VALPARAISO, Ind. – When Bryce Drew makes the short stroll from his office to the solitude of his no-frills gym, he thinks back to his favorite moments at Valparaiso.
No, not “The Shot” that’s still being replayed on the highlight reels each March.
The Crusaders coach reflects on the family basketball games and Nerf football games that broke out on Sunday afternoons in the Athletics-Recreation Center. He talks about the days he’d show up at the gym with nothing but a boom box, a tape full of music and a basketball, shooting until the final notes played. His father, Homer, still remembers Bryce’s late-night sessions when his shot just didn’t feel quite right.
For most of the past 3½ decades, this has been Drew’s life in northwestern Indiana, where faith, family and Valpo basketball are intertwined.
“You know when I first took the (head coaching) job, my dad said to be yourself, be who you are and I’ve gravitated back to those words because the chances are I won’t win 600 games or go to as many NCAA tournaments,” Bryce Drew said after winning his first Horizon League tourney last week. “But it was such a high moment to have the game on our home court, with my dad’s name on it, and our home fans there and our seniors trying to make it. It doesn’t happen very often like that.”
Certainly not in the world of big-time sports where father-son coaching successions often don’t work out.
The Drews learned long ago that success doesn’t just happen, it’s built on the kinds of values Homer Drew instilled in his kids long before coaching became the family business. The eldest Drew followed a simple philosophy: Accentuate the positive and make sure his players knew there was more to life than basketball.
He didn’t have much of a choice. When the former Dale Brown assistant took the Valpo job in 1988, he inherited a program that had never been to the NCAA tournament, never won a conference title, never even had a winning record as a Division I school.
Back then, most people considered Valparaiso a dead-end job. Affable Homer Drew saw it as something else, a chance to build a program in his own image and with the help of both of his sons – Bryce and Scott – the Drews got things turned around remarkably fast
Scott, now the Baylor coach, was hired by his father as an assistant in 1993. The next fall, a smallish, polite homegrown kid who spurned the chance to play at bigger schools after collecting the state’s most prestigious prep award – 1994 Indiana Mr. Basketball – made the short trip across town.
It didn’t take long for that kid to help his dad and brother turn Valpo basketball into a national mid-major powerhouse.
Bryce Drew, now 38, helped Valpo win its first league title in 1995 and make its first NCAA trip in 1996. That started a run of three five consecutive NCAA bids for a school that today has a student enrollment of fewer than 4,500.
Since then, Homer Drew has taken the Crusaders to two more NCAA tourneys, retired twice, turned the program over first to his oldest son, Scott, and then to his youngest son, Bryce, after Scott took the Baylor job and Homer returned to the bench.
Each has his own coaching style, and each has now won a league title at Valpo and earned a trip to the NCAA tourney. Scott Drew reached the regional finals twice in the last three years with Baylor. Bryce Drew will make his NCAA tourney coaching debut Thursday when the 14th-seeded Crusaders (26-7) play third-seeded Michigan State (25-8) at Auburn Hills, Mich.
All along, mom and dad have cherished the moments more than the victories.
“I think all dads want to see our sons grow up and hope they would enjoy doing a job that is not a job, that is something they have a passion for,” Homer Drew said Tuesday. “It was by no means something we pushed them toward, it’s something they enjoy. So I’ve been able to enjoy my sons more than most fathers. Both are very natural at coaching, they’re very good at communication, they’re both very good teachers. We helped them grow and now they’re helping us grow.”
Things haven’t always been smooth.
On Sept. 9, less than four months after retiring for the second time, Homer Drew was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Three days after that, his wife, Janet, was diagnosed with bladder cancer. During the next month, both underwent surgery.
By March 2012, Homer and Janet Drew were both healthy enough to watch their youngest son win a Horizon League regular-season title and the conference coach of the year award in his first season as Valpo’s head coach. It meant Valpo would host the semifinals and championship game of the conference tournament on the same court bearing his dad’s signature.
“You always had compassion for people who were going through [cancer],” Bryce Drew said. “But when it strikes a family member, you get to know what an awful diseases it is. That’s why we feel so blessed to have had them here to cut down the net.”
That night, Valpo struggled against a Detroit team it had beaten twice during the regular season, and the NCAA drought continued. This year, the six seniors recruited and coached for two seasons by Homer Drew were determined not to let it happen again.
They won a second straight conference regular-season title, needed a buzzer-beating 3-pointer from the right wing in front of the team bench to beat Green Bay, 70-69, in the semifinals and wound up making an improbable 18-4 rally to pull away from Wright State, 62-54, to clinch the school’s first NCAA bid in nine years.
“Their goal all along was to get to the NCAA tournament,” Homer Drew said. “And then after the (Green Bay) game, we started reminiscing, and it was the exact same score, 70-69, as it was against Mississippi, it was almost in the same spot on the floor. On both of them Bryce ends up on the floor, one on his front, one on his back.”
And now, 15 years after the Crusaders ran “Pacer,” a baseball-like throw from Jaime Sykes to Bill Jenkins, who made the touch pass to a wide open Drew on the right wing for the winner against the Rebels, the image still burns bright in Valpo.
A framed photo of the sequence still hangs on Drew’s office wall, a reminder that the team goal that season was simply to win an NCAA tourney game. A banner bearing the words Sweet Sixteen in the gym is a constant reminder.
Even as Bryce Drew tried to celebrate his players’ accomplishments when the school’s name appeared during Sunday’s selection show, he was interrupted by – you guessed it – a commercial of the “The Shot.”
Even Bryce acknowledges it’s only a small part of the rest of his story.
“I feel very blessed to have been born into the family I was, to have the parents I’ve and to have an older brother and sister who have helped me so much in life,” he said. “We were definitely competitive growing up, but I think now that we’re grown and married, it’s morphed really into support for one another. I think we get more enjoyment now out of playing a whiffle ball game in the backyard with our nieces and nephews because it’s more about them than it is about us.”
• AP Sports Writer Dave Skretta in Kansas City, Mo., contributed to this report.