BOSTON — On Black Friday in 2018, Vanderbilt hosted Kent State in what should have been a forgettable November non-conference matchup. The Commodores were 4-0, had already won at USC and boasted enough talent that 54 NBA scouts and executives showed up at the school’s first-ever pro day in October. When Vanderbilt coach Bryce Drew walked out on the court for tip-off, he recalls savoring a distinct buzz in the crowd.
“I remember at the start of the game, I was like, ‘Wow, this is what we were building for the last two-and-a-half years,’” he told Yahoo Sports. “There was just an energy in the building; people were just waiting to see us play.”
Bryce Drew now looks at that moment as the distinct turning point where everything he was building at Vanderbilt began to fall apart. The centerpiece of the best recruiting class in school history, projected top-10 pick Darius Garland, tore the meniscus in his left knee early in that game and ended up lost for the season. Vanderbilt fell to Kent State, 77-75, and the season boomeranged from the cusp of the Top 25 to the worst SEC record — 0-19 in league play — in history.
Vanderbilt’s new athletic director, Malcolm Turner, fired Drew weeks after Turner’s arrival on campus. Their first formal meeting came when Drew got dismissed.
And that’s why Drew found himself in a coffee shop in Boston on Wednesday afternoon, pondering a hairpin turn in a promising coaching trajectory that no one could have foreseen this fall. Vanderbilt fired Drew after just three seasons (40-59), which included an NCAA tournament appearance, the best recruiting class in school history and no whiff of impropriety. In September, there’d have been better odds for Drew getting hired at UCLA than getting fired for losing.
But Vanderbilt fired Drew halfway through his six-year contract, leaving him disappointed that a school with a prior track record of patience pulled an about-face.
“I think the big lure was the opportunity to go build something and have a legacy similar to what my dad had at Valparaiso, to what my brother has at Baylor,” Drew said, referencing Homer and Scott Drew. “The component with that is Vandy had always had a history of being very family-oriented, very close-knit campus and the longevity of the coaches.”
How the firing went down
Drew recalled a “perfect storm” of events that surrounded his firing. There was the injury to Garland, who projects to be the highest Vanderbilt draft pick since 1966. The other McDonald’s All-American Drew recruited, Simi Shittu, injured his knee in January of 2018, which robbed him of some of the athleticism that defined his game in high school. The athletic director who hired him, David Williams, announced his retirement in September and tragically died in February. The general counsel who worked on Drew’s contract retired over the summer, and the chancellor who hired him announced he was stepping down two weeks after Drew’s dismissal.
Even more puzzling than the firing were the steps that led up to it. In his first interview since his dismissal, Drew detailed to Yahoo Sports how little communication he’d had with Turner, who officially started on Feb. 1 and was officially hired on Dec. 11. Drew said Turner attended just one practice, they had no sit-down conversations prior to the dismissal and they only interacted a handful of times.
Turner declined comment.
When Drew went to Turner’s office as summoned on the day of his dismissal, he brought with him an 18-page plan of how to fix the program. It offered collaborative ideas, detailed areas for improvement and specific solutions. Drew never got a chance to hand him the document. “That was going to be the first time we were going to have that conversation,” Drew said. “Unfortunately, I never got to have that conversation.”
He added: “We never had a conversation about basketball. We never had a chance to sit down and talk.”
The news of Drew’s firing was greeted with raised eyebrows around the SEC, where Drew developed a reputation as a solid tactician and tireless recruiter. Tennessee coach Rick Barnes pointed out that Drew’s team this season kept playing hard until the final game, developing innovative schemes and trying to compensate for their lack of ball handlers. “His guys never, ever, stopped competing,” Barnes said.
Georgia coach Tom Crean, who knew Drew from when they both coached in the state of Indiana, was disappointed by move. “As a coach, it bewilders you that there was a change in leadership and and no one institutionally was there to stand up for him,” Crean said. “It’s hard to fathom there wasn’t someone administratively who said, ‘He’s had a couple of tough months, but this is our guy.’ There was energy around that program, and he’s a tremendous coach. I think it was handled wrong.”
Drew’s firing comes at a compelling inflection point for the sport, where an 18-month federal investigation has prompted little administrative action against head coaches outside of the multitude of sins that felled Louisville’s Rick Pitino. LSU just brought back coach Will Wade after suspending him in the wake of a Yahoo Sports report that revealed him speaking on an FBI wire-tap about a “strong-ass offer” for a recruit.
The situation invokes the famous line by the late Indiana State coach Royce Waltman: “If you get fired for cheating you can get rehired, but if you get fired for losing it’s like you have leprosy. Young coaches need to bear that in mind. Cheating and not graduating players won’t get you in trouble, but that damn losing will.”
His own critic
Try and nudge Bryce Drew into these conversational alleys, and he volleys back sunshiny cliches: “A lot for me goes back to the student athletes ... I understand, it's part of the business of college athletics … I’ve learned way more in this season on leadership and keeping a team together and coaching basketball.”
Drew certainly had critiques of Vanderbilt, including the school’s admissions limiting the ability to add fifth-year transfers and work with players who reclassify late in the recruiting process. “In this landscape, you have to be able to win the spring in recruiting,” he said.
But full-fledged complaints? There were few in a 90-minute interview, other than his worry about not having so-called “keys to a gym” for the first time in his adult life.
Drew has been a Waldo-like basketball figure interwoven through varying levels of the game for more than two decades, which makes him reappearing soon on a sideline somewhat inevitable. Drew branded himself as an eternal March hero by hitting a game-winning shot for No. 13 Valparaiso over No. 4 Ole Miss in the 1998 NCAA tournament. He went on to become a first-round NBA pick, selected No. 16 by the Houston Rockets in the 1998 NBA draft and played with Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley and Scottie Pippen as a rookie.
After six seasons in the NBA and part of one overseas, Drew returned to college coaching and worked for his father at Valparaiso. That led to six seasons as an assistant at his alma mater before taking over in 2011.
Drew’s career has always been on the fast track, and he’s fittingly already moved on to the self-improvement part of the post-firing process. He has spent so much time with his family that he jokes that his 4-year-old son, Bryson, never wants him to work again. (Drew bragged of Bryson getting three hits in his baseball game this week.) Drew has gone bass fishing in Kentucky and traveled with his wife, Tara, and Bryson to Destin, Florida. He also squeezed in a trip to Chicago to spend a day with the Bulls, as coach Jim Boylen was an assistant with the Rockets when Drew played in the NBA. He has also begun adjusting to life outside the coaching bubble, which included downloading the Uber app this week for the first time.
He’s already plotting where to visit next season, including spending time with Tony Bennett at Virginia, a fellow son-of-a-coach who has been in frequent touch since the firing. Bennett recommended some offseason reading: “Life Without Lack (Living in the fullness of Psalm 23).”
Drew doesn’t duck the optics of Vanderbilt’s 9-23 season, which in retrospect was built too much around Garland’s playmaking. The Vanderbilt staff had pitched Garland, a Nashville-area native, on playing a ball-dominant Trae Young-like role in the offense. “When you sign a kid like that, good luck signing another point guard,” Drew said.
He said he joked with his staff before the injury: “If we're running an offense that's not all centered around him, I'm a stupid coach.”
Garland’s injury left Vanderbilt with nine scholarship players who played. With no hint his job was in danger, Drew redshirted Ejike Obinna, a second-year center who started 14 games as a freshman. The move was to benefit the long-term development of the player and program, as Drew admitted that Obinna could have helped them win at least two or three more games and will likely start full-time next season.
Drew’s reality lies somewhere between the dualities of his coaching resume. He’s 3-0 against Brad Stevens as a college coach and has led three teams — two at Valpo and one at Vanderbilt — to NCAA bids. Then there’s 0-19 this season and a team that underachieved in 2017-18 — finishing 12-20 — after an injury to Matthew Fisher-Davis led to Vanderbilt sputtering down the stretch.
Will the back-to-back disappointing seasons be an indictment or life sentence on Drew’s coaching resume? He says he’ll end up a better coach for having endured them. “I’m a way better coach today,” Drew said. “I’m a way better leader today. A lot of great people in the business [have said] you learn more when you're losing than when you're winning. And I've learned way more in this season on leadership and keeping a team together and coaching basketball.”
The case for Drew to return to the college sideline is a compelling one, best illustrated through the three schools that already sent feelers out for the job in the three weeks after his firing. Drew won four regular-season league titles in five years at Valparaiso and his NCAA appearance in his first season at Vanderbilt was widely viewed as overachieving. (His predecessor, Kevin Stallings, missed the NCAAs his first four years and reached just one tournament in the first seven.)
If you polled all of the Power Five athletic directors and asked if they’d rather have Drew or his replacement, Jerry Stackhouse, it’d be hard to imagine more than 20 percent of the athletic directors picking Stackhouse. Between the shaky track record of professional coaches without college experience and Drew’s history of winning, that number realistically could be lower. (In a quick poll of five on Thursday, every AD chose Drew.) He’ll likely be atop athletic directors’ lists in the next hiring cycle, which could include jobs opening up in the wake of the federal basketball scandal.
The night that Garland got hurt back in November, Drew didn’t know the exact diagnosis but had already envisioned the worst. After meeting with his team and the media, he walked up to a deserted area behind a concession stand atop Memorial Gymnasium and sat alone for an hour.
“You feel the arrival, you can kind of just feel it in the building, and it just gets sucked out of you,” he said. “It was a whirlwind of emotions at that point, because you work so hard for so long.”
With the perfect storm past, Drew is locked ahead and optimistic to start building something again.
He's ready to work to bring back the buzz.
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