For Steve Drabyn, Bethel's always been memorable to him.
When he was in elementary and middle school, Steve Drabyn's father used to take his son to Bethel men's basketball practices and games. He recalls watching players like Eric Brand, Rico Swanson, Mark Galloway and Ryan Bales, all of whom Drabyn grew up watching.
Fast forward two-and-a-half decades, and Drabyn is now at the Bethel helm. The former La Porte High School standout was hired as Bethel University's head men's basketball coach on April 23, his first head coaching job.
“Bethel’s always been a job I’ve kind of been drawn to, that I’ve had my eye on,” Drabyn said. “Obviously, the location, being in northern Indiana where I’m from. In Indiana, where basketball matters. People care about the game. Bethel has a strong tradition of men’s basketball. Mike Lightfoot being there over 30 years. Three NAIA national championships.”
At the same time, he added the Crossroads League is such a great league, full of really good players and really good coaches.
“I want to be in a league where it’s challenging,” Drabyn said. “It’ll challenge me to be a better coach.”
Drabyn has coached eight years at the NCAA Division I level, including the last six as an assistant coach at Lipscomb University, NIT runner-up this past season.
Since the 2016-17 season, Lipscomb has a 70-30 record, including 35-9 in the Atlantic Sun.
Drabyn inherits the Pilots' program from Ryne Lightfoot, who was there two years. Bethel University's athletic department declined to offer any details on Lightfoot’s departure, citing “a confidential employment matter.”
Bethel went 21-11 overall, including 10-8 and fifth place in the Crossroads League this past year. The Pilots appeared in the NAIA Division II National Tournament first round and were ranked 20th in the final NAIA poll.
“First and foremost, the spiritual part of the school fits my values,” Drabyn added. “I want to try and grow in my faith and grow in my character. What better place than a place like Bethel where the message of the school is all over the place. I want to be a part of an environment where we’re helping each other grow in our faith and trying to help others, and have an impact on student-athletes we coach and other students at the school.”
Drabyn has coached at Stetson, Sewanee University of the South, Lees-McRae, and Carmel High School, following a productive collegiate career at Belmont University where he led NCAA Division I in free throw percentage in 2003 at 95.1 percent, at the time the second-best mark in NCAA Division I history.
He was a two-time Belmont co-captain and Sportsmanship Award winner and was named Atlantic Sun second team All-Conference as a senior in 2004, and a three-time Academic All-Conference honoree in the ASun. He was inducted into the Belmont Athletic Hall of Fame in 2016.
Drabyn's former college coaches have shaped his personality as a coach.
“I played for coach Rick Byrd at Belmont for four years and I continue that relationship today,” Drabyn said. “He kind of started me off with my philosophy and who I am as a player and as a coach, with recruiting skilled players who understand how to play, they get the most out of their ability, they’re unselfish. Casey Alexander, who I was with the last eight years, six at Lipscomb and two at Stetson, he was one of my assistant (coaches) for four years when I played for coach (Rick) Byrd. So I’ve been with coach Alexander the last 12 years, so I’ve taken a lot of his philosophy as well. Those two coaches have been pivotal for me.”
Drabyn added he wants his teams to play uptempo, to play motion oriented, wants to recruit players who understand how to play and are skilled, much like an Indiana high school player.
Even though he's been on the job only two-and-a-half months, Drabyn feels like the transition's been smooth.
“It's been great. We've hit the ground running recruiting more than anything,” he said. “Just bringing back four players from last year's team that played, so we'll have, not necessarily a young team, but a new team. So the No. 1 priority's has just been recruiting.”
Drabyn added the coaches have brought in eight players to this point, but they’re still looking to bring in two or three more to get to 14 or 15 total players.
“That’s been kind of the No. 1 thing that’s been keeping me busy every day,” he said. “I’ve been making just a ton of phone calls every day. So that’s been really the hardest part.”
In early April, Drabyn was an assistant coach on Lipscomb, who advanced to the NIT final in New York at Madison Square Garden.
While the Bisons ended up falling 81-66 to Texas, he said the experience was amazing.
“It was a lot of fun,” Drabyn said. “Just the culmination of six really good years at a great place.”
In high school, Drabyn was a 2000 Indiana All-Star for the Slicers. He was part of La Porte's 1997 Final Four team that advanced to the last single-class Indiana state finals. Greg Tonagel was the starting point guard on that squad.
Now both Drabyn and Tonagel are head coaches in the Crossroads League.
Drabyn recognizes it will be different to coach against Tonagel, also a former Slicer star who graduated two years before Drabyn and has been the Indiana Wesleyan head coach the last 14 years and won three NAIA national titles.
“I love Greg,” Drabyn said. “He was a guy I looked up to tremendously as a young player. He was two years ahead of me in school. And his older brother, Ben, was three years ahead of me and I looked up to those guys a lot, just who they were as players, and more importantly, who they are as people. Greg's had an impact on his players. He does it the right way. He cares about people.”
While he's kind of reluctant to face Greg Tonagel on the sidelines, Drabyn embraces the challenge.
“On one hand, you say, 'Oh man, we've got to play against the best,'” Drabyn said. “But on the other hand, I'm a competitor. I know Greg is, too. Playing against the best makes you better. That's what I want. That's why I'm at Bethel.”