Gas was 18 cents a gallon. The average annual wage for an American was slightly over $3,200. A businessman named Frank McNamara, embarrassed at having forgotten his wallet when eating out and having no money to pay for dinner, vowed that would never happen again and came up with the idea of being able to charge purchases at several different merchants to one account. He called it a Diners Club credit card and it was made of cardboard.
That was March of 1950, the last time Baylor went to the Final Four. Until Monday night.
The road to the Final Four was a short one back then. One game, since only eight teams were in the NCAA tournament. And even that was almost too long for the Bears, who needed to rally from four points down in the final 39 seconds to edge BYU 56-55. It was March 24, 1950. They would not win another postseason game until they beat Georgetown in the first round of the 2009 NIT, 59 years later. They would not get back to the Final Four until now. There have been 14 U.S. presidents since then. Houston, the team they will play Saturday in an all-Texas duel, has been six times, counting this year. Seattle, Princeton, Saint Joseph’s, Jacksonville, George Mason, Santa Clara, all in the Final Four since Baylor.
“What we did,” MaCio Teague said after his 22 points led an 81-72 win over Arkansas, “was history here.” How long ago was 1950?
John Wooden was coaching his second team at UCLA. Mike Krzyzewski was three years old.
The NBA was in its fourth season, with teams such as the Boston Celtics and New York Knicks, but also the Anderson Packers, Sheboygan Red Skins and Waterloo Hawks.
The NFL played a 12-game schedule and the Cleveland Browns beat the Los Angeles Rams in the championship game on Christmas Eve. The league included the Chicago Cardinals and New York Yanks. Ben Hogan won the U.S. Open. The Yankees were World Series champions, in Joe DiMaggio’s next-to-last season. Oklahoma was declared the national football championship even though the Sooners lost to Kentucky in the Sugar Bowl, because the final poll was taken before bowl games. There were only nine bowls then, including the Salad Bowl in Arizona. Miami of Ohio won that one, coached by a guy named Woody Hayes.
The first Peanuts comic strip appeared in 1950. Two months after Baylor beat BYU, the Korean War began. Phil was born in 1950. So were Bill Murray, Tom Petty, Stevie Wonder, Jay Leno and Julius Erving. Joe Biden was seven years old. George Orwell and George Bernard Shaw died.
Homer Drew was six years old. He would grow up, become a coach and have a family, including the son who came along 20 years later and was named Scott. Monday night, the son credited the father for preparing him to dare to try the remarkable reclamation job he has done at Baylor, taking a scandal-ridden program in shambles 18 years ago, and carrying it to this high place. “My dad’s the most positive person I know,” Drew said, “and I think that’s rubbed off on me.”
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Baylor went 13-11 during the 1949-50 regular season but shared the Southwest Conference title and so was in the NCAA tournament. There was really no such thing as the Final Four; four teams played a regional in New York, four a regional in Kansas City, and the two champions met in New York for the title, so it was more like the Final Two. Baylor beat BYU in Kansas City but lost the next night to Bradley 68-66. Strange thing, though, the Bears still had to go to New York to play the third-place game. How’s that for a fun trip? They lost to North Carolina State 53-41.
The leading scorer was Don Heathington, a four-year World War II Navy veteran. The coach was Bill Henderson, who had also taken the Bears to the national championship game in 1948. Surely, great things were ahead. But he coached 11 more years and had only two more winning seasons. Baylor would not be back in the NCAA tournament for 38 years. The Bears had played in two Final Fours in three seasons. Seventy-one years later, they had never been back. Until now.
Drew arrived at Baylor in 2003, when a scandal had wrecked the program, and one of the Bears had murdered his teammate. It can’t get much lower than that. Baylor had scholarship reductions and was not even allowed to play a non-conference schedule in 2005-06 because of NCAA sanctions. Some men start from the ground up, Drew was starting from the sub-basement. His first three seasons were 21-53.
“I prayed about it. I felt led to come here,” he said of Baylor. “I really believed in the vision of the school . . . and I wanted to be a part of that. Obviously once we got into the season and you found out that most of your team were walk-ons and most of them weren’t over 6-2, then you realized it might be tougher than you originally thought.”
Two years after that third consecutive losing season, the Bears were in the NCAA tournament. Four years later, they were in the Elite Eight. But there was a land beyond, and Baylor never could get there, until putting away Arkansas Monday night. A special feat required a special bunch, and Drew said he has that because of their work ethic.
“They’re gym rats. If they can’t get to the gym, that’s a bad, bad day,” he said. “They just love to get better in basketball. Couple of them sleep with balls.”
The Bears had to survive a three-week COVID pause in February that caused them to lose a step, limited to one game 24 days. But they’re back. The defense has regained its muscular edge and the assist-turnover ratio the past three games is 41-19. “I thought there is no book to this because no one’s gone through it before,” Drew said of regrouping after the pause.
They didn’t have a pandemic in 1950. Or March Madness. Just an eight-team field with the Baylor Bears taking a tough loss in the Final Four and hoping to get back soon. Seven decades later, here they are.