VALPARAISO – 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 3 1/2 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.
When Homer Drew took the Valpo job in 1988, he inherited a program that had never been to the NCAA tournament, never won a conference title, never had a winning record as a Division I school.
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 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 head coaching job and Homer returned to the bench.
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.
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. But the Crusaders lost in the conference tournament.
Valpo won a second-straight conference regular-season title this year, needing a buzzer-beating three-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 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.
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 had, 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.