Noie: It's been a minute, but Homer Drew still remembers good days as Bethel hoops coach

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

Before 34 seasons and 640 victories as a college basketball head coach, he was just the new guy at an NAIA outfit in Mishawaka near some McKinley Avenue strip malls and fast-food joints. 

Before earning a place in the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame in 2019, there was practice every afternoon in the beer-barrel shaped gymnasium where it was time to teach. 

Before, during and after a legendary career as one of the good guys in the game, there always always was Bethel College for Homer Drew. 

A good life, good man
Former Bethel men's basketball coach Homer Drew leads a really nice life these days in Arizona, where he's surrounded by family.

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Over the weekend, and for obvious reasons, this country was reminded to never forget. And the 76-year-old Drew, who now lives with his wife, Janet, near family in Phoenix, never has forgotten. About Bethel. About getting his head coaching start in 1976 in a college game that would give him so much. About learning about how to be a head coach, a teacher, a friend to so many at now Bethel University. 

On Tuesday, Bethel will recognize Drew with a get-together (more on that later) for someone who helped put the men’s basketball program on the NAIA national map. Drew, as his aw-shucks, easy-going disposition, downplayed any notion that he was a trailblazer, but a look at his career record with the Pilots indicates otherwise. 

He never had a losing season while winning 252 games over 11 seasons at Bethel. Prior to Drew’s arrival, the Pilots won a combined 168 games the previous 18 seasons. He was good. So was his program. 

Drew helped light the national power fuse that predecessor Mike Lightfoot carried to seven national championships. Before there was Lightfoot, there was Drew. 

Many friends and former players planned to be at Tuesday’s celebration to show their appreciation for Drew, who insists everyone has it backward. Instead of everyone reaching out – and in one former player’s case, driving in all the way from North Carolina to be part of the evening – he should be the one contacting them with thanks. His assistants. His support staff. His players. 

“They were wonderful to be around; they impacted my life,” Drew said. “A young coach eager to learn and to grow and both were accomplished very nicely at Bethel. I thank God for letting me live long enough to let me see why he put me through my journey.” 

The job was not without challenges for Drew, who had to be part teacher, part coach, part fund-raising, part team psychologist, part CEO. Coach at any level lower than Division I and you have to wear many hats. Drew wore them routinely. Proudly. It was a challenge, but the payoff arrived every afternoon when he stepped into Goodman Gymnasium and did what he believed he was born to do – coach. Help young men maximize their potential not only as basketball players but as individuals. In basketball and in life. 

Every day was a new day, a challenging day, a fulfilling day. 

“I never thought I had all the answers,” Drew said. “I did know that I loved to grow with the game and loved to put a group together and find a way to be successful and find a common purpose.” 

Homer Drew will be honored Tuesday with an evening back at Bethel University, where he learned how to become a college basketball coach.

Many good days at Goodman 

Drew’s purpose was easy because it wasn’t always about basketball. Or winning. Or coaching. Life at the NAIA level can be rough. The stress. The demands. The wondering if you’re on the right career course. Drew always worked to have that balance, in part because Goodman became an extension of the home that he and Janet had made in Mishawaka. 

Step into the old wooden-walled barn before or after a practice or a game and it was common to see one of the three Drew children – Scott, Dana and Bryce – running around the place. Shooting baskets one day. Throwing a Nerf football the next. A game of hide-and-seek on a cold and quiet morning during winter break. Or roller skating that night. The Drews did it all. 

“It was like the ultimate backyard,” Drew said. “It was a great family atmosphere, a great family time for us.” 

Family time during those off days, but winning time when it was time to play in November and December and January and February. Bethel basketball was a success under Drew, who ran off seasons that included 24, 25, 27 and 28 victories. That included a trip to the NCCAA national championship game in 1980. National titles wouldn’t come until after Drew moved on, first to IUSB for one season, then to Valparaiso for 22. 

But he never forgot about Bethel. 

The pressure to win? Forget about administrators or fans or alumni of the program. For Drew, no matter where he worked or how often he did win, it arrived from within. 

It wasn’t always measured on the court. It mattered in the classroom. It mattered in life. 

“I always wanted to be able to feel that I was teaching and team was responding to show that all the hard work paid off,” Drew said. “If you put the time in, you will reap the rewards. You saw the effort that they all put in.” 

What did Drew mean to Bethel? The head coach deferred an answer. He loved being there and loved coaching there and loved his experience, memories which he still proudly carries. 

“Practice was his time, where he very much had a John Wooden philosophy that it was his time to teach,” Lightfoot said. “He had the mentality to work as hard as he could in practice every day. That made it a really fun environment from 3:30 to 5:30.” 

Before 22 seasons as a head coach at Valparaiso, Homer Drew spent 11 at Bethel College in Mishawaka

What did Drew mean to Bethel? 

Lightfoot helped organize Tuesday’s event, with zero pushback from Drew. Out of the game as a coach since he walked away from Valparaiso in 2011, Drew has tried to remain out of the public eye. Spend time with family. Play golf. Pick up his new favorite hobby – Pickleball. Be a husband. Be a father. Be a grandfather. 

In March, when both his coaching sons – Bryce at Grand Canyon University and Scott at Baylor – had teams in the NCAA tournament, Drew preferred to stay in the shadows as his sons’ teams competed in Indianapolis. Television cameras would catch him settling into his seat at Hinkle Fieldhouse or at Lucas Oil Stadium, but for the most part, he didn’t seek out attention. 

Not so when Lightfoot floated the idea of Tuesday. How long did it take for Drew to give it the green light? 

“About one second,” he joked. “It was, ‘Yes, I love your idea, Mike.” 

Tuesday is touted as “An Evening with Homer Drew” with at least 125 friends and former players expected. What would a night with the former college coach these days entail? That’s easy, Drew said. It’s an extension of those days back at Goodman, only 30-plus years later. 

Evenings in Arizona often start at Drew’s home where he coaches up five of his eight grandchildren on the backyard basketball court. From there, they’ll hop in the car and head for Bryce’s home right around the corner because he’s the one with the pool and it’s probably another 110-degree early evening in the Valley. After that, the group walks literally across the street to Dana’s house so everyone can hit the hot tub. 

It’s the ultimate family experience, just the way Drew wants it. 

“This is a special time,” Drew said. “I really feel blessed.” 

Blessed and healthy after being diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2011. Drew had planned to fly in Tuesday morning for the Bethel event, but that itinerary shifted over the weekend in a 2021 way. 

Janet recently was diagnosed with coronavirus. Drew has tested negative, but will remain close to home. Tuesday’s event remains a go via Zoom. It won’t be the same, but it will give the Bethel basketball family a chance to offer their thanks for Drew. And vice versa. 

“He put Bethel basketball on the map,” Lightfoot said. “Before that, it was just good days and bad and some good teams and some bad teams. He took the program to a much higher level in every facet.” 

Bethel College is now Bethel University. Basketball games are now played in the Wiekamp Center. The campus has expanded and a lot has changed since Drew’s days. But he seemingly hasn’t. At the end of a 20-minute phone conversation last week, Drew closed in typical Drew style – by thinking about someone else. 

“God bless you, and have a great day!” 

Same to you, Coach.  

Follow South Bend Tribune and NDInsider columnist Tom Noie on Twitter: @tnoieNDI