Obvious question: Maybe Christian faith played a role in the Scott Drew and Baylor hoops story?

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Frankly, I am not the most enthusiastic of Baylor University alums (I once passed up a request to apply for a faculty slot by telling the president that I had already died once in Waco wasn’t anxious for a reprise).

Still, you didn’t think that the Baylor basketball team was going to win the national championship (after being a favorite in the COVID-canceled 2020 dance) without a word of comment here? I mean, I have heard from other Baylor grads who worked their way through lots of the mainstream news coverage of the March Madness finale while thinking “ghost,” “ghost,” “another religion ghost.”

Yes, this was the Texas Baptists vs. Jesuits matchup that hoops fans wanted. And then you had the simple reality that Baylor (for better and for worse) is the world’s most prominent Baptist academic institution.

But how could the press ignore or short-change the fact that the story of coach Scott Drew and his underdog Bears was packed with valid religion facts and themes? Would all fans care that Final Four MVP Jared Butler teaches a Sunday School class for little kids? Probably not. But millions of people would.

But they key to everything was this big question: Why was Drew at Baylor in the first place? Why did he pack up and head to Waco 18 years ago, when the program was dead, dead, dead or worse. Here’s the top of a long CBS Sports feature: “Scott Drew never let others change his story, path or program, and that’s how he led Baylor to its first title.”

Leaping into the arms of his staff. College basketball’s happiest coach on his happiest night. When it was over, Drew brought everyone into a huge circle on the court. They kneeled and said a prayer.

The greatest program reinvention in men’s college basketball history was complete. 

Drew took the Baylor job in 2003 when the program was near disintegration. The job Drew’s done at Baylor in the 18 years since — impressive is an understatement. There was no set of instructions when he got there, because there wasn’t even a drawer to put them in. This was not a rebuild; what Baylor could be, in 2003, was a figment of Drew’s imagination. 

Drew is described in all kinds of upbeat, but strange, ways. This is one happy, upbeat, positive-thinking weirdo. Does it matter that, when he describes his bond with Baylor, he talks in terms of Christian faith, family and a sense that God called him to this job? Is that part of this national news story, just because Drew says so and there is tons of evidence that he means it?

Let’s go back to the haunted CBS story, which focuses on media and professional doubts about Drew through the years and his quest for “personal redemption”:

… Baylor was his first choice. Just 32 years old then, Drew was doe-eyed but determined. A widely shared video by the Baylor men’s basketball Twitter account shows Drew’s hope and vision all those yesterdays ago, when he said winning a national championship on his watch was possible.  

He probably honestly believed it then, and he probably honestly was the only person on earth who did.  

Coming off a scandal that included the murder of a player by one of his teammates and a cover-up by the former coach that included the defaming of the murdered player, Baylor was radioactive. 

Please hear me. This CBS piece was really good. It was deep. But, at the same time, there was a God-shaped hole in the middle of it.

Does that matter?

If you wanted to find the faith facts, you could look — of course — in the conservative and faith-defined media — like this highly detailed and valid Baptist Press report. You knew that GetReligionista Clemente Lisi would cover the basics at Religion Unplugged.

Then you had all of the God-talk and images surrounding the championship itself. The religious-market Sports Spectrum site rounded up the basics.

Within moments of securing the championship, Baylor’s entire team stopped to gather into a circle on the court. They gave God thanks in prayer.

Moments later, the team was presented with the 2021 national championship trophy. When answering questions from Jim Nantz of CBS, head coach Scott Drew talked about the team’s culture.

“We play with a culture of J.O.Y.,” he said. “That’s Jesus, Others then Yourself.”

Coach Drew elaborated in his postgame press conference. He began the session by saying, “First and foremost, I want to thank God for blessing us with this opportunity tonight. I know the guys have worked really hard, so happy they get a chance to celebrate now.”

He was later asked more about that culture.

“A lot of joy in the locker room for sure,” he said. “But our joy is Jesus, Others, Yourself. It’s so tough to put other people in front of you and teams that do that are obviously more successful. Our guys, their love for each other [is] because they spend so much time working on their craft together, and they put in the time.

“Credit our assistant coaches for doing an incredible job bringing in high-character kids that want to be great teammates and want to work hard and want to improve. They deserve all that they’re getting.”

There’s another angle. Why are some of these players — often overlooked prospects that other Power 5 schools didn’t want — at Baylor? I am sure that they are not all angels, all of the time, but it’s clear that Christian faith motivated lots of them to move to Waco.

If news consumers were looking for totally faith-free coverage, the New York Times (#DUH) was the obvious place to start. The main story, come to think of it, didn’t even MENTION Baylor for the first 100-plus words.

There was this one tiny prayer detail in a paragraph about the friendship between Drew and Gonzaga coach Mark Few:

The two coaches, Drew and Few, have a deep connection. Baylor has two assistants who have worked or played for Few; Gonzaga has one who has worked for Drew’s brother, Bryce. The coaches are avid fishermen — “he’s the king of fly fishing; I think I’m king of the bass fishing,” Drew said — and have teamed up as pickle ball partners during their time in Indianapolis, sending text messages to each other with a prayer and good luck wishes before each game here.

As usual, the USA Today piece picked up in my local Knoxville newspaper (“Baylor’s Scott Drew is forever a national champion; his doubters look foolish”) was equally faith-free. You can see a hint of that in this summary paragraph:

“To me, (winning a championship) never defines a great coach,” Drew said. “Just like there’s so many players, NBA players who never won an NBA championship and great college players that never went to a Final Four. I value coaches. Do they make their players better spiritually, academically, character-wise? Are you preparing them for life?”

But the biggest disappointment, for me, was the long, detailed and otherwise insightful profile of Drew at TheAthletic.com, one of my absolutely favorite journalism websites. Here’s the headline: “Baylor’s NCAA title run is Scott Drew’s masterpiece, an 18-year rise from basketball ruin.”

Here is a long chunk of that story, for those without a subscription to this must-read website:

It does not seem possible that someone could happy a program out of the bowels of a scandal, or that optimism could be an effective coaching tool. As Drew now stands atop the college basketball world, a net draped around his neck and a championship trophy in his possession, he is here to tell you differently. Joy can win. Other coaches have built programs out of nothingness — Few, for one, turned a small Catholic school in Eastern Washington from Cinderella to belle of the ball — but no one in college basketball, maybe in all of college sports, has done what Drew has done. In five years, he took the Bears to the NCAA Tournament, and in Year 8 to within seven points of the Final Four.

His story, Baylor’s story, is a stunning reversal that required all of the usual tools — administrative support, mining for players, game-planning and perseverance — but it also specifically needed Drew. Friends and colleagues told the then 33-year-old he was committing career suicide when he alit for Waco, but his father told him otherwise.”There was only one direction to go, and that was up,’’ says Homer Drew, the former Valparaiso coach. Typically as hokey and hopeful as his son, Homer did, on this occasion, also arm his son with some very practical advice, encouraging Scott to get a long-term contract that gave him the time he would need to build. The family hired a lawyer and worked out a six-year deal that didn’t even start until after any NCAA sanctions ended. “My first contract at Valpo was one page,” Homer says. “His was 26.’’

The fact is, Baylor needed Drew, and not just because he could X and O, and recruit. The program required a person with vision, yes, but also someone who unashamedly would cloud his vision with rose-colored glasses.

Was this partnership just about rose-colored glasses? Maybe there another word that could have been used next to “perseverance”?

Later, there was a simple explanation of that JOY concept that Drew talks about All. The. Time.

The players kept waiting for Drew to change, to drop the charade and start dog-cussing them when they lost, or even cutting bait when everyone realized how steep the climb was.

Instead, they were buoyed by Drew’s enthusiasm, the Bears beginning to understand both his concept of JOY — Jesus, Others, Yourself — and the more ordinary version, the one where you take pleasure where you can find it.

Is that an essential fact in this story or not? If that’s crucial to Drew, his family, his players and to his employers, then why isn’t it an important fact in basic, fact-driven news reporting?

Is it the whole story? Of course not. That piece at The Athletic is packed with great reporting. Why not include the religion angle in there with the other important themes and images?

Just asking. Again and again.

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