- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 22, 2004

WACO, Texas — From his front-row seat, Dwayne Moss surveyed the scene at the Ferrell Center as Baylor prepared to play Bob Knight and his nationally ranked Texas Tech Red Raiders last week.

Moss has attended Baylor basketball games for 46 seasons, but the past year has been far different from the other 45.

“This whole community still hasn’t recovered from everything that has happened,” Moss said with a soft-spoken Texas accent. “These things don’t happen — especially at Baylor. It has taken an emotional toll.”

Patrick Dennehy is dead and buried. A teammate, Carlton Dotson, sits in a Texas jail, charged with his murder and awaiting trial. Coach Dave Bliss is in exile in Colorado, forced to resign in August after revelations he paid players and plotted a coverup to blame his wrongdoing on the late Dennehy.

The program is on a school-imposed probation and is awaiting further sanctions from the NCAA.

“You can’t forget, but we don’t dwell on it every day,” said Matt Sayman, a senior guard and one the few holdovers from last season. “It was just a hard time that you had to go through to get stronger.”

It is largely forgotten on this Saturday at the Ferrell Center. An energized crowd of 7,876 nearly fills the arena. Many of the 2,000 students on hand wear bright yellow T-shirts to show the school colors, and they have a good time taunting the volatile Knight.

The only visible sign of the summer’s miseries is a black stripe on the left shoulder of the Baylor uniform, a tribute to a slain teammate.

The depleted Bears, whose top three players transferred after the summer’s events, earn the crowd’s respect with a relentless effort that helps offset their limited talent. Baylor led 55-54 with less than seven minutes remaining before the Red Raiders took over and the Bears committed several careless turnovers in the 75-66 loss.

Baylor (5-11, 0-3 Big 12) is no lock to win a conference game this season, however; the Bears followed up their encouraging performance against Texas Tech with a 76-47 loss at Nebraska.

“This year we have had so many changes,” said Scott Drew, Baylor’s new coach. “That has been a constant struggle. But as long as we play with effort and our heart out there, that’s all I can ask.”

Finding their way

It has been six months since the tragic events shook the tranquil Baptist university on the banks of the Brazos River in central Texas.

“We just have to work with the hand we were dealt and go from there,” said forward Tommy Swanson, one of only two non-seniors who decided to stay.

The sophomore held a mop-up role last season but is a starter now.

“Last season I was disappointed about playing time. This year I have more than I can really stand,” Swanson said.

That is no surprise, considering the Bears struggled to field a team this season.

Lawrence Roberts transferred to Mississippi State before the season, John Lucas Jr. to Oklahoma State and Kenny Taylor to Texas — all taking advantage of the NCAA waiving a rule that requires transfers to sit out a year. Each now is a part of a top-25 program.

The Bears, meanwhile, have only seven scholarship players — the NCAA limit is 13 — and those are mostly role players and reserves used sparingly last season.

Drew held open tryouts. As a result, the bench is stocked with an intramural all-star team, including an unheard-of five walk-ons.

Since the beginning of the year, Drew kicked one starter off the team, and two others were declared academically ineligible. Those two later were granted an NCAA waiver because of the program’s circumstances. One football player recently quit the team, and a freshman joined the team last week after spending the fall semester in Korea.

“That’s why we keep our roster on a chalkboard — so we can erase and we can add,” Drew said with a half-hearted laugh. “It seemed like every day for a while there everything got worse.”

Drew to the rescue

Drew decided to come to Baylor because he liked the challenge of both the situation and one of the nation’s top conferences.

The spirited 33-year-old brings a wholesome image but limited experience to Baylor. Drew has only one season as a college head coach — last year, when he led Valparaiso to the NIT.

“Valpo University was very similar,” said Drew, who spent nine seasons as an assistant to his dad, Homer, at Valparaiso before getting the top job. “It was a small school. It was a private school. It was a Christian background school. This is the exact same. The only difference is this is at the highest level as far as conference goes.”

The prevailing images of Baylor basketball these days are photos of Dennehy, who was shot and killed in June, and of Dotson in an orange prison uniform. The most famous soundbite isn’t an over-the-top Dick Vitale rave but a notorious audiotape in which Bliss tells an assistant to paint Dennehy as a drug dealer and blame him for illegal payments made by the coaching staff. Bliss’ rationale: A dead man can’t contradict the story.

Baylor hopes to supplant all that with Drew’s youthful image, disarming smile and propensity to crack a joke to lighten a serious mood.

“I think what they found in Scott is someone who fits the personality of the university,” Texas coach Rick Barnes said. “That is probably the best thing they did. When I think of Baylor, I think of a close-knit, family-type of university. Scott, coming from a basketball family, is a guy that fits them.”

The new coach used a soft touch in handling the delicate situation he inherited.

“The mourning period had pretty much passed,” said Drew, who took over in late August. “Our coaching staff had to make sure we were extra-sensitive to our players’ needs. I don’t think anybody has gone through what they have gone through. Rather than try to treat it as a normal situation, be a little more understanding and lenient as far as that goes. But you do have to have a set of policies that are your unbreakables.”

The going has been tougher than Drew expected. He initially set a goal of a winning record, which would outdo last season’s talent-laden squad that finished 14-14. But with the ever-changing roster and off-court distractions — like players missing practice to interview with lawyers in the on-going investigations — the goals have been modified.

“There has to be [moral victories],” Drew said. “Otherwise it would be real tough if every day you went to your job and you knew you were a failure. We have to find little ways to bring satisfaction, like we outrebounded Texas [in a 22-point loss]. They are the leading team in the nation by [rebounding] margin. That’s something we can hang our hats on.”

The Bears already have lost to teams like Stephen F. Austin, North Texas and Texas-Pan American. With real powers like Oklahoma, Texas and Kansas ahead on the schedule, the near-term prognosis is bleak.

The longer-term outlook is more promising.

Drew has a reputation as a top international recruiter. The Bears already have signed a highly rated Senegalese center, 6-foot-11 Mamadou Diene, and Australian national team star Aaron Bruce. Drew’s unconventional class also includes junior college point guard Jihad Muhammed.

The ever-optimistic coach feels the Bears can compete for a NCAA bid next season if they are eligible for postseason.

“That’s what is great about basketball with only needing five people,” Drew said. “One David Robinson changes Navy. One Tim Duncan changes Wake Forest. If we get that one marquee guy, things change a lot quicker than they do in other sports. Hopefully [winning] will be sooner than later.”

No cameos for walk-ons

Senior forward Robbie McKenzie is not listed in Baylor’s media guide. If he is in any photo, it likely would be in a crowd shot of the student section.

The pre-med major spent the last three seasons cheering for the Bears. Now, he is an integral part of team. McKenzie made the squad in an open tryout in October and earlier this month found himself playing 17 minutes against 16th-ranked Texas.

“They needed people from the student body,” said McKenzie, one of 39 students who tried out. “It has been an awesome opportunity to see it from the inside.”

McKenzie, who regularly played pickup games with Baylor players, knew his life had changed when he played 20 minutes in the Bears’ first exhibition. When on the court, he has a limited number of assignments: screen, rebound and play defense.

Last season, McKenzie was screaming at Knight from the stands. Now he is on the court competing against the coaching great’s team.

“That’s crazy,” he said. “I hope I get to meet him and shake his hand. That would be awesome.”

New homes, same goals

While Baylor was getting drubbed by Nebraska on Wednesday, Roberts finished with 21 points and 15 rebounds to lead No. 19 Mississippi State to a surprisingly easy win at No. 17 Florida. Roberts, a sculpted 6-foot-9 forward, is making a push for SEC player of the year, averaging a double-double for the Bulldogs.

On the same night, Lucas was making plays as No. 24 Oklahoma State handled Colorado. The son of the former Maryland star and NBA coach finished a typical night with 15 points and five assists as the Cowboys’ starting point guard. A night earlier, Taylor was helping 16th-ranked Texas to a Big 12 road win.

The three who played for Baylor last season are allowed to play because the NCAA waived a rule that requires transfers to sit out a season because of the unusual circumstances.

“I just didn’t know if I would be comfortable going back,” said Taylor, one of the Big 12’s top 3-point shooters. “I only had two years left, and I had dreams of playing in the [NCAA] tournament.”

Taylor is enjoying the success with his new team and will cherish March Madness if he gets the chance. He still keeps in touch with his old teammates but tries not to rehash last summer too much.

“The most disappointing thing was everything: the death of a teammate, the coaches’ situation, things like that,” Taylor said. “It’s things you never expect. You come to college to get an education and have fun. To see a person’s life end like that is pretty sad. … It was like a long movie, too long. It was like a long, bad movie.”

Moving on

Drew knows his biggest battle will be fought on the recruiting trail, where he must re-establish Baylor’s reputation.

“They want to know what happened, how it happened, why it happened. Are there still problems with players on the team?” Drew said. “I answer them very truthfully. We have a drug policy. If you are doing drugs, you are going to be off the team. I tell them that I wouldn’t have brought my family here if I thought it was unsafe and then just talk about the great reputation of the school and the great community.”

Baylor hopes Drew is the one to allow the program to move on. The early results suggest he is on his way.

“We are getting a lot of hustle from these kids who wouldn’t be playing if not for the events,” Moss said. “We are coming here to support the team because we know better days are ahead.”

They almost have to be.

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