baylor.) And so it was his father who gave Bryce his first job as a coach.

Homer Drew has an eye for talent and it wasn't long before the father saw his son mix his passion for the game with a budding coaching acumen.

"When he started, he was helping players on little, fundamental things, like shooting mechanics and footwork," Homer Drew said. "In the past few years, he really started to pass me by, especially when it comes to dealing with recruiting and coaching young kids in this day and age. And when you spend six years in the NBA, well, you're going to pick some things up there, too."

Before long, the elder Drew made clear his intentions of retiring for a second time -- the first came in 2002, when Scott took over for a year before Homer's eventual return -- and Bryce was the obvious, hands-down candidate to replace him.

In doing so, Bryce Drew became one of college basketball's youngest coaches. Coincidentally, he did so in a conference where Butler's Brad Stevens -- the reigning king of baby-faced hoops tacticians, whose Bulldogs have achieved remarkable success in the past two seasons -- has ruled. Butler has significantly raised the stakes, but it's far from a one-team league. Milwaukee was the top seed in the 2011 conference tournament and Ray McCallum's Detroit squad will arguably be the most talented team in the league in 2011-12.

What's that we were saying about challenges?

To keep up with the Blue II's of the world, the new Valpo coach will have to recruit well, relying on a mix of hidden gems, academically inclined student-athletes, foreign talents and transfers seeking a bigger role and a solid degree. That's the long-term challenge. In the short term, Drew will have to rebuild a lineup that lost major scoring and rebounding production from a 2011 team that finished 23-12, 12-6 in conference play.

"I think this league is as strong as it's ever been," Homer Drew said. "Butler has a lot to do with that, of course. They've been magnificent. But Detroit might have a couple guys go to the NBA one day, and people forget this, but Wisconsin-Milwaukee won our league last year. And we were right there, too."


Watch it again.

The glorious outcome never changes, never loses its charm: The ball swishes through the net, as dead-center as any free throw. Of course, this is no free throw. It's a last-second heave made possible by the unlikeliest of inbounds plays, a high-jump tip pass that somehow lands right where it absolutely had to: into Bryce Drew's hands.

After the splash -- but milliseconds before the rest of the world can process what just happened -- Bryce Drew sprawls head-first onto the floor. His teammates pile on, one big happy mass of humanity, still as shocked as Drew's coach and father and everyone else who saw the brilliant mess unfold in real time.

[+] EnlargeBryce Drew
AP Photo/John Gaps IIIFather and son soaked up the moment after Valpo's NCAA tourney upset of fourth-seeded Ole Miss.

Later, in the aftermath of the win, Bryce buries his head into his father's shoulder. It's one more lasting image from one of college basketball's most indelible games. The two hold on for just a moment. Do they know how big this is? That we'll still remember it 13 years later? Or are they just enjoying the culmination of years spent working together in the gym -- working for moments just like this?

What made Homer Drew the proudest? That moment? Or the one in May, when a son succeeded him for a second time in a job he -- as a father and a coach and sometimes both at the same time -- had poured his life into for nearly 25 years?

"He's made me proud over and over again," Homer Drew said. "But I would have been just as proud had he been a banker or a lawyer or a teacher or whatever he wanted to do that he felt could give something back and be enjoyable for him at the same time. If you love what you do, you never work a day in your life. For Bryce, that something just happened to be basketball."

That special relationship between father and son -- and the success they created as a tandem -- might be what guided Bryce Drew to play for his father at Valparaiso in the first place. It's what brought him back after six years of professional basketball. It's what anchored his six-year assistant apprenticeship. And as Homer Drew remains in an advisory role (his new title is associate athletic director) at Valparaiso in the coming years, it will continue to be a factor in the youngest Drew's life as a head coach. ("It would be ridiculous if I didn't call my dad and ask for his advice, you know?")

Still, Drew seems uniquely possessed by his current opportunity. For all the ties, all the memories, all the success and all the shots, Drew has moved on to a new challenge.

"I'm trying to carve something out here," Drew said. "I had a great career. But I want to be every bit as successful as a coach as I was as a player. That's the goal now."

Why look back when you can look forward? Why live in the past when the future is just beginning?

Or, to put it another way: Why work on your jump shot when you can teach it to others?

Eamonn Brennan covers college basketball for ESPN.com. You can see his work every Monday through Friday in the College Basketball Nation blog. To contact Eamonn, e-mail collegebasketballnation@gmail.com or reach him on Twitter (@eamonnbrennan).