New Kansas State men’s basketball head coach Jerome Tang could not help but laugh when a reporter asked him if there was any comparison between the current K-State program and Baylor when Tang and head coach Scott Drew took over in 2003.
Simply, the answer was no.
The Bears roster had been decimated because of crippling NCAA sanctions levied after the previous coach, Dave Bliss, attempted to cover up illegal tuition payments made to a player (Patrick Dennehy) on the team who was then murdered by another teammate. Bliss attempted to frame Dennehy for dealing drugs after he had been killed to cover up the payments, but was found out and forced to resign.
More than half of the roster transferred and restrictions were placed on the program including: limiting the number of paid recruiting visits, reducing the number of scholarships and eliminating the non-conference schedule for the first two seasons of Drew and Tang’s tenure in Waco.
Baylor was in dire straits.
Recruits wouldn’t even pick up the phone for the Bears’ coaches, let alone seriously consider playing basketball for the gutted central Texas pariah.
“When we first got to Baylor, we’d call up recruits,” Drew said. “(We’d say) it was Baylor and there was no interest or a hang-up ‘good-bye.’ (Or, when we asked) ‘Can we get in your house?’ (they’d say) ‘Nope, bye’. And Coach Tang’s positivity and his hard work throughout all of that was a big reason why we were able to be successful.”
Tang and the other Baylor assistant coaches had to operate with dogged optimism, doing whatever it took to get the types of players on campus that the Bears needed to get themselves to the next level.
“When we first started out, (Tang) would drive all night and spend the night in his car,” Drew said. “Whatever it took to get from Point A to Point B, he was going to do. He always did it with a positive attitude and in a way that represented the university at the highest level.”
Wins were hard to come by during the early years. Baylor won just 36 games total from 2004 to 2007 before things started to turn around during the 2007-08 season when the Bears made it to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since the new staff took over.
The Bears had between five and seven scholarship players in their first year and team’s are allowed 13 total.
However, Drew said Tang’s infectious spirit was not affected by the less-than-stellar circumstances.
“(Tang) was notorious for playing the drums on a trashcan before we went out to get us fired up,” Drew said. “I brought the jock jams, but I think he had better rhythm so he jumped on the trash can.”
Tang also wasn’t afraid of making sure his players could cash the checks that their mouths were writing, even if it meant realizing some tough truths about the caliber of the Baylor program at the time.
“My second year at Baylor, we had recruited a point guard and he talked a lot,” Tang said. “I was tired of listening to him talk. I’m 38, maybe 39 at the time. So I said, ‘Hey, let’s go play one-on-one.’ And I beat him in one-on-one. And I remember going into the locker room crying and the guys on staff came in and asked, ‘Why are you crying?’. And I said it was because we’re going to lose a lot of games.”
Tang said K-State is “leaps and bounds” ahead of that point in terms of roster quality and program stability.
What happened at Baylor after that is history.
The Bears have grown into the basketball power they are today, culminating in a national championship during the 2020-21 season, something that was unthinkable when Drew and Tang stepped foot in Waco nearly two decades ago.
“He has high expectations,” Drew said. “He came to Baylor because he wanted to win national championships. We’re going to cheer for him at K-State except for when he plays us. Hopefully we’re both in the national championship game together.”
A bond was built in those 19 years at Baylor between Drew and Tang, one the K-State coach said would not be discarded, but would be put aside the two-to-three times the two programs meet every year.
It’s a bond built through struggle, hard work and success that culminated a Sunday evening when the two celebrated Tang’s dream of being a head coach becoming reality.
“When (Drew) found out that I got the job, he came over that night, and he brought with him a bottle of wine that someone had given him in 2003 when he took the job at Baylor,” Tang said. “They told him, ‘I want you to drink this when you want to celebrate something that’s really, really great.’ Well, we won a NIT Championship, we went to Sweet 16s, we went to two Elite Eights, we went to a Final Four and a National Championship and we won the Big 12 again and that bottle was still closed. But when I got this job, he came over with his wife to open that with me.”