WACO, TEXAS There is a strange power in being disliked and knowing it is so. It is a paradox, no doubt, and not easy to embrace despite the freedom it can bring. But scorn can force focus only on those who can be counted on, and it can offer a rare but important lesson: That what others think doesn't actually matter much.
At least once you accept that, the world sees you one way and you see yourself another.
This is the bizarre state the Baylor Bears have inhabited this entire season and the seasons preceding it. The program has a sordid past, yes, but the currents of dislike that flow around it on all sides, those that have made one of America's best teams and best stories a mostly unsung island, go far behind what happened in 2003.
Baylor's Scott Drew is wildly unpopular among many coaches, so much so he may be the least liked head coach in college basketball, and he carries that fact with him like some sadness he can't shake. He won't address it, he is polite and quick with praise for those who do not like him when it's pointed out, but the knowledge clings to the man the way success should for anyone who took a program that went 1-15 in Big 12 conference play in his second season and turned it into a college basketball power. He has the air of a guy who knows he's on the outside looking in who can't do a damn thing about it.
There is a similar, if less wildly intense, state of accusation hanging over Perry Jones III, the team's star. He is a top-5 NBA talent who's spent the year hearing he's soft, he's underperforming, he's not good enough, he's going to cost some NBA general manager his job. This line of thinking became so common that Drew came to Jones' defense this week at the Big 12 tournament wholly unprompted.
All of this makes little sense. Drew has worked a basketball miracle in Waco, and Jones has a well-chronicled story of overcoming obstacles and being not just a great basketball player but a great college kid, too. His play against Kansas, which powered Baylor to the Big 12 tournament's championship game, was a stirring and eye-popping performance.
The list of slights and thoughts directed toward Baylor goes on and on for the players (undisciplined), the coaches (not skilled enough), the town (awful), Drew (unlikable, preachy, fake), the rumors and accusations (surely they cheat) a list of complaints that seem to circulate despite, at least to my eyes, the fact they bear no semblance to what's there to see if you take a closer look.
I first met up with Baylor in November, before this season kicked off its conference play and the Bears again became a top-25 team overshadowed by blue-blooded and better-liked programs. All I knew then was what I'd heard from others, and all of that added up this: Scott Drew, Baylor basketball and its many component parts were not very well thought of in most quarters of college basketball. Coaches on the record said nice but limited things about Drew. Those same folks, speaking anonymously, fired away.
Then I walked into Highland Baptist Church. And there was Drew, looking young and earnest and happy as he waited for me, and before I knew it he'd spotted me, walked briskly my way and wrapped me in a rather surprising, effusive and awkward hug.
"Welcome brother!" he bellowed.
And with that, I'd crossed over from the outside world that can't stand Baylor, to an insular basketball program brimming with good vibes, nice people, a dangerous team and a quiet sense they're never going to get the praise the acceptance they deserve.
Drew took me by the arm and led me into a huge church bursting with people, song, praise to God and "Amens!" Near the back, in a pew, sat his wife. She waved and offered a pretty smile and then turned her attention back to the pastor.
It was hard not to recall the criticisms I'd heard of the man: That he used the Bible as a shield, that he was phony, that a lot of coaches didn't appreciate the boyish-looking charmer adding God to his repertoire of tools in the cut-throat world of recruiting.
Fair criticism? Faith is a deeply personal thing, and to judge or disparage one person's relationship with a chosen power seems the height of hypocrisy. But finding fault with his faith is one of those things that stick to Drew. Too many out there think he's a college basketball charlatan hiding in the robes of a religious man.
One of the pastors was speaking.
"Please share," his voice intoned through the loud speakers. "But please share for 30 seconds rather than 15 minutes."
Sitting next to me, Drew laughed.
People shared. A wife healed of cancer, glory to God in the highest. A woman who got a kidney, praise be. A father finally sober, thanks be. The incantations and sharing went on, true things, real problems, people spilling their secrets and their miracles and their need for a miracle of their own as Drew clapped and nodded and murmured "Amen" with every shared moment of faith.
I sat there, my own hands clasped together, both moved by the moment and reminded again that in matters of the divine no one really knows, not what's out there and not what any one person has in their heart, Scott Drew included. Faith, indeed.
A woman's voice came to us now, young and peculiar in that it seemed very much out of place. She sounded young, almost sultry. I craned my neck to catch a glimpse but couldn't find her. I caught only her words.
Her story was long, certainly exceeding 30 seconds. It was about a friend who had been saved, and how none of the "girls" understood it at the time. Saved? How, well, corny, or so it seemed in the retelling she used the word with the uneasiness of the newly converted. Then, about a week after being saved, she went on, the friend had died a sudden, tragic, stunning end. And at the funeral 15 of them of the "girls" they realized their friend had been saved just in time.
"So all of us, we were saved, too," the sultry voice said.
"Wow!" Drew yelled, and the church lit up with "amens!" and an array of praise.
Drew leaned over and began to whisper. "They have a ministry for strippers," he said.
Did he just say strippers?
"A ministry for strippers," he went on. "And they go out and feed them and talk to them and minister to them."
We stood to sing, and as Drew lent his voice to praising God the thought of strippers and church stuck with me. Did Scott Drew not understand that even remarking on such things would open him to criticism to winks and jokes, to enemies guffawing with a smug sense of self-righteousness that of course Drew knew about a ministry to strippers, that of course the pretty boy hiding behind the Bible knew of such things.
Maybe he did understand and maybe he did not, but what seemed certain to me in the church with him as he looked at the cross and let himself go in his singing was the fact that maybe it was just about faith. About his belief that folks can be saved, and that even strippers are worth celebrating when such things happen.
The singing went on. Drew seemed to tear up. He clasped his wife's hand. And I thought: I know a lot of college basketball coaches. They're smug, charming, ambitious, often kind, sometimes not but they all exist in a world in which they must recruit starry-eyed teenagers away from home in order to justify their million-dollar contracts and programs. And most of them, despite the filth inherent to the NCAA system as it is constituted, are pretty good guys.
And Scott Drew is the bad guy?
I looked over, and Drew was singing along with the words as they flashed big and bold on screens up front. It was a message of faith. It could have been a mantra for anyone wholly misunderstood.
Let the poor say I am rich
Let the blind say I can see
... It's what the Lord has done to me
What the Lord or fate, or good luck, of whatever you believe in has done to Scott Drew is made him into the coach who turned one of the worst major programs in all of college sports into one of its best.
Baylor will kick off its shot at March Madness this week as a No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament just as the team peaks at the right time. They beat Kansas State and Kansas in the Big 12 Tournament before losing to Missouri in the title game, and Jones looked neither soft nor overmatched. They have an RPI of nine and have only lost this season to tournament-bound teams with solid seeds Kansas (2), Missouri (2), Iowa State (8) and Kansas State (8).
But be sure, faith is at the center of what Baylor is about and a big part of the reason they have put together this season less than 10 years after a scandal involving the murder of one player by another and a head coach caught on tape conniving to destroy the dead student's reputation in order to protect his own.
Drew claims faith brought him to this difficult job, that he prayed on it, and that God led him here. And why not believe that's true? What other reason would anyone have to step into such a mess.
Drew also is open about the fact that faith needs to be a cornerstone in Baylor's efforts to recruit.
"That's the great thing being the largest Baptist school," he said. "It gives you a nice nation-wide, world-wide (reach). You can go anywhere, and given our success it attracts players to play with these players. We want to be like Notre Dame we want to be in on every Baptist recruit and family in the country."
As America's largest Baptist university, Baylor is a place where faith rules the day, drinking is not encouraged, Kenneth Starr is the school president and someone like Drew must not swear or gamble or drink publicly. There are standards here that do not jive with the good-old boys network of college basketball. Perhaps it would be easier to stomach such holier-than-thou beliefs if the coach were much older.
Of course, critics, will contend with a point, you can't be holier-than-thou and engage in dirty tricks, and this is where we get to difficult shades of gray, from faith to recruiting to how you balance a religious life with a cutthroat world.
Recruiting is a down-and-dirty business, and it's hard to say what's true and what's not. What is certain is that Drew has been caught doing negative recruiting and been confronted several times by fellow coaches. Some, sources said, have gone so far as to threaten bodily harm if he did it again.
"You don't go after my name," one NCAA head coach told me, referencing the belief Drew once disparaged him to recruits. "Don't ever disparage my character. He's done it. He knows he's done it. You don't do that."
Several years ago, Drew mailed a flier to recruits. It featured three pictures: One of former Texas Tech head coach Bobby Knight, one of Drew and one of former Texas A&M head coach Billy Gillispie. A caption read: "Which of these Big 12 coaches has signed a McDonald's All-American?"
A giant X was stamped across the other two men's pictures.
Drew grew a little uncomfortable when asked about it, but my read was simple embarrassment. The guy spent most of his career at Valparaiso, under his father Homer Drew. Drew had no mentors, no political connections and no high-level coaching experiences outside that enclave. Perhaps he didn't know the code and it certainly must be an interesting one between what you do and do not do when recruiting players.
"Coach Knight, anyone who grew up playing basketball or watching basketball respects him," Drew said. "It was a small thing. We apologized."
A mistake? Of course. Does it make him a bad guy? Hard to say, but it seems doubtful. A lot of things go on in recruiting that a lot of college coaches very likely including whichever one you root for would rather not have broadcast to the world.
Still, as cut off from the coaching herd as Drew is, he exists in a very warm, cozy, familial bubble in Waco. Critics say he cannot coach effectively in part because his players don't fear him and therefore run all over him. Perhaps, perhaps not.
But most of them certainly seem to like him, and some say they actually love him, and the vibe among this team is more collegial than many I've been around. Several days immersed with Baylor underscored this and the weird lack of swearing that give it a very high-school feel. I've spent quality, behind-the-scenes time at programs including Kansas and Kansas State and I immensely like and respect both Bill Self and Frank Martin but they certainly have a different culture than you find in Waco.
There's a peculiar bond at Baylor, and it's impressive, and after several days it becomes clear that when you heap dislike on any group, it eventually turns to itself for comfort and strength.
The players know. Of course they do.
They know people say Baylor cheats. They know people criticize their coach and by extension the team, the program and every one of them. They know disrespect permeates the world around them disrespect not for style or ability, something many programs face, but for the actual character of its leader.
"People just don't like Baylor as a whole for some reason," said junior guard A.J. Walton. "They really just throw us under the bus and coach Drew just happened to be here so it came with the territory."
"We don't get any kind of respect for anything," Jones said. "It's everything."
"We don't want to be one-hit wonders," said freshman forward Quincy Miller.
Asked why so many people hate Drew, guard Brady Heslip answered: "He's the most positive guy I've ever been around. Always positive. Always."
Drew does offer up a theory for why he's more or less reviled.
"I think it's a competitive business first of all, and then second of all when Billy Donovan went to Florida and started building that program in the beginning we know there were some feathers that were ruffled," he said. "And as time went on people came to appreciate him."
Drew points out that in 2005-06, Baylor won four conference games. Each of the coaches he beat was fired at some point that season.
"As Baylor's gotten better and better we can beat somebody and now they don't have to answer why in the world are they beating you," he said. But it wasn't always like that. So I think that makes things a little bit easier for everybody. For any new kid on the block, when we first got in the Big 12 we had Eddie Sutton, Kelvin Sampson, Bobby Knight. And the big thing is Baylor hadn't been successful in recent years and when you're building a program, like I said it's harder for people to lose to you."
And the accusations of cheating?
Drew was in his office, and he turned and looked down at the practice court. Some of his players were there. He watched them for a while before answering.
"Unfortunately," he said at last, "that's the nature of the game. For players it tends to be officials. Players blame the officials. And for coaches something's got to be blamed."
None of this is meant to say that Scott Drew is a holy man without faults, frailties or a tendency to seem a lot like a high-powered, well-paid basketball coach. Faults come with the job.
He seems a little bit of both just another basketball coach with his own quirks and personality traits who I happen to find likeable.
He's not that different up close in that he's neither a monster nor a saint. He's funny, he's a really nice guy, he's almost awkward in his earnestness, and he's built at Baylor a near miracle of a basketball program. Other than the fact most people don't like him, and he clearly knows it, and he's just like most of his colleagues.
In fact, the high-powered coach emerges as much as the Baylor man a short time into my time with him. After church, we climbed into his black Mercedes and, through a sleepy Sunday in Waco, Drew burned through town like his life depended on it.
He cut off cars. He went so fast I looked for something to hold onto. He beat lights. He sped some more. Looking over, I couldn't help but laugh. He'd left church and stepped right into his own private racetrack. It reminded me of something my grandfather always said after mass: Christians, start your engines. Well, Scott Drew had certainly started his. Even in the car he was competitive, and aggressive, to the point that I marveled at what it must be like to compete against him on the recruiting trail.
"In this business," Drew said as his foot pushed the gas and the motor hummed, "perception often isn't reality. It's what people think, but it's not accurate. People talk about others, but they don't know them."
That was in November. It has, since then, been a very long season. Baylor at one point was the No. 3-ranked team in the country, the highest in school history, and it is now No. 9. The team has elite players, and despite some brutal losses and big losses to teams like Kansas and Missouri, they are legit.
They are 27-7, one win away from tying the school's high-water mark set by Drew's Elite Eight team in 2009-10.
What hasn't changed is that Scott Drew remains one of the most disliked and dissed and, therefore, misunderstood guys in basketball.
To give you an idea: The U.S. Basketball Writers Association of America recently named its District 7 coach of the year, an area that includes Texas, Arkansas and Louisiana. The winner was LSU's Trent Johnson.
The same Trent Johnson who went 7-9 in the SEC and whose team showed less improvement in the standings from last year than Drew's Bears. It comes across as a slap in the face.
Still, it's also the way it goes for Drew, and after the Big 12 tournament, just before Baylor was awarded a No. 3-seed, he stood in the back of his team's locker room and focused on his players, watching them quietly as they talked to the media. They'd just lost to Mizzou, but they still seemed to be peaking at the right time.
"I'm proud of them," he said. "I really am."
That's good. Because Baylor seems to be all Drew has right now. He's on an island, of his making or someone else's, and with that comes a few things. The natural human reaction of feeling left out confusion, hurt feelings, probably some anger and soul searching. Stigmas and whispers. And a strange freedom if you can find it in you.
It called to mind what his star player had said earlier during the Big 12 tournament. Perry Jones III was talking about himself, but he could just as well been speaking to the state Drew, Baylor, Waco and the entire team find themselves in: that of a pretty neat group of people who are nonetheless universally looked down upon.
"All criticism is good criticism," Jones said. "Obviously, there must be something you are doing right if they say negative things about you."
You can follow Bill Reiter on Twitter or email him at email@example.com.