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Homer Drew gets the recognition he never asked for

Dan Wetzel
Homer Drew, known for his time coaching at Valparaiso, will be inducted into the College Basketball Hall of Fame after winning 640 games. (AP)

This weekend, Homer Drew, the longtime coach at Valparaiso University, is getting inducted into the College Basketball Hall of Fame in Kansas City.

That’s the good news. 

“It’s a wonderful honor,” he said. 

The better news? Due to a lucky break in scheduling, he won’t miss any games at the small, Nashville-area high school school where he still, at age 75 and having battled cancer, volunteers as an assistant. 

“Once a coach, always a coach,” said his son, Scott, who is the head coach at Baylor. “He can’t stay away. He’s going to find a practice somewhere.”

“I’m just helping out,” Homer said, trying to downplay his role. 

“He does more than ‘help out,’ ” said Casey Shaw, the Davidson Academy’s head coach who also happens to be Homer’s son-in-law. “He’s right in there on every drill, working with the players. I have to tell the guys, ‘Remember, this guy is 75 years old.’ ”

This is the beauty of Homer Drew reaching the Hall of Fame. He isn’t the winningest coach of all time. He isn’t the most famous. He wasn’t the highest paid. In a business full of self-promoters, career climbers and guys who are more recruiters than coaches, he is a throw-back, a guy more than content at being a mid-major teacher of the game.

He’s so humble that when the Hall of Fame called to tell him he had been voted in, he was happy and overwhelmed. Yet, he didn’t mention it to his family. Then when the official announcement came out, they all called up and said, “Dad, why didn’t you say anything?”

“I meant to tell them, but I forgot,” Homer claimed. “At 75, you forget things.”

That’s Homer Drew, they all say. So, too, is spending his time at the small high school where two of his grandsons, Isaiah and Caleb, play. He’s also been an assistant to his daughter, Dana, when she was coaching a middle school travel team, where another grandson, Luke, played. 

Basically, if there is a ball bouncing somewhere, Homer is going to find it. 

“It gives him something to do,” Janet Drew, his wife of 52 years, joked. “If not he’d probably drive me nuts, so I’m happy.”

Homer Drew spent 11 years coaching Bethel University, a small NAIA school in Indiana. He then did one season at Indiana University-South Bend. Then 22 at Valpo. He always won — 640 total victories and 26 winning seasons, including 18 where he won 20 or more. He reached seven NCAA tournaments at Valparaiso.

His most noted appearance came in 1998, when the Crusaders reached the Sweet 16 in part to his son Bryce hitting a famous buzzer-beating 3-pointer against Ole Miss. 

That was one glorious moment in time. It meant no more, however, than all the practices, road trips and team meals across the years. 

Every coach wants to work with the best talent possible, but Drew says what he truly loved was getting to teach players who shared his love for the game.

Homer Drew hugs his son, Bryce Drew, after Bryce hit a game-winning three-point shot, at the buzzer, to beat Mississippi 70-69 in the first round of the NCAA Midwest Regional in 1998. (AP)

“If someone has a similar passion as you, it’s enjoyable to help them get better,” Drew said. “They are working as hard as possible and you can see it paying off. That and putting a team together. You have to get a group of young people to sacrifice a little bit of their individual talent to make the team better.”

When you are in it for the purity of the pursuit, there is no difference between preparing for an NCAA tournament game or running a practice for some 11-year-olds. Coaching is coaching and among coaches, Homer Drew is one of the most respected in America.

The simple satisfaction is why he never pushed to get hired by a bigger school in a more prominent conference despite the on-court success. Valparaiso was more than enough — a terrific school, a great community and a program that could be competitive. 

“Janet and I just really enjoyed the city and the location,” he said of the small town in Northwest Indiana. “It was a great place to raise a family while also being close enough to Chicago that you could go there and shop or watch [professional sports].”

What he lost in money or fame by never jumping to the Big Ten, he gained every other way. Scott became his assistant for nine years before taking over at Valpo and then Baylor. Bryce played for him and then, after six years in the NBA, came back and became his assistant as well. He later became head coach at Valpo and until this year, Vanderbilt.

“That allowed me to have my sons around me longer than most parents,” Homer Drew said. “I’ve always felt blessed to have that.”

Both Scott and Bryce have included their father in their college programs, regularly peppering him for ideas and advice. That’s nice, but there is nothing like hands-on teaching. NCAA rules don’t allow volunteers to work practice. So when his son-in-law, himself a longtime professional player in Europe, took over as a high school coach, Homer of course started showing up. 

“He’s still a great coach,” Casey Shaw said. “You can tell how much he loves it.”

On Saturday Homer Drew, a coach who never sought fame, enters the Hall of it.

It’s incredible, he notes.

By next week, though, he’ll be back in Nashville, back at practice, back to teaching the basics to some hoops-loving kid. 

It’s where he is, and always has been, most comfortable.

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