Winning Revitalizes Baylor Athletics

January 5, 2012 / BasketballFootball
USA Today, Jeff Miller

That “dear old Baylor spirit,” from the school song, has been tested mightily for decades. Losing was so pervasive among the football and men’s basketball teams, the Bears’ very membership in major-college athletics sometimes was questioned.

Which is why recent events have fans of the Big 12 Conference’s only private school — and by far the smallest with an undergraduate enrollment of 12,575 last fall — practically pinching themselves:

•Junior quarterback Robert Griffin III won the school’s first Heisman Trophy. The Bears finished the regular season ranked 16th in the USA TODAY Coaches Poll, then last week equaled the school record for wins in a season with 10 by outlasting Washington in the Alamo Bowl 67-56.

•The men’s basketball team is 14-0 and ranked fifth in the USA TODAY/ESPN Coaches Poll. Sophomore forward Perry Jones III was the preseason pick to be the Big 12 player of the year. This is a program that hasn’t won a conference title since 1950 and was scandalized in June 2003 by the murder of player Patrick Dennehy by teammate Carlton Dotson and subsequent coverup of related NCAA rules violations by then-coach Dave Bliss.

•Such achievements under football coach Art Briles and men’s basketball coach Scott Drew have elevated those programs closer to the heights that Baylor women’s basketball has occupied for more than a decade. Kim Mulkey’s Lady Bears were 13-0 going into Wednesday’s game against Missouri, have been ranked first in the USA TODAY/ESPN Coaches Poll since preseason and are aiming for their second national title in eight seasons. Brittney Griner, their 6-8 junior center, figures to contend for national player of the year.

“These are uncharted waters, and we’re enjoying every minute of it,” said Ian McCaw, Baylor’s athletics director since September 2003.

Baylor is the only Division I school currently ranked in the football, men’s basketball and women’s basketball coaches polls.

Briles needed only four seasons to produce two consecutive bowls and a bowl victory. Those mileposts were last accomplished in 1992, the last of coach Grant Teaff’s 21 seasons.

Teaff guided Baylor to two Southwest Conference titles and eight bowls. Only a few months before he ended a 50-year conference championship drought by taking the 1974 Bears to the Cotton Bowl, critics questioned whether Baylor belonged in the SWC. And when political maneuvering got the Bears into the new Big 12 in 1996, there again were cries the Baptist school was out of its league.

The cries didn’t subside when the Bears won six conference football games in their first nine Big 12 seasons under Chuck Reedy, Dave Roberts, Kevin Steele and Guy Morriss.

With Briles’ hiring in 2008, Baylor finally landed someone with Football Bowl Subdivision head coaching experience (Houston) and longtime ties to Texas high school coaches. McCaw said he knew he had his man 10 minutes into the interview.

Briles said the two bowl trips and one stiff-armed statue awarded to the player known as “RG3″ have drastically changed recruiting at the school, whose president is Ken Starr, the former U.S. solicitor general best known for his role in the Whitewater investigation and President Clinton’s impeachment.

“Our phone calls are getting answered,” he said. “The image, the national brand of Baylor football is completely different.”

Teaff’s office as executive director of the American Football Coaches Association is a few miles from the Baylor campus. He has closely followed the Bears since leaving the school and long has insisted Baylor can compete at the highest level.

“I feel redeemed,” said Teaff, who credits McCaw for hiring Briles and keeping his coaches when bigger schools have inquired about their services.

Mulkey, with 311 wins in 10½ seasons, says no one is more excited by Baylor football’s recent surge than she is.

“We all benefit, because that’s where the revenue is,” she said. “I said to Art Briles when he got here, ‘Just get us to a bowl game, and we’ll build you a mansion on the hill.’ “

The revenue helps fuel the salaries. According to tax information obtained by USA TODAY from 2009 (the most recent numbers available), Briles’ compensation was $1,549,396, Drew’s $1,760,414 and Mulkey’s $1,164,695, making her one of the few women’s coaches earning more than $1 million.

Mulkey a stabilizing force

Mulkey was a star player at Louisiana Tech and was in line to succeed Leon Barmore as the coach in 2000 when negotiations broke down over her request for a five-year contract. At Baylor, she thinks she found a sleeping giant in all sports.

“When you’re out there recruiting, I think parents are attracted to a school where they’re getting a quality education and it’s not this huge enrollment where you’re a Social Security number,” she said.

When Baylor re-signed Mulkey to a 10-year contract extension in 2007, McCaw said she brought Baylor “extraordinary visibility when it was most needed.” Translation: The Lady Bears won consistently when football was going nowhere and men’s basketball was vilified nationally.

Mulkey said every Baylor athletic program was hurt by the Bliss scandal.

“In recruiting, you had to talk about it,” she said. “We didn’t get players that we thought we should have been getting.”

In 2005, two years after the scandal, the Lady Bears won the national title. Last season, they appeared headed to their third Final Four before losing the regional final to a Texas A&M team they’d swept in conference play.

This season, a video is shown at Baylor’s Ferrell Center before games depicting Mulkey giving an impassioned pregame speech. She refers to the national title as “unfinished business.”

Mulkey acknowledges the video might provoke opponents.

“At the same time, there’s no secret what our goal is,” she said. “So why not talk about it?”

It can’t hurt that Griner’s shooting percentage is way up this season (.651 through 13 games compared with .543 for last season).

“She’s developing into what I call the dominant player in the country,” Mulkey said of USA TODAY’s high school player of the year in 2008.

Drew leads hoops revival

Over on the men’s team, Drew saw improvement every game during the 13-0 pre-conference schedule. That’s quite a contrast to his third Bears team in 2005-06, which was barred from pre-conference games by the NCAA because of Bliss’ misdeeds.

Baylor reached the NCAA tournament in 2007-08, its first in 20 years. The 2009-10 team fell a game short of reaching the Final Four in Houston.

Then came the addition of Jones, a nationally prized recruit from Duncanville (Texas) who held firm to a Baylor commitment he made as an eighth-grader. He cited a desire to play close to home because of his mother’s health problems; Waco is about 90 miles south of his home near Dallas.

Last March, the NCAA suspended Jones for six games after determining his AAU coach provided his family with three 15-day loans and free travel for Jones to take a trip to San Diego while he was in high school. The suspension carried over into the first five games of this season. That only reinforced the assumption that Jones, rated as an NBA lottery draft pick last summer, had played his final game for Baylor.

“But I wasn’t ready,” Jones said. “Not ready to play or for that lifestyle.”

The Baylor men opened league play Monday with a 61-52 victory against Texas A&M, the preseason league co-favorite with Kansas. Jones led the Bears with 14 points and 12 rebounds, but balance and depth have been Baylor’s strengths thus far.

“We have different people stepping up at different times,” Drew said after Monday’s game. “One game it might be the guards, one game it might be the wings and one game it is the inside players.”

With the popularity of “RG3,” it was natural that Baylor fans would tag Jones “PJ3.”

“Whatever,” Jones said.

Said Griffin: “We’ll see if it catches on.”

Griner said she was “just straight BG.” Changing her uniform number from 42 to 3 could fit the pattern.

“Can’t do that,” she said. “I’ve had this number since I first started playing. It’s my lucky number.”

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