In last night’s championship game, Baylor University beat Gonzaga University to become the first men’s team from a Baptist school to win the highest honor in college basketball.
Baylor calls itself a Christian university “in the Baptist tradition,” and its win represents a historic mark not only for the school but for Protestant colleges competing in the sport.
As a staff member with Baylor’s Faith & Sports Institute, I’ve been cheering on the Bears with my colleagues; Tuesday morning we greeted each other with the lingering buzz of excitement overpowering the sleep deprivation from the late-night game. And as a historian, I also have a sense of how this year’s team fits in with the broader historical context of Christian engagement with basketball.
1. Basketball at Baylor goes back more than a century—but Catholic schools tend to win more championships.
Baylor began playing basketball in 1907, just 16 years after the sport originated at the YMCA International Training School in Springfield, Massachusetts. Though many Christian colleges took interest in the game invented by James Naismith, few have been able to rival Catholic schools with championship-level success.
Since the NCAA tournament began in 1939, Catholic schools have won 10 men’s titles. Compare that to Protestant schools—who can claim four only if Duke, originally founded as a Methodist school, is counted—and the battle for Christian men’s basketball supremacy is lopsided. Baylor’s victory in 2021 puts one definitively in the Protestant column.
2. Baptist women have been more likely to dominate in the sport.
While 2021 marked the first national championship for the Baylor men, the women’s team has enjoyed a run of success that includes three titles in the past two decades, most recently in 2019. Thanks to Baylor, among religious schools winning NCAA titles in women’s basketball, Protestants hold a 3-2 advantage over their Catholic counterparts.
And the Baylor women are not the first Baptist school in Texas to dominate the sport. Back in the 1950s, the famed Flying Queens of Wayland Baptist established a dynasty that few have matched before or since. Playing before Title IX opened up opportunities for women to play organized competitive college sports, the Wayland Baptist women competed in the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), a collection of semi-professional teams and colleges. From 1953 until 1958 they reeled off 131 consecutive wins.
Baylor’s current president, Linda Livingstone, has important basketball connections as well. She played for Oklahoma State beginning in 1978, and her name is still near the top of the school record books for field goal percentage in a season and career.
3. Baylor’s last men’s championship game was in 1948, led by a basketball-playing revivalist.
2021 is not the first time the Baylor men have made it to the NCAA championships. In 1948, the Bears played in the finals before losing to Kentucky. That team, coached by Bill Henderson, marked the high point of a brief run of success in the years following World War II. From 1946 until 1950, they won four conference championships and made three NCAA tournament appearances. (At the time, Baylor was still segregated. It took nearly two decades before Tommy Bowman became the first black player to take the floor for the Bears.)
The 1948 team was also notable for its leading player, Robert “Jack” Robinson. Robinson coupled his basketball skills with preaching ability, leading revivals while at Baylor that served as a precursor to his career as a Baptist minister. Robinson’s play in the NCAA tournament also helped him earn a spot on the 1948 Olympic basketball team, which won gold in London. “Never in my life have so few days brought so many thrills,” Robinson wrote of his experience. “I found my Christ adequate again.”
Robinson maintained his sports interests after his playing days were over, serving as one of six ex-athlete clergymen on the Fellowship of Christian Athletes’ first advisory board when it launched in 1955.
4. Scott Drew comes from a family of Christian college basketball coaches.
Baylor head coach Scott Drew told Sports Spectrum that he enjoys the freedom he has at Baylor to publicly share his Christian faith and incorporate Christian ideas and practices into the program.
In many ways, that’s part of the family tradition. His father, Homer Drew, was a longtime supporter of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and coached at Bethel University in Indiana and then at Valparaiso, both Christian colleges. It was at Valparaiso that the Drew family first earned national recognition when Scott’s brother, Bryce, hit a game-winning shot in the 1998 NCAA tournament. Scott was an assistant at Valparaiso at the time.
After a one-year stint as head coach at Valparaiso, Scott came to Baylor in 2003 in the wake of a tragic scandal involving a Baylor player murdering his teammate and NCAA violations (including a cover-up) by the former coach. Drew gradually rebuilt the program from the ground up. After four straight losing seasons, he’s had a winning season every year since 2007–2008, the best stretch of success in Baylor men’s basketball since Bill Henderson’s post-World War II teams.
5. The team’s motto emphasizes joy and putting Jesus first.
This year’s team has adopted a mantra of a “culture of JOY” within the program. The JOY acronym stands for “Jesus, Others, Yourself,” and is a variation of the popular “I Am Third” slogan used by numerous Christian coaches. But the word “joy” also operates on its own, symbolizing the mutual delight and celebration with which the team plays.
“It’s a hierarchy of the way of thinking,” Baylor star Jared Butler explained. “For me, it’s the fact that I get to be here with this group of guys. It’s joy; it’s fun.”
Of course, we should be careful about the myth-making power of a slogan. It never fully matches up to reality. And its allure is usually driven primarily by its association with a winning team.
Even so, Baylor’s embrace of JOY can remind us of the origins of basketball itself. There is something distinctively Christian about J-O-Y, with the focus on putting Jesus first. But there is something universal about joy as a feeling and emotion that connects with our desires and yearnings as human beings.
In that sense, we see traces of Naismith’s original vision. He created basketball as a Christian and for Christian purposes, but he let it out into the world for all to enjoy and appreciate, hoping he might “leave the world a little better than I found it.”
Naismith never cared much about winning, and he probably wouldn’t be all that impressed to see a Christian school win a national title. But when basketball fosters and encourages joy, it’s operating precisely as Naismith intended.