VALPARAISO — Bryce Drew chuckled to himself as he told the story. Back in 1988, his dad, Homer, dragged the family from its home in South Bend to Valparaiso University for the first time.
Homer was up for the head coaching job, and he wanted to sell his kids on the campus, the school and the community — something he would get awfully good at over the years. So the Drews — Homer, Janet and their kids, Scott, Dana and 14-year-old Bryce — drove around with the windows down and peppered students with questions.
How’s the campus? “Awesome.”
How are the people? “Great.”
How’s the basketball team? “Uh, are you sure you want to step into this?”
Valparaiso was hardly a vale of basketball paradise. The school had never been to the NCAA Tournament. Had never won a conference championship. Had never even had a winning season in Division I.
Well, Homer Drew couldn’t wait to change all that.
“Those were our goals,” he said. “And I’m really proud to say we reached them.”
And now, 22 seasons later, Drew will leave it up to Bryce to carry on the tradition he built, and to take it even higher.
Homer Drew announced his retirement Tuesday before a standing-room-only crowd of VU officials, players, friends and family at the school’s Harre Union. As expected, Bryce Drew, the associate head coach whom Homer had been grooming to take over for years, was immediately named the new head coach.
Bryce becomes the third Drew to be head coach at VU, as his brother Scott replaced Homer for one season in 2002 after his first retirement, before taking the top job at Baylor. The details of Bryce Drew’s contract — both length and salary — have yet to be finalized, athletic director Mark LaBarbera said.
Homer Drew will continue to be a significant presence at the university, taking on the newly created role of associate athletic director. He also hopes to start a part-time career as a TV and radio broadcaster, preferably as a game analyst.
One of his primary roles as associate athletic director will be fundraising, but he will be involved in other ways, too.
“I’ll be at the basketball games so we can critique this new coach and see how he’s doing,” Drew joked.
Everyone who spoke Tuesday — from university president Mark Heckler to LaBarbera to Scott Drew to Horizon League commissioner Jon LeCrone to current and former players — said that Homer Drew’s coaching legacy goes well beyond the numbers.
But the numbers are awfully impressive, too.
The 20th and far and away most successful head coach in VU history won 640 games in his 32-year career at Bethel College, IU-South Bend and Valparaiso — he was sixth among active Division I coaches, just three behind North Carolina’s Roy Williams, before retiring. He was 371-304 at VU.
With the Crusaders, he had 10 20-win seasons, nine postseason appearances, eight conference championships, seven NCAA Tournaments and that one magical trip to the Sweet 16 in 1998 — Bryce’s buzzer-beating 3-pointer against Ole Miss (with Homer calmly watching on, arms folded, chin held high) forever etched in tourney lore. He also ushered the program into a new era, moving from the lowly Mid-Continent Conference to the much more competitive and respected Horizon League four seasons ago.
Thirty-two of his players have gone on to professional careers, with Bryce’s six-year stint in the NBA the most notable.
“Homer Drew has been quite simply one of the greatest coaches of all time,” Heckler said. “He took our basketball program to unprecedented heights. And more important than his contributions on the basketball court has been the way Homer Drew has represented Valparaiso University and the values we hold most dear, to the nation and to the world.”
The Crusaders are coming off one of their most successful regular seasons under Drew, a 23-12 season that saw them finish just one game — “one shot,” as several VU people put it Tuesday — out of a tie for the school’s first Horizon League championship. But the Crusaders faltered down the stretch, losing three out of four league games in the final two weeks, falling to Milwaukee in the tournament semifinals, getting passed over by the NIT and getting crushed at home by Iona in the first round of the Collegeinsider.com Tournament.
VU’s last NCAA Tournament appearance came in 2004, and Drew desperately wanted to make one last Big Dance before retiring.
“It would have been a nice way for him to go out,” said graduated senior Howard Little, who drove out from Chicago to attend along with Cory Johnson, Kevin Van Wijk, Tommy Kurth and Ben Boggs.
But Drew — who said he came to the decision in late April, not in the heat of the loss to Iona — said that he had no regrets, just that it was “the right time.”
He also said the decision of star guard Brandon Wood to transfer to Michigan State had “no impact” on his decision. When asked if he hypothetically had the greatest team ever assembled coming back next year, would he still be retiring, he immediately said, “Yes.”
“I did not think about going out on a good note or a negative note at all,” he said. “But I would have enjoyed going out that way, especially taking (LaBarbera and Heckler) to an NCAA Tournament. If you stay tuned, hopefully that next person will be able to accomplish that goal for us.”
So why now? Drew, 66, had a very simple answer.
“Look at her right there,” he said, pointing to one of his seven grandchildren. “That’s why.”
Of course, coaches never can put away the whistle forever. And after 42 years as a high school and college coach, he’s not exactly done yet.
“As I look to my seven grandchildren, we just need three more,” Drew said. “Then I can go five-on-five.”