- Jake Trotter, ESPN Staff Writer
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The Baylor Bears are amidst one of the great program turnarounds in college football history. After two decades of complete futility, the Bears were on the cusp of qualifying for the inaugural College Football Playoff last season. They joined Oklahoma as the only other program to capture back-to-back Big 12 titles. And with 17 starters returning, they'll be gunning for a third in 2015.
How have they done it?
Here's a look at how exactly Baylor became a powerhouse (also, coming Tuesday -- how TCU turned into a powerhouse):
1. Tapping Art Briles as coach
It seems crazy now, but Briles wasn't the automatic choice after Guy Morriss was fired in 2007. Many boosters clamored for athletic director Ian McCaw to hire former Baylor great Mike Singletary, who was coaching linebackers for the 49ers at the time.
McCaw, however, was intrigued with the revival jobs Briles had produced at Stephenville High School and at Houston. Briles also knew his way around Texas high school football like no one McCaw had ever met.
McCaw had the foresight to recognize that Briles' offensive ingenuity and recruiting connections would make him the perfect fit in Waco.
2. Signing RG III
By snagging Briles, Baylor also snagged Robert Griffin III, who had been committed to Briles at Houston. Coming out of high school, Griffin was viewed as a track star who could also play a little bit of football. But he became the transformational quarterback for Baylor in the same way Johnny Manziel more recently was for Texas A&M.
With RG III behind center, the Bears went from conference doormat to bowl qualifier.
As Briles has noted, RG III's success, both in college and initially in the NFL also gave Baylor "instant name recognition" with recruits who previously wouldn't have given the Bears a second thought.
The hiring of Briles and signing of RG III were the first two building blocks in Baylor's resurrection.
3. Surviving realignment
Conference realignment, however, nearly derailed Baylor's resurgence before it began. Had Texas, Texas Tech, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State bolted for the Pac-10, Baylor would have been left to find a new league, which would have severely damaged the football program.
Texas politics saved the Big 12 during the first round of realignment. During the second wave, Baylor reportedly threatened legal action as Texas A&M mulled its move to the SEC. Many called Baylor petulant at the time. But its proactive stance helped cultivate a sense of Big 12 unity among the remaining committed members, which ultimately helped preserve the league. And in turn, Baylor's standing in a major conference.
4. Building McLane Stadium
On the heels of RG III's magical Heisman-winning season in 2011, Baylor didn't rest on its laurels. Instead, it was able to capitalize on the momentum and secure funding for a new $264 million stadium.
The "Jewel on the Brazos" has given Baylor a home-field advantage and season-ticket base it never enjoyed at Floyd Casey. And, it has elevated Baylor to another level in the eyes of would-be recruits.
5. Nailing WR evaluations
In just the past five years, Baylor has been able to lay claim as Wide Receiver U., thanks to successful evaluations on receiving prospects, both high profile and under the radar. Future All-American Kendall Wright was part of Briles' first recruiting class, and was one of the high profile prospects. But in the same class, Baylor also landed two-star Terrance Williams, who would finish with 1,800 receiving yards in 2012. The following year, Baylor found another lightly recruited receiver in Tevin Reese, who also developed into a 1,000-yard wideout. Those early triumphs set the foundation and turned Baylor into an attractive destination for blue-chip receivers such as Corey Coleman and KD Cannon.
6. Finding other hidden gems
Baylor has made hay unearthing other diamonds in the rough that would become all-conference performers. Linebacker Eddie Lackey's only other offers out of junior college were from Hawaii and New Mexico State. Fellow linebacker Bryce Hager was down to Baylor and Air Force. Running back Shock Linwood's full offer list was Arkansas State, North Texas, UTSA and TCU. Linebacker Taylor Young's only other visit was to Louisiana Monroe. All four have become home run signings. Lackey received votes for Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year in 2013; Hager was a three-time second-team All-Big 12 selection. And this past season, Linwood was All-Big 12, while Young was the AP's Big 12 Defensive Newcomer of the Year.
7. Hiring defensive coordinator Phil Bennett
After the 2010 season, the Bears added Bennett, who brought credibility to the other side of the ball. Bennett's tent of forcing turnovers and three-and-outs have been a perfect mesh with Briles' high-octane offenses. The last two years, Bennett's units have also ranked in the top four of the Big 12 in total defense, transforming Baylor from a program with merely an exciting offense to one capable of competing for conference titles.
8. Bringing Lache Seastrunk back home
When the former ESPN 300 Temple, Texas, running back washed out at Oregon following a controversial recruitment, Baylor was able to funnel him to Waco. Seastrunk fueled Baylor's torrid finish in 2012, which set the stage for the Bears' Big 12 title run the following year during which he led the conference in rushing.
9. Jazzing up the uniforms
A big part of Baylor's emergence has been the establishment of an identity. That cutting edge persona has been enhanced with its brazen uniform combinations. Uniforms haven't won games. But they have contributed to Baylor's distinctiveness as the modern alternative for recruits to traditional powers like Texas and Oklahoma.
10. Developing quarterbacks
RG III has been gone from Baylor four years now. But the Bears have still maintained a level of quarterbacking excellence. Nick Florence led the league in passing in 2012, and Bryce Petty led it in 2013 and 2014. Both Florence and Petty had years in the system before becoming full-time starters, which allowed for such seamless transitions. Like them, the next heir apparent, Seth Russell, will be entering his fourth year on campus.
650dRob Nelson, ESPN Stats & Info