- Jake Trotter, ESPN Staff Writer
- 0 Shares
WACO, Texas -- Art Briles was on the sidelines of a Terrell High School game last month when a pack of eighth-graders spotted his Baylor shirt.
"Coach!" one shouted. "Baylor!"
"What you know about Baylor?" Briles playfully asked.
They all returned the same response: "RG III!"
Briles calls it "instant name recognition." Acknowledgment of a program quickly becoming one of college football's coolest. A program on the cutting edge of blistering offense, big points and brash uniforms. A program Briles rebuilt -- and RG III expedited -- into a Big 12 title contender, perhaps perennially.
"Our style of play, our mentality, our location, and then you throw in an icon like RG III in there," Briles said. "Then being somewhere people look at as a great place to get a great education, and, oh by the way, them suckers play some good ball. I think that's it. Throw in all those factors, and you have a chance to have a good football program."
Before Briles and his star quarterback arrived, Baylor was anything but a good football program. In fact, it was a program in shambles.
Baylor was respectable during the 21-year era of Grant Teaff in the Southwest Conference. But after Teaff retired in 1992, Baylor fell into rapid decline. After Baylor moved to the Big 12 in 1996, the Bears endured a dozen consecutive losing seasons and four coaching changes, with a miserable conference record of 11-85.
During that time, Baylor had the seventh-longest active bowl drought in the country and hadn't been bowling since the 1994 Alamo Bowl. The Bears hadn't been ranked in the AP poll since 1993. They hadn't won in Austin since 1991, and had never defeated Oklahoma.
Not only was Baylor awful, it was the laughingstock of the Big 12. The team had little talent. The facilities were a mess. And season-ticket sales had plateaued at about 10,000.
Like a minor-league baseball team, the school rolled a tarp over Floyd Casey Stadium's south end zone bleachers in 2004 to cover up all the empty seats. And why not? To that point, Baylor had only sold out its 50,000-seat stadium four times since it was built in 1950.
Often when the Bears went on the road, they were playing in somebody's homecoming. And when the Bears were at home, it still felt like they were on the road. Whenever Texas or Oklahoma came to town, half of those in the stadium donned burnt orange or crimson.
"The only time we'd go to a game was if the opposing team had a big-name star," said Baylor senior safety Ahmad Dixon, who grew up in Waco. "We'd come just to watch Vince Young from Texas or DeMarco Murray from Oklahoma.
"But we'd never go just to watch Baylor."
• • •
When Ian McCaw left UMass in 2003 to become Baylor's athletic director, he was floored by just how poor of shape the football program was in.
"Coming from UMass, we had a good FCS program," McCaw recalled. "When I saw our team here, I thought it was fairly comparable to the team I had left at UMass, which is not good when you play in the Big 12."
In November 2007, after Baylor had suffered eight straight defeats -- all by 20 points or more -- McCaw fired head coach Guy Morriss with a year left on his contract.
"There wasn't great fan support, and there wasn't a lot of energy and enthusiasm around the program," McCaw said. "Certainly from a talent level, we weren't where we needed to be."
McCaw knew the only way to turn Baylor around was by finding the right coach.
Initially, all signs pointed to that being Mike Singletary. The former Baylor All-American linebacker, Chicago Bears legend and Pro Football Hall of Famer had been coaching linebackers for the San Francisco 49ers.
Many boosters and alums clamored for McCaw to hire Singletary to resuscitate the program. McCaw, however, had another coach in mind.
"Art Briles had been a turnaround specialist," McCaw said. "He had a done it at Stephenville High School, he had done it at the University of Houston, taking programs that had been done and rejuvenating them."
When Briles took over Stephenville in 1988, the Yellow Jackets hadn't sniffed the playoffs in 36 years. In two years, Briles had Stephenville in the playoffs. In five years, he delivered Stephenville its first state championship. He would go on to win three more, before joining Mike Leach's staff at Texas Tech.
Briles pulled off a similar revival after becoming the head coach at Houston in 2003. Two years before, the Cougars had gone 0-11. By Briles' fourth season, the Cougars had won a Conference USA title.
After one meeting with him, McCaw was convinced Briles was the right fit for Baylor. Briles saw something in Baylor others didn't and decided to leave Houston for Waco.
"Briles saw Baylor as a potentially good situation waiting to be exploited," said Dave Campbell, a longtime writer and editor for the Waco Tribune-Herald and Dave Campbell's Texas Football magazine. "The people before him couldn't recruit. But Briles knew Texas and how to recruit Texas, and he knew how to develop quarterbacks.
"They couldn't have gotten a more perfect fit."
The Bears had their coach. Soon, they would have their quarterback. And before long, Baylor football would never be the same.
• • •
Robert Griffin III grew up in Copperas Cove, a central Texas town of about 30,000 where the Griffin family settled when he was 7. Both of Griffin's parents worked for the Army at nearby Fort Hood.
Texas coach Mack Brown was intrigued by the athleticism of Griffin, who came within one hundredth of a second from breaking the national high school record in the 300-meter hurdles as a junior in high school. But even though Griffin quarterbacked Copperas Cove to the state championship game as a senior, the Longhorns offered Griffin a scholarship as an athlete. Not as a quarterback.
Griffin wanted to play quarterback in college. He wanted to continue his budding track career, too. Briles offered him both opportunities at Houston. When Briles left for Waco, Griffin wanted to follow the coach that had believed he was more than just a track star playing football. So he flipped from Houston to Baylor, too.
"A lot of things in life turn out successfully because several things come together simultaneously," said Drayton McLane, former owner of the Houston Astros who chaired the Baylor board of regents at the time of Briles' hiring. "Together, Art and Robert brought a new atmosphere to Baylor I had never seen."
Griffin immediately won Baylor's starting quarterback job, and became the Big 12 Offensive Freshman of the Year.
Success on the field came slow. The Bears went 4-8 that year. And after Griffin tore his ACL at the beginning of the 2009 season, Baylor finished 4-8 again. The Bears, however, were no longer losing games by double digits. That first year, they beat Texas A&M for just the second time in 23 years. The following year, without Griffin, they knocked off Missouri in Columbia. Gradually, the program gained something it had never enjoyed since joining the Big 12.
"The first thing we had to do was earn respect," Briles said. "We were not a respected team. We were not a respected program. So my first goal was to get a respectable product on the field to where people played us, they respected us and knew we'd be a tough out."
By 2011, the Bears were more than just a tough out.
With Griffin back at quarterback, Briles' offense materialized into one of the most prolific in college football. In its opener, Baylor, spearheaded by Griffin's five touchdown passes, toppled 14th-ranked TCU, which had gone undefeated the year before, in a wild national TV shootout.
The Bears later closed out the season with six straight wins, highlighted by a showdown with fifth-ranked Oklahoma. The Sooners still clung to hope of reaching the national title game. But with 8 seconds left, Griffin found Terrance Williams in the back of the end zone for a 40-yard touchdown pass to give Baylor its first victory over the Sooners in 20 tries.
The pass proved to be Griffin's signature Heisman moment and catapulted him to the award. And Briles had the signature win to build the program upon, as the Bears finished with double-digit victories for just the second time in school history.
"That was it," said Briles, when asked when exactly the perception of Baylor football changed nationally. "Everything came together at the right time."
• • •
Griffin hasn't played for Baylor in two seasons. But the presence of the Washington Redskins star continues to impact the school.
Season-ticket sales have almost tripled to 24,000. A new 45,000-seat, $260 million stadium set to open next year is being erected on campus along the banks of the Brazos River by Interstate 35. And the Bears are on the verge of putting together a top-15 recruiting class for the first time since anyone can remember. Whenever Briles goes out to recruit a player, he doesn't have to mention Griffin. Like the Terrell eight-graders, they bring it up to him.
"Robert has had a huge impact on the Baylor brand," McCaw said. "When you say Baylor University, RG III is one of the first things to come off the other person's lips. It's extraordinary."
Talk of building a new stadium actually predated the arrival of Briles and Griffin. But only after the 2011 season did the funding arrive to go with the plans.
Before Griffin's touchdown pass that beat Oklahoma, Baylor had barely raised a dollar for the new stadium. In the 18 months that ensured, the program raised $150 million.
"Robert accelerated the rebuilding process and gave us a spark and the program momentum that it wouldn't have had otherwise," McCaw said. "We wouldn't be looking at our window seeing Baylor Stadium if it wasn't for that 2011 season.
"He's a key figure in the turnaround process."
No one, though, has been more vital to the turnaround than Briles.
Not only do the Bears have a new stadium in the works, they still have a winning product on the field.
The Bears are coming off back-to-back bowl victories over Washington and UCLA. And dating back to last season, they have now reeled off seven wins in a row.
After a 3-0 start to this season, Baylor is ranked 17th and boasts the top-ranked offense in the country with a scoring average of almost 70 points a game. So far, the Bears have outscored their opponents by a combined 209-23, the largest scoring differential through a first three games by any FBS team in the past decade.
Quarterback Bryce Petty, Briles' latest development project, doesn't see that slowing down anytime soon.
"Our goal is to win a Big 12 championship," said Petty, who leads the nation in Total QBR. "That's what we're focused on."
So far, the Bears have looked up to the task. And in their conference opener Saturday, they are four-touchdown favorites to beat West Virginia. Baylor is getting respect off the field like never before, too.
Blue-chip high school wide receivers K.D. Cannon and Davion Hall and linebacker James David have committed to Briles despite holding offers from the likes of Alabama, Florida, LSU, Oklahoma and Texas A&M.
"We're a hot team," said Baylor senior receiver Tevin Reese. "People are looking at us differently now."
The fans are looking at the Bears differently, too. Baylor drew a crowd of almost 43,000 in its 70-7 win over Monroe. And in the regular-season finale against Texas, which will be Baylor's final game in Floyd Casey Stadium, the school has plans to pull back the tarp in anticipation of a sellout.
"To Art's credit, he's built Baylor into a football program," McCaw said. "Not just a good team, a great program.
"In my opinion, he's turned this into a destination job."
That figures to be put to the test. Because of his success, others will likely come calling for Briles to turn their programs around, as well. What will he say when they do?
"This is a top-level job, without question," he said. "You'd have to get up pretty high to look around and find a whole lot that are equal or better."
Thanks to Briles, with the help of a certain quarterback, one much cooler, too.