THERE'S A LARGE rectangular banner affixed to the east wall of the Hilltop, the 73-year-old sweatbox of a gym where the Valparaiso men's basketball team practices. On it, a 6-foot-2 shooting guard in a baggy yellow jersey rises up for a desperation three-pointer while his coach -- who also happens to be his father -- watches optimistically from the bench. The poster's pastel colors have faded with time, but the image, at least for college hoops fans, is immediately recognizable.
Though he gets the chance every day, Bryce Drew doesn't look up at the placard often. In fact, the baby-faced 38-year-old says he rarely thinks
If anyone is suited for the job, it's Valparaiso's favorite son. After a decorated high school career in which he overcame a serious heart ailment to win Indiana's Mr. Basketball award in 1994, Drew spurned advances from Syracuse and Stanford to play for his dad, Homer, at Valpo. At the time, the university had registered exactly one winning season at the D1 level in 16 years. But over the next four, the familial pair transformed the school's basketball culture, bagging four straight Mid-Continent conference titles and three consecutive NCAA postseason appearances, including a trip to the Sweet 16 in 1998. A first-round draft pick, Drew embarked on a seven-year journeyman pro career but returned home in 2005 to join Homer's staff. For six seasons, he absorbed as much wisdom as he could from the man he had watched stalk the sideline since childhood. Eighteen months ago, when his dad retired permanently with 640 career wins (Homer also retired in 2002, only to return the next season), Drew took over the family business.
It had seen better days. Although the program had made three more tournament appearances since Drew's NBA departure, it got blown out in all three contests. To make matters worse, Valpo's star guard, Brandon Wood, transferred to Michigan State 11 days before Drew's hiring was announced. Then, six weeks before his first scheduled exhibition game of the 2011-12 season, his father and mother, Janet, were both diagnosed with cancer. Each had surgery -- Homer on his prostate and Janet on her bladder -- and recovered in nearby hospital rooms.
That Drew lived minutes away from his folks as they underwent grueling treatments was a blessing; his first stop in the morning was often not his office but their kitchen for breakfast. And the late-night three-way
Yet coaching, though stressful in its own way, provided Drew with a productive outlet for his anxieties. "The court was a release," he says. "For two hours, I got to step between the lines and coach our players." His club responded. Picked to finish fifth in the conference in 2011-12, Valpo won 22 games and secured the Horizon League's regular-season crown. Were it not for some costly turnovers and an untimely injury to forward Kevin Van Wijk in the conference title game, the Crusaders may well have earned an invitation to the Big Dance. "I really grew a lot last year," Drew says, "in my faith and as a person."
This season promises to be smoother than his first. Most important, Drew's parents are healthier than they were 12 months ago; Homer is cancer-free, and he says his wife -- whose cancer was more advanced -- is feeling "the best she has since surgery." Their favorite team, meanwhile, is as talented as any Crusaders squad since Bryce wore the gold and brown. The consensus choice to win the Horizon in 2013, Valpo returns seven seniors, including Van Wijk -- a 6-8 Dutchman who scarfs down rebounds -- and Ryan Broekhoff. As a junior, the 6-7 Aussie wing snagged 24 percent of available defensive boards, posted a lofty 63.5 true shooting percentage and took home league POY honors. "Ryan is a tremendous kid," Drew says. "He finds ways to impact the game."
When Homer left the post he had held for 22 years, he advised his son to be himself on the floor and in the locker room. It's clear Drew has already imparted his own sensibilities on the program. He moves quickly through the gym -- long-sleeve T-shirt tucked into his track pants, palm card in hand -- correcting sloppy defensive positioning and perfecting motion-heavy offensive plays he picked up in the NBA. Drew never screams or stomps his
Valpo faithful are mildly concerned that Drew, a hot commodity on the coaching market, won't stick around to see the program regain its groove. Yet it's difficult to imagine him leaving behind a school into which he has invested so much. On top of the talent he has this season, Drew has already inked one of Valpo's best recruiting classes for 2013-14, signing five well-regarded local products from Indiana and Illinois. And if he ever needs a reminder about where Valpo has been and where it can go, he can always stop practice and peek up at that banner on the Hilltop's wall.