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Lazerus: ‘There’s so few like him’

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM



VALPARAISO — Somewhere beneath the good-ol’-boy smile, the pleasant platitudes, the gentle mannerisms, the hokey attitude — Homer Drew burned.

He got flustered and ferocious. Got competitive and cranky. Arrogant and angry.

He’s human, after all.

You’d just never know it.

After a loss, he’d be smiling. After a rough night of officiating, he’d hug and thank the ref. After a lost season, he’d be upbeat. Always upbeat. Relentlessly upbeat. Almost frustratingly upbeat.

“It’s almost too much sometimes,” said Oakland coach Greg Kampe, a longtime friend and competitor. “It’s like, ‘Jesus Christ, Homer, come on.’ But he is what he is, and he’s always been true to what he is.”

And that’s why Kampe — and so many of his ilk — are sad to see Drew step down as Valparaiso’s head coach. In an age of coaches known more for violent outbursts and cocky attitudes, Drew was a down-home throwback — a guy who practiced positive reinforcement over negative, and who actually believed in it.

He was a guy who genuinely enjoyed his job, and genuinely felt he was making a difference in his players’ lives.

Oh, sure, he tore into a player every now and then. He lashed out at a media member once or twice. He earned more than his share of technical fouls. Again, he’s human, just like the rest of us.

But he’s also different.

“He is what college basketball is supposed to be about, that positive outlook he always had,” Kampe said. “I know that deep inside he boiled, but it never came to the surface. It was always positive — pat a kid on the back and push him to be better. I think the game of college basketball itself takes a step back when he leaves because there are so few like him left.”

That’s the kind of thing you heard a lot of on Tuesday. Kampe used the words “class and dignity.” VU president Mark Heckler said Drew was “thoughtful and inspiring.” Cleveland State coach Gary Waters said a coach like Drew comes along only a “few times in a generation.” Wright State coach Billy Donlon called him a “great ambassador” for the game.

Of course, things won’t change much at Valparaiso under Bryce Drew. That’s kind of the point of Tuesday’s passing of the torch. Bryce is very much built in the mold of his father. He’ll bring a bit more energy and probably a more uptempo offense, and sure, anyone who’s sat behind the VU bench during a game knows he’s got a bit of an edge to him.

But the general tenor of things? Won’t change a bit.

Detroit coach Ray McCallum had a great — and frankly, surprising — story to share on Tuesday. His son, Ray Jr., was one of the top high school players in the country two years ago and was being hotly pursued by the likes of UCLA, Arizona and Florida. And, naturally, out-of-its-league Detroit.

The last thing any Horizon League team wanted to see was McCallum suiting up for his dad.

But the Drews — who had been in the exact same position some 15 years earlier — saw it differently.

“When we were going through the process, Homer and Bryce both offered to talk to Ray about their experience, how great it was as father and son, and coach and player,” McCallum said. “That really meant a lot to Ray.”

That might not make Valparaiso fans particularly happy, but that’s Homer Drew. That’s Bryce Drew. Cheesy as it sounds — and cheesy as it is — they do the right thing by kids.

Any kids.

Just ask Brandon Wood. Drew didn’t want him to transfer to Michigan State. Didn’t like the rule that allowed him to transfer to Michigan State. And it surely burned him — again, deep down and out of the public eye — that Wood bailed on the Crusaders for greener pastures.

But Drew smiled. Drew said the right things, that he was proud of Wood for earning his Valparaiso degree, and that he’ll always be a Crusader.

And Drew didn’t stand in Wood’s way, even helping him land in East Lansing.

And if he’s holding a grudge about it — like so many others on campus are — he’ll never let on.

It’s not his style.

“Coach Drew has shown that a man of character and integrity can run a successful program at the Division I level,” Heckler said. “And that’s a message we want to send to the basketball community.”

Indeed, Drew never had to throw a chair or embarrass a player or rant to the media to win league titles, to win 20 games, to reach the NCAA Tournament. He won and he won in his own, one-of-a-kind way.

During games and practices, he clapped after every make and every miss. He pumped his first and said corny things like, “Let’s go, Valpo!” He even berated refs in his own amusing, bizarrely positive way — “Come on, you’re a better official than that!”

Love him or roll your eyes at him (or both), it’s hard to argue with Drew’s success — or the way that his former players, colleagues and competitors speak about him, on and off the record.

“He’s never varied from who he is, the way he teaches kids, what he does,” Kampe said. “There’s a book called ‘Built to Last,’ about the great companies in the world. And one of the principles in that book is you have to change with the times, but you can never leave your principles. I think the reason Homer lasted was he was able to change his team’s style of play, but he never left the guiding principles that made him who he is.

“When we played Texas in the NCAA Tournament, just before I went on the floor, I got a text from him saying ‘good luck.’ There’s a reason everybody likes him, why everyone has such a great relationship with him. I’m sad to see him go. There’s just so few like him.”



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