The Youngest Performer at the ‘Highest Level’: Drew Valentine

Drew Valentine said he has never had a losing season in any sport, not even in elementary school.

The 2022-23 season was a difficult one for the Loyola men’s basketball team. With the departure of three of its five starters from the previous season and the transition from the Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) to an arguably more strenuous Atlantic 10 (A-10), the Ramblers were poised for a season full of adversity. They finished the season last in the A-10 with an overall record of 10-21, going 4-14 in conference play. 

This was the first losing season for Loyola Head Coach Drew Valentine — ever.

Drew Valentine said he has never had a losing season in any sport, not even in elementary school. He grew up playing basketball and football and said he was naturally better on the gridiron than he was on the court.

Drew Valentine said his mother, Kathy Valentine, was more of a football fan and wanted him to focus more on his role as a quarterback. However, Drew Valentine said he fell irreversibly in love with basketball in 2000, when Michigan State University won the national championship. As the son of Carlton Valentine — former player for the Spartans from 1984-88 — Drew Valentine said he and his brother got access to the team locker room, where he met all-time greats such as Mateen Cleaves. 

“Mateen, senior year, he knew my name whenever I would come in,” Drew Valentine said. “To see him captivating the world in the national championship game — that’s when I fell in love with college basketball.”

Drew Valentine’s brother, Denzel Valentine, also played for Michigan State University and was drafted by the Chicago Bulls with the 14th overall pick of the 2016 NBA draft — coincidentally the same pick in which Cleaves was selected 16 years earlier in 2000 by the Detroit Pistons.

When asked how competitive his relationship was with his brother, Drew Valentine said it wasn’t. He said they never competed against each other, but rather found other people to play two-on-two against to compete with each other.

“My parents, if we got into fights when we were young, they just made us hug each other,” Drew Valentine said. “It’s just always been a lot of love and support with us and I think more motivation than competition…We’re just really proud of each other.”

Even during his time in high school, Drew Valentine said he saw himself as a coach on both of his teams. He said his growth in leadership started on the football team. As the team quarterback and captain for three years, he said his coach, Dan Bogan, helped him develop the confidence to believe in himself as a leader. On the basketball team, he had his father doing the same.

“My dad always told me from eight years old, ‘Be a leader, you’re not like everybody else,’” Drew Valentine said. “So I always thought that way. But my high school football coach inspired me to be a leader within a group of men.”

Drew Valentine attended Oakland University in college, where he continued to play basketball. He continued to do what he knew best and graduated as the winningest player in program history.

Drew Valentine said in his time as a college player, he wasn’t focused on coaching, rather on becoming a professional player, because that’s the highest level you can get. Once he shifted gears to becoming a coach, his goal, per usual, was reaching the highest level — head coach.

Drew Valentine started his coaching career as a graduate assistant under Tom Izzo’s Michigan State University in 2013. In his two seasons with the Spartans, he contributed to the team’s two trips to the Sweet Sixteen, and one to the Final Four in 2015. Even before making it to assistant coach, Valentine knew he would soon reach the “highest level” in coaching.

“When I was at Michigan State as a [graduate assistant], I’d be in the back of the video room and I would just be like, ‘When I’m a head coach, I would do this, I’m gonna do this,’” Drew Valentine said. “I’d be telling the managers and everybody and I told them I was going to be head coach by the time I was 30…I just, I felt like I was gonna outwork people.”

Drew Valentine delivered by becoming the youngest head coach in NCAA Division I basketball at age 29. In a press conference April 5, 2021, Loyola Director of Athletics Steve Watson announced Drew Valentine as the head coach of the Loyola men’s basketball team, where he described him as a “proven winner.”

During his four years as an assistant coach under former Head Coach Porter Moser, Drew Valentine helped lead Loyola to a trip to the Final Four in 2018, two Sweet Sixteen victories, and three trips to the NCAA Tournament following three MVC Championships. In his first year as head coach, Drew Valentine kept his foot on the gas, leading the Ramblers to their second-consecutive MVC Championship in the 2021-22 season and a trip to the NCAA Tournament.

However, achievements on the court aren’t the only priority for Drew Valentine. He said after watching his father shape the lives of so many kids, he understands his position of leadership as a role model.

“It’s really important for me, especially as a minority,” Drew Valentine said. “A lot of us, we don’t have the same amount of positive mentors you know? Just in the world that aren’t in music or playing as athletes…I watched my dad shape so many young men as a high school coach, and help them change their family’s lives. And so that’s what I want to try to help guys do.”

Drew Valentine said his first losing season gave him great perspective, but emphasized it’s not a place in which he wants to be again. As the team leader, he said his job is not letting his athletes lose their passion for the game, reminding them he still believes in them as individuals so they can be great.

With that being said, Drew Valentine said he feels his team can be much more competitive next season as his coaching staff continues to look for players that match the team’s DNA. His formula for excellence is simple.

“We want to be a family type organization,” Drew Valentine said. “We want it to be about being great in all areas with no entitlement, low ego — not [none], I want a little ego in there — and then we want it to just be a family atmosphere.”

Featured image courtesy of Steve Woltmann for Loyola Athletics

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