They are conductors of a symphony on hardwood floors. They bring fire and passion when the score demands it. And with equal finesse, they shape many parts into a synchronized whole.
Basketball maestros Kim Mulkey and Scott Drew have certainly hit a crescendo this year. Just when Baylor University’s football season ended to thundering applause, they have served up an emphatic encore of their own.
Mulkey’s powerhouse Lady Bears have been ranked No. 1 throughout the season while Drew’s talented crew reached No. 3 in the country in January after winning its first 17 games.
Yes, these are arguably the best days in the history of Baylor athletics. And now, the two head coaches are marching toward the grandest stage of all — the annual NCAA tournament gauntlet called March Madness.
“It’s been the perfect storm,” Drew said. “It’s special because the football team and the basketball teams have brought so much national attention to the Waco community and Baylor nation. As a program, you want to consistently get to a point where you’re in position for the Final Four and winning the national championship.”
In a sport where high salaries and high demands has made college basketball a revolving door for coaches, Baylor has been remarkably stable. Mulkey is coaching the women’s basketball team for her 12th season and Drew leading the men’s team for his ninth year.
Both have built on success from past seasons. Mulkey’s powerhouse squad has been ranked No. 1 throughout the season while Drew’s talented crew reached No. 3 in the country in January after winning its first 17 games.
Mulkey knows what it’s like to win at the highest level since the Lady Bears captured the 2005 title in Indianapolis with an underdog team that beat three No. 1 seeds in the NCAA tournament.
It’s radically different this year with the Lady Bears being the odds-on favorite to win the national title behind once-in-a-lifetime 6-foot-8 junior center Brittney Griner and a great supporting cast.
“It’s much different than 2005 because we didn’t have the No. 1 in front of our names then,” Mulkey said. “We didn’t have the expectations from the public that this team has. We were kind of the underdog in 2005 that got on a roll and started playing well in the last six games. This year’s team has had the target on its back from Day One, and we’ll probably still have that target for a couple of moreyears.”
That 2005 national championship team paved the way to the lofty place the Lady Bears are today. Since then, Mulkey’s squads have reached the NCAA tournament every season, including a pair of Sweet 16 berths and a repeat trip to the Final Four in 2010. The Lady Bears were stopped short of a second straight Final Four appearance last year when Texas A&M upset them in the Elite Eight.
Mulkey has been able to get into recruits’ homes that she never could before, landing talented players like Griner, Odyssey Sims, Destiny Williams and Kimetria Hayden.
Griner came through the same Houston Hot Shots AAU basketball program that produced former Baylor players Jhasmin Player, Jessica Morrow and Kelli Griffin. Griner watched those players when she was younger and became a Baylor basketball fan.
“Brittney started coming to our games to watch them play,” Mulkey said. “Her dad was very observant and saw the discipline in our program and the intensity that I coached with and was drawn to us.”
Mulkey’s recruits know what they’re getting into when they sign with Baylor. They know she’s going to be tough, demanding and expect the best from them. But most of them wouldn’t want it any other way because they’ve seen the success she’s had.
Mulkey has averaged more than 27 wins in 12 seasons at Baylor, and nailed down her 300th win earlier this season.
“I like Coach Mulkey’s intensity and the way she runs the program,” Griner said. “She’s strict but fair and doesn’t sugarcoat things. I’m not treated differently at all. I want her to treat me like everybody else.”
Mulkey doesn’t try to hide her personality. Though she demands the most from her players, they know she’s going to make them the best they can be.
It’s not surprising that Mulkey’s teams take on her personality — fiery, hard-working and possessing a will to win.
“The players know what I’m truly all about, and that’s all that matters,” Mulkey said. “They want a coach that’s going to give them everything she has. They know I’m going to feel the pain and excitement with them. I’m not afraid to make big decisions or discipline players, but I would never embarrass a player with my conduct.”
In 27 years as a head coach and assistant, Mulkey has learned that all players can’t be handled the same. Different situations require different approaches.
“Some days I need to talk to them in a soft voice, some days I need to hug them,” Mulkey said. “Some days I need to keep them walking on eggshells. It’s a fine line, but you’ve got to have a feel for your team. What motivates one player doesn’t motivate another, and I’ve got to incorporate all that into a team concept.”
After the disappointment of last year’s Elite Eight loss to Texas A&M, Mulkey has made it clear that this year’s goal is to bring home the Lady Bears’ second national championship.
With Griner leading the way, Mulkey knows she’s got as talented a team as any in the country.
“Last year, we were disappointed that we didn’t win it all,” Mulkey said. “We’d be disappointed this year. Does that mean I’ve set us up for failure? If we don’t win the national championship, it won’t be because we didn’t work our rear end off. It will be because somebody took it from us. Somebody played better and coached better.”
Since the Elite Eight loss to the Aggies last year, the Lady Bears have been driven more than ever to win the national title.
“We took that loss to A&M to heart,” Hayden said. “Every day, we bring up A&M winning the national title to get each other pumped up. We want to go to the Final Four this year and win it.”
While Mulkey’s program has been at an elite level since the 2005 national championship, Drew is trying to reach that point.
After one season as Valparaiso’s head coach, Drew walked into one of the worst situations any coach has ever faced when he took over at Baylor in 2003. Carlton Dotson had been arrested for murdering teammate Patrick Dennehy, and the program faced NCAA probation for widespread rules violations under coach Dave Bliss.
At one point during his first season at Baylor, Drew was down to five scholarship players. But with tremendous drive and a positive personality, Drew led the Bears to the NCAA tournament for the first time in 20 years with their 2008 appearance.
After reaching the NIT championship game in 2008-09, the Bears enjoyed one of their best seasons in school history in 2009-10 when they finished 28-8 and reached the Elite Eight before losing to Duke.
Baylor’s recent success has helped Drew land highly-touted recruits like Duncanville forward Perry Jones, Westchester (N.C.) Country Day School forward Quincy Miller and College of Southern Idaho point guard Pierre Jackson.
“There’s no question Baylor is much easier to sell to recruits now because we’ve been ranked in the Top 25, we’ve recruited McDonald’s All-Americans and we had an NBA lottery pick in Ekpe Udoh,” Drew said. “Early on, friends of players asked, ‘Why are you going to Baylor?’ Now, they say it’s awesome.”
Two of Drew’s biggest selling points are Baylor’s academics and Christian atmosphere. Many of his recruits are strong Christians, including Jones, who verbally committed to Baylor before he began playing high school basketball.
“I knew Coach Drew was a good Christian guy and Baylor is a Christian school,” Jones said. “He walks the talk, and he’ll do it when nobody’s looking. He’s helped me with my walk with God, and a lot of people don’t get that from a head coach.”
It would be hard to find a more positive coach in college basketball than Drew unless it’s his dad, Homer Drew, who retired before this season after a long career as Valparaiso’s head coach. Much of Drew’s approach to coaching came from observing his dad.
“Every coach has a mentor, and mine just happens to be my dad,” Drew said. “He was always known as one of the most positive and nicest guys in college basketball. There are a variety of ways you can be successful.”
During his nine seasons at Baylor, Drew has put different kinds of teams on the floor. The 2007-08 team that made the Bears’ breakthrough NCAA tournament appearance featured guards like Curtis Jerrells, Henry Dugat, Tweety Carter and LaceDarius Dunn.
The 2009-10 Elite Eight team was a defensive-oriented squad led by the shot-blocking Udoh. This year’s team might be Drew’s deepest and most balanced with big men like Jones, Miller and Quincy Acy and gifted guards like Jackson and Brady Heslip.
“I build our style of play around the players,” Drew said. “If you have more guards, the style might be different than when you have more big men. I try to adapt our style around our players because that gives you more freedom to use the athletes you have.”
Just because Drew usually wears a smile on his face doesn’t mean he won’t let a player know what he needs to work on to improve. But he still does everything in a positive way that makes players look forward to practice every day.
“You see coaches who are mean, but Coach Drew is always fired up and he loves the game,” Acy said. “I like it that he’s always positive. It’s great to be around a coach like that.”
Following the Elite Eight appearance, the Bears dropped to 18-13 last year and failed to reach the postseason for the first time in four years. That’s been motivation for this year’s team, which reeled off a school-record 17 straight wins before losing its first game to powerful Kansas in Lawrence.
The Bears have received a great deal of national publicity from this year’s success. Drew wants to build his program to a point where Baylor is discussed annually among the elite teams.
“You want your program to consistently be in the national forefront,” Drew said. “You want people wearing Baylor gear and you want to be on national TV. But rather than having one great year, you want people talking about Baylor being an elite team year-in and year-out.”
It’s been a tough time for Drew off the court after both his mother and father were diagnosed with cancer last year. He said they’re both improving.
“My dad’s doing great and my mom is doing much better,” Drew said. “Talk about God’s timing. With my dad retiring from coaching, he’s been there to help her.”
Drew feels fortunate to work in a supportive environment at Baylor under the direction of athletic director Ian McCaw. McCaw has been able to keep good coaches on board longer than many athletic directors.
“We’ve been very blessed since the day we arrived to have Christian leaders with amazing foresight,” Drew said. “Someone like Ian McCaw is different than another athletic director because he’s a friend as well as a boss. He cares not just about winning, but how your program is built and how the staff’s families are enjoying their time.”
Both Drew and Mulkey have good track records of graduating players. It’s important to both of them that they become solid citizens after leaving Baylor.
“You not only want a player who’s successful on the court, you want someone who is going to represent Baylor and the Waco community well,” Drew said. “No one’s perfect, but as long as they have a good heart we feel like we can help them in that process.”
The dream scenario for both coaches this season is for the Lady Bears to finish in Denver and the men in New Orleans. They’d love to see each other in the Final Four. Then, it could all end on the perfect note.
Key NCAA Tournament dates
• March 7-10: Big 12 men’s and women’s tournaments, Kansas City, Mo.
• March 11: Selection Sunday (men)
• March 12: Selection Monday (women)
• March 15-18: Men’s subregional rounds
• March 17-20: Women’s subregional rounds
• March 22-24: Men’s regionals
• March 24-27: Women’s regionals
• March 31: Men’s national semifinals, Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans
• April 1: Women’s national semifinals, Pepsi Center in Denver
• April 2: Men’s national championship game, Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans
• April 3: Women’s national championship game, Pepsi Center in Denver
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