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The Bears have staying power in the Big 12.
It would make for great copy if Bryce Hager, the son of University of Texas’ all-time tackling leader, had spurned earnest pleas from his daddy’s alma mater to be part of the Art Briles Project in Waco and help fuel the Baylor renaissance that has angered all proud Longhorns.
But that wouldn’t be telling the truth.
Fact is, Hager had only one BCS scholarship offer, and it came from the Bears. About three weeks before 2010’s National Signing Day. That made leaving Austin a little easier, and no doubt put him in good company with a lot of other BU players at the time, who had chosen to play for Briles at a school that was in the midst of a 14-year string of losing seasons.
“I met with Coach Briles, and I thought (Baylor) was the right fit for me,” Hager says.
These days, Baylor isn’t just a match for players with limited options; it’s a destination for some of the state’s best. Briles has turned the Bears from a Texas-sized ragdoll into one of the hottest programs in the country. BU is not merely winning, but it is doing so with a kind of flash that has 18-year-olds around the country paying close attention. The Bears are fashion plates. Their offense is electrifying. And this season, they’ll move into a new 45,000-seat on-campus stadium. The momentum is building at a place that was once thought to be immune to excitement.
“Coach Briles told me, ‘We have a plan, and we want you to be part of the plan,’” Hager says.
Many coaches have plans when they approach significant restoration projects, but only a few are capable of carrying them out. Briles has taken Baylor to four straight bowl games, doubling the longest streak in school history, and he won the 2013 Big 12 title. He has coached a Heisman Trophy winner. And he is now charged with doing something no one thought was possible at Baylor: adjusting to life as a powerhouse.
Imagine that. Instead of suffering from gridiron envy, the Bears are causing other programs to covet their prosperity. That didn’t happen when BU was in the Southwest Conference, and it sure hadn’t been part of its Big 12 narrative.
“People want to have Baylor as an official visit now,” says senior quarterback Bryce Petty, last year’s Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year. “It’s not, ‘I have to go to Baylor.’ It’s, ‘I want to go to Baylor.’”
That change in attitude comes courtesy of Briles, who arrived in Waco after four years at Houston, where he sent footballs flying all over the field. He understood that winning was vital but that doing it in a way that appealed to recruits was also important. His offense certainly did that, and when Robert Griffin III won a Heisman at its helm, high school players noticed. When Baylor started wearing uniforms that took the school’s green-and-gold colors in every direction possible, the program became cool. The Bears aren’t quite at the Jackson Pollock level favored by Oregon, but they have quite a menagerie of modern football costuming.
“When I came in, we didn’t have cool uniforms,” Hager says. “Last year, we were excited to wear the new uniforms with gold helmets and flat black. You want to be looking good.”
It’s all part of the new Baylor brand. More established, tradition-bound programs, like Alabama and Penn State, can outfit players in apparel better suited for the 1960s, because their national profiles are set. Baylor lacks that kind of historical narrative, so it must attract attention in other ways. Scoring lots of points will do it. Fancy threads will, too. Mom and Dad may not like matte black helmets and gold facemasks, but Junior sure does. It’s all part of selling the program.
“In this age, everything is visual,” Briles says. “Very seldom do people lock themselves in a room without a TV or computer. Kids see us, with our stadium and uniforms and style of play, and they like it.
“The team is trending up.”
The most obvious manifestation of Baylor’s new prosperity is $250 million McLane Stadium, which sits on the banks of the Brazos River and replaces the Bears’ old Floyd Casey home, which sat across town from campus. It offers slips for boats to dock before the game, a la Tennessee’s Neyland Stadium and Washington’s Husky Stadium, and will lead to increased participation by students, who can now walk to games, and alumni, who will be drawn to campus on Saturdays.
“It integrates football and the campus environment, and that’s something we have never had,” AD Ian McCaw says. “It connects the students and alumni and creates a pageantry around football games that we’ve lacked.”
The uniforms and stadium are all part of the overall presentation. But looking good doesn’t matter at all if a team is losing. One thing Baylor has on its side is the lack of historical perspective present in its target recruiting market. Teenagers have never been great students of past events, but this generation is particularly averse to anything that happened even 10 years ago.
“Tradition starts for these guys at age 15,” Briles says. “When we talk to high school students in the state of Texas about Baylor football, they think it’s the best thing in the world.”
That showed in February, when the Bears amassed a top-30 recruiting class heavy on wideouts and athletes needed to propel Briles’ offense. Granted, it wasn’t Bama’s five-star haul, but it continued the school’s recent upward movement and was a huge improvement from even five years ago, when Baylor struggled to get four-star talents to visit campus.
The influx of talent is vital, because no program can sustain success with B-list players. Briles’ challenge is to take the next step in his strategic plan. He has established the Bears. He has won a title. Now, he has to create something that can win and compete regularly. That’s the tricky part, because at a place like Baylor, a couple shaky seasons can kill any momentum that has been generated.
“That’s why it’s so hard for teams to repeat and stay on top at any level, be it college, the NFL or high school,” Briles says. “Once you hit that mark, everybody wants a piece of you. You have to learn how to practice with a target on your back. That’s what we’re going through as a program and a university. It’s at the forefront of our minds.
“Now, we’ve become the hunted.”
That brings problems. For Baylor football, those are good problems to have.
Written by Michael Bradley (@DailyHombre) for Athlon Sports. This article appeared in Athlon Sports' 2014 Big 12 Football Preview Editions. Visit our online store to order your copy to get more in-depth analysis on the 2014 season.