Before Oral Roberts was March Madness' Cinderella, Paul Mills helped make Baylor a top basketball program
Oral Roberts, a small Christian school in Tulsa, Oklahoma, was just the second No. 15 seed to play in Sweet Sixteen in the men's NCAA Tournament. The team's victory over No. 2 Ohio State and No. 7 Florida came behind the play of forward Kevin Obanor and guard Max Abmas.
On the sideline, head coach Paul Mills leads the team. Prior to joining the program in 2017, he worked on the Baylor coaching staff for 14 years. He was an assistant with the team in 2010 and 2012 when the program reached the Elite 8. Had the Golden Eagles also won their Sweet Sixteen match-up against Arkansas, they would have faced the Bears in that next round of play.
Would that be the case, a group of longtime friends, coworkers, and road trip roommates would have faced off for a chance to have their teams play in the Final Four.
Baylor basketball scandal, murder led to rebuild
In the summer of 2003, a Baylor basketball player shot and killed his teammate. Carlton Dotson was found guilty in the murder of Patrick Dennehy two years later but the incident also led to claims of misconduct with the men's basketball program.
The allegations included that head coach Dave Bliss paid Dennehy's tuition in lieu of a scholarship, recruiting violations by coaching staff, and rampant drug and alcohol use by players.
Bliss resigned just six weeks after Dennehy's murder and Scott Drew, then an assistant at Valparaiso University was hired shortly thereafter. He reached out to Mills about joining the staff, an idea Mills was not keen on given the recent history and his first impression of the 32-year-old Drew.
"(I thought) This guy is a scatterbrain," Mills told Doug Gottlieb on "The Herd with Colin Cowherd" podcast. "He has no chance in the world at Baylor."
Eventually, the 31-year-old Mills relented and joined the staff as coordinator of operations. The team struggled from the get-go after current players transferred and NCAA sanctions impacted recruiting. The team won just three Big 12 conference games in that first season and just one the following year.
"If somebody older had taken that job, maybe 50, 55, 60, who had been around the block, they would have understood how hard that was. We didn't know anything," Mills said. "We worked until three in the morning, and we were all back in there by eight."
Recruiting the best:NCAA tourney proof of narrowing talent gap in college hoops
The staff learned on the job quickly and were eventually able to bring in more highly-recruited players who flourished under the coaching staff's structure. By 2008, the team made the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 20 years and in 2010, reached the Elite 8. Mills credited Drew for always pushing the staff to improve.
"if you're asked to do something, 'can't,' 'no,' don't even go there. I learned that one quick," Mills said. "He's impatient and that was a good thing."
On the flip side, Drew credits staff like Mills and former assistant and current North Texas head coach Grant McCasland for their work and sees them as more than just staffers.
“We all help each other. Just like a family, when you’re brothers and sisters go off, you’re cheering for them, you’re supporting them and want them to do great," Mills said at a Saturday press conference. "At the end of the day, they helped build Baylor basketball."
Oral Roberts upset brought Baylor assistant to tears
That emotional connection between those who have coached together at Baylor under Drew still rings true. When Oral Roberts upset Ohio State in the first round, Baylor was still playing against Hartford. Assistant coach Jerome Tang, who came to the program at the same time as Mills, said on "The Field of 68 podcast' that he started to cry on the bench.
"The players had to give me a towel to wipe my tears," Tang said. "Coach (Drew) didn't know what was going on cause there was still like 4 minutes to go, we're up 20, and he turns and he looks at me and he's like 'Mills won, huh,' and I said "yeah,' and he said 'you're crying" and I said "yeah!" It was just incredible."
Tang and Mills were roommates for years on the road while recruiting players. They were also each up for the Oral Roberts coaching job and both of them considered dropping out of the field to not hinder one another's chances at the job.
"It just shows you how they put each other first and their character is what makes them special," Drew said.
The bond each of the men shares is stronger than the outcome of any game.
"They’ve done it the right way and are shaping young men for life. Not only wins and losses on the court, they’re making a difference off the court," Drew said. "I couldn’t be more proud and pleased, but not surprised at all. They’re great coaches and were great coaches when they were here.”