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BAYLOR RISING
S.L. PRICE
February 27, 2012
A HEISMAN TROPHY? TWO NATIONALLY RANKED BASKETBALL TEAMS? A 40--0 STREAK ACROSS THREE MAJOR SPORTS? OFT-BEDEVILED BAYLOR IS ON A QUEST TO BECOME THE PREEMINENT BAPTIST UNIVERSITY, AND WINNING (THE RIGHT WAY) IS ESSENTIAL
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February 27, 2012

Baylor Rising

A HEISMAN TROPHY? TWO NATIONALLY RANKED BASKETBALL TEAMS? A 40--0 STREAK ACROSS THREE MAJOR SPORTS? OFT-BEDEVILED BAYLOR IS ON A QUEST TO BECOME THE PREEMINENT BAPTIST UNIVERSITY, AND WINNING (THE RIGHT WAY) IS ESSENTIAL

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Talking such talk, of course, is akin to walking onto a target range with a bull's-eye on your heart; Baylor is all but asking for it. McCaw's line will no doubt send the hypocrisy police scrambling to cite the nose-snapping punch that Lady Bears 6'8" superstar Brittney Griner delivered to a Texas Tech opponent in March 2010, and every questionable (or, to Baylor fans, aggressive) recruiting move by men's basketball coach Scott Drew. As for those in need of ironic contrast, God will provide. A billboard towering over nearby I-35 proclaims that Baylor is DISCOVERING TRUTH; T-shirts give easy instructions (ACT JUSTLY. LOVE MERCY. WALK HUMBLY); and Bible passages (I CAN DO EVERYTHING THROUGH CHRIST....) adorn the lobby of the sparkling new $36 million sweat palace known as the Simpson Athletics and Academic Center.

This is a place, indeed, where faith is the topic always waiting to be raised. Terri Jones, the mother of 6'11" forward Perry Jones III, Baylor's lottery pick in waiting, is an evangelical minister who is accosted by students each time she visits campus. "People always talk about God to my mom," he says.

Griner adds, "I've had people come up to me on campus and ask if they could pray for me—and then just sit and pray with me. It was weird at first: I was like, Ummm, yeah! I'm not going to tell you no."

This is hardly new; Baylor has been the high-end destination for devout Texans since 1845. But its rise as a sports power is only the most obvious sign of a rare and far larger ambition. In 2001 university president Robert Sloan kicked off a $600 million master plan called Baylor 2012, which was dedicated to the proposition that a Baptist school can become an institution on a par with Cal or Stanford—and need not shed its faith to achieve national eminence.

The decision created a bitter campus divide. Baylor had lifted its ban on dancing only in 1996 and began to phase out a center dedicated to the study of intelligent design only in 2000; conservatives feared that Baylor 2012 meant the end of the university's role as a Christian bulwark. But even as it upgraded the faculty, the administration continued to query prospective professors about their churchgoing habits—Muslim teachers need not apply, though Baylor currently has 131 Muslim students—and remained hostile to homosexuality. Sloan didn't want Baylor to be Cal or Stanford. He had another school in mind.

"Notre Dame has done it in the Catholic world," says Larry Lyon, dean of Baylor's graduate school. "And Catholics have over 1,000 years of intellectual history in which the church and philosophy and science coexisted. We don't. Baptists have 200 years of anti-intellectualism: That's our entire history. If Baylor does not become a great Protestant research university, there will never be one."

Raising the school's sports profile was one of the plan's imperatives, vital for marketing and fund-raising. Baylor's track and field program had produced All-Americas and Olympic champs, but that counts for little in Texas, where football rules and Baylor was almost always terrible. Baylor 2012 envisioned the Bears being competitive nationally in all sports and—stealing South Bend Saturday imagery—dreamily described a sea of rabid fans trailing the school band into a new football stadium across the Brazos River.

"I remember thinking, Yeah, right," Lyon says.

His skepticism made sense, not least because Baylor 2012 spoke of building a winning tradition "with integrity." Previous attempts to beef up the men's basketball program had resulted in NCAA sanctions: In 1986 the team got hit with two years' probation after it was revealed that coach Jim Haller had provided money to a player; and academic fraud in '93--94 led to the firing of coach Darrel Johnson, the conviction of three assistants for mail and wire fraud, and five years' NCAA probation.

All that was nothing, though, compared with the cesspool uncovered in 2003 after forward Patrick Dennehy disappeared and was found sprawled in a gravel pit outside Waco with two bullets in his head, killed by teammate Carlton Dotson, who pleaded guilty to murder in '05 and is serving a 35-year sentence. The resulting investigation of the basketball program uncovered illegal payments, rampant drug use, unreported failed drug tests and a lack of institutional control that resulted in seven years of self-imposed and NCAA sanctions. But the true depth of corruption might never have been exposed if an assistant, Abar Rouse, hadn't secretly taped coach Dave Bliss trying to cover up his misdeeds by coercing his staff and players to falsely portray Dennehy as a drug dealer.

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