For a guy who went through college with no desire to coach, Drew Richards now cannot imagine life without it.
The one-time Logan-Rogersville and Missouri State basketball standout is one of the country’s rising NCAA Division II men’s basketball coaches. Richards has led his teams to three D-II Tournaments in three full seasons while winning 80 percent of his games.
All of this has occurred a long way from his native Ozarks, as he and wife Caeli, and their two children, have embraced life in North Carolina.
“My wife’s a beach girl and I’m a mountain guy,” Richards said, noting North Carolina’s close proximity to both.
Richards last week was named National Association of Basketball Coaches Southeast District Coach of the Year for the second straight season as coach at UNC-Pembroke. He’s led the Braves’ school to 50 wins in two-plus seasons after a 23-win season at Lander in Greenwood, S.C.
Highly sought recruit stayed close to home
The coaching success is something Richards, 37, never dreamed of during his playing days, or immediately afterward. Armed with a public relations degree from Missouri State, Richards was off and running in a sales career and could have been perfectly happy by making a good living and working reasonable hours.
That seemed like the charted course for the one-time highly sought recruit out of Logan-Rogersville High School, who brought the legendary Bob Knight to southwest Missouri to try and woo him to Texas Tech.
Richards eventually chose to stay close to home and went on to play four seasons at center for Missouri State, where the Bears won 80 games from 2004-08 with three National Invitation Tournament berths.
From insurance sales to coaching
“Coaching was not something I was interested in,” Richards said of his playing days. “In high school and college, it never crossed my mind. I didn’t have any interest.”
After a brief professional playing career overseas, Richards came home and sold insurance while landing a side gig as Art Hains’ color analyst on Missouri State games for a couple of seasons. Watching Cuonzo Martin’s Bears win the 2011 Missouri Valley Conference championship intrigued him.
So did a call from old college teammate Dale Lamberth, who wanted Richards to help him coach his Missouri Flight AAU team. Once Richards got a taste of coaching, something changed.
“I loved that and coaching on the side, and after a year into it, I was obsessed with coaching,” Richards said earlier this week. “I started calling every person I knew from my playing days who was coaching.”
Ben Miller, his associate head coach at Missouri State and then the head coach at UNC-Pembroke, encouraged him. Others, like his college head coach Barry Hinson, not so much.
“When I called Coach Hinson and asked his opinion, he said, ‘You probably want to stay in insurance.’ I thought that was funny.”
‘I was so excited to be a college coach’
Richards pushed on, even after Miller gave him some brutally honest feedback should he choose to get into coaching.
“He said, ‘Sell your car, get out of any debt you’re in. You’re gonna have to go volunteer coach, make zero money and get your Master’s degree.’ So I did all three of those things,” Richards said. “That’s how bad I wanted to be a college coach.”
A decade later — after sleeping on a mattress on his apartment floor for two seasons in West Plains, where he was a volunteer assistant at the junior college level for Missouri State-West Plains — Richards couldn’t be happier.
“I tried to beat every coach into the office and I tried to be the last one to leave,” Richards said. “I was so excited to be a college coach, I wanted to do anything, whether it was academic, sweeping the floor, filling the water bottles or doing the laundry. I was just infatuated with it.”
Returning to UNC-Pembroke
From West Plains he went to D-II Cameron University for one season as assistant, and then five at UNC-Pembroke as Miller’s top assistant. Richards was 23-8 in one season as a head coach at Lander before returning to UNC-Pembroke to replace Miller in the pandemic-shortened 2020-21 season as head coach. The team went 3-3 as the season got KOed by COVID-19.
With a 79-19 overall head-coaching record, Richards said this season’s Pembroke squad overachieved based on its youth. The Braves were upset in the semifinals of the D-II Southeast Regional, against North Georgia.
“We started four sophomores and a freshman and brought a sophomore and a freshman off the bench,” Richards said. “The biggest piece we’ll lose is a grad-transfer point guard who was kind of our steady hand.”
Finding out what motivates him
While the transfer portal makes nothing for certain, Richards feels great about his team’s outlook for next season and beyond. The decision to go into coaching feels better by the year.
“It’s the most rewarding and most stressful thing I think you can do,” Richards said of coaching. “I’m really lucky to be a head coach with a young family. I’m able to kind of be able to spend time with the kids and my wife. Talking to guys who have been in this so long, the guys who last the longest are the ones who have that life balance.
“I was able to work a 9-to-5 job in sales and figure out what was my motivation in life and why I wanted to get up in the morning. It wasn’t money. I found that out quickly going from sales to a volunteer position.
“To this day I still have the same motivation, just glad I’m getting paid a little more.”
The Carolinas have been a perfect fit
Drew and wife Caeli, the daughter of Missouri Hall of Fame high school basketball coach and current Bears’ radio analyst Mike Keltner, feel right at home on the east coast with son Knox (6) and daughter Benton (4).
“We have Asheville nearby and are an hour and 15 from the beach,” he said. “Charlotte, Raleigh and Wilmington are all within 1-2 hours. “We really love the Carolinas. There is so much to do here.
“Missouri is still near and dear to our heart, but we’ve really enjoyed and taken a liking to this area.”