Baylor wrote an unlikely chapter to its men’s basketball story on Monday night, winning the program’s first national championship with an 86-70 victory over Gonzaga.
The Bears dominated the previously undefeated Zags from opening tip to final whistle, much like they ruled the tournament. Only one of Baylor’s six NCAA victories was decided by less than double figures.
Its average margin of victory in the final two wins in Indianapolis was a staggering 17.5 points.
“Our guys have been motivated all year,’’ coach Scott Drew said afterward. “We’re a culture of joy. They came out and fed off each other.”
The story of Baylor’s tournament dominance, as impressive as it was, gained even more significance from the program’s backstory. A different sort of culture held sway when Drew became coach in 2003. Baylor had been rocked by scandal. A player had murdered a teammate, resulting in a cover-up by the coach. An NCAA investigation led to sanctions and stripped the program down to six scholarship players.
In Drew’s third season, the Bears couldn’t play non-conference games and went 3-14. The program went through another NCAA investigation on Drew’s watch.
Still, the story line wound its way forward, all the way to a joyous celebration. If Baylor can recover from its history to make history, anything’s possible. Right?
A Tennessee football fan might have entertained that thought at some point on Monday night. He or she might even be holding on to that belief like rosary beads for the foreseeable future.
The Vols continue to struggle with their own sordid saga. It’s not Baylor bad. But it’s certainly worthy of burying your head in your hands and wondering when – or if – it all will end. While the NCAA tournament was playing out, Vols linebacker Aaron Beasley was receiving a citation last week for animal cruelty. He was accused of abusing a 6-month-old kitten and suspended indefinitely from the team.
Earlier this spring, four players were suspended following a dormitory incident. Freshman quarterback Kaidon Salter, who’s one of the suspended players, took to Twitter on Tuesday and apologized for “my negative choices.”
These events have unfolded under the dark cloud of an NCAA investigation into alleged recruiting violations. The allegations resulted in the firing of coach Jeremy Pruitt in January, which began a regime change within the program.
Josh Heupel is UT’s fifth coach in the last 12 years. He’s just getting started on building whatever culture he intends to create. He’ll give fans a glimpse of the football work involved on Saturday, holding an open practice at 10 a.m. at Neyland Stadium.
Addressing the aforementioned incidents and issues will continue in private.
It all adds up to one humongous challenge at present. There’s no telling where this storyline will lead. In the meantime, fans ought to hold on to offensive line coach Glen Elarbee’s impression of Heupel as tightly as rosary beads.
“Heupel is the scariest blend of the best human being that I’ve been around that actually cares about people, cares about family and is blended with a freaky smart guy,” Elarbee said.
“He’s highly intelligent. I’ve never been around anybody who is that genuine and that smart at the game of football.”
* * *
Dan Fleser is a 1980 graduate of the University of Missouri, who covered University of Tennessee athletics from 1988-2019. He can be reached at email@example.com.