You hear it all over Waco: Robert never put a foot wrong. He accommodated everyone. In October 2010 one of his key receivers, Josh Gordon, was arrested for misdemeanor marijuana possession. The charge was dropped and Gordon played out the season, but last July he was suspended indefinitely for violating team rules. Griffin, with teammates Terrance Ganaway and Elliot Coffey, visited Baylor president Ken Starr in his office and argued for mercy—if only to allow Gordon to remain a student. "We felt that, as a Christian school, we [should] not be like everyone else and ship these guys off when they encounter adversity," Griffin says. "Because Jesus never gave up on anybody."
Starr was impressed. "I'm just proud of 'em," he says. Still, Gordon was off the team. He transferred to Utah last August—one of Griffin's few losses. He made a habit last season of engineering unlikely wins, none more thrilling than his 479-yard dissection of No. 5 Oklahoma. On a gorgeous November night in Waco, Griffin rolled left, the game tied at 38 and Baylor's alltime record against the Sooners 0--20. He saw Terrance Williams in the deep right corner of the end zone, cocked and threw a 34-yard dart with eight seconds left.
When Baylor recovered its own squib kickoff, Griffin took—thank you, Lord—a knee to end it. Then he disappeared. You saw him only a few seconds before a flood of ecstatics swallowed Baylor's necessary man, the embodiment of all the place wants to be.
Something's wrong. The Bears, who reeled off 17 straight wins to start the season, look tentative and soft for the second straight game. They're being bullied by shorter, tougher, Mizzou, part of a pattern that will play out over the next month, dropping Baylor to No. 13 in the latest poll. "We need guys to just step up, almost man up," forward Quincy Acy says after the game. "We got tough dudes, but sometimes when we get in the game we kind of ... shy away."
Four and half minutes in, as the buzz begins to fade in the Ferrell Center, Starr, chewing a wad of gum, stands during a timeout and hurries off. He returns 30 seconds later with four water bottles, passing them to anyone who wants one.
Starr took charge at Baylor in June 2010, and he's enjoying what associate history professor Thomas Kidd calls "one of the longest honeymoons ever seen." Tireless and blessed with, as Starr himself puts it, "a gift of encouragement," he has won over almost everyone he has met on campus and off, no matter where they stand politically. That's no small feat when you consider that folks still refer to him as "that Ken Starr," the one who in the 1990s became an indelible figure in the nation's culture wars, investigating President Bill Clinton to the point of impeachment.
"I thought about that division—in Texas there's strong Republican ties and strong Democratic ties—and thought, Boy, we don't need a president who's going to frame the conflict out there," says Drayton McLane, the former Astros owner who served for two years as chairman of Baylor's board of regents. "But someone who knew him said, 'Don't make your mind up until you meet him.' And I haven't thought of it again once."
Still, when Starr puts on a gold BU baseball cap and leads the Baylor Line onto the home field each football Saturday, Baylor's ghosts meet their match. One glance at the man, after all, conjures a host of images: Clinton wagging his finger; Monica Lewinsky and the blue dress; former attorney general Janet Reno, whose two most controversial acts in office were expanding Starr's authority as independent counsel in the Whitewater investigation, and authorizing the final assault on the Branch Davidian compound at Mount Carmel in 1993. Shortly after, a fire consumed the building, killing at least 80, including Koresh.
At 65, Starr seems burdened by none of this. He has perfected a manner "so syrupy, grandfatherly sweet," says women's basketball coach Kim Mulkey, that it feels unseemly to wonder what's sincere and what's not. Starr will giggle and say disarming things like, "Football coaches are important. Basketball coaches are important. You can always go get a college president!" No Inspector Javert has ever been more pleasant.
Then again, such equanimity may be possible precisely because Starr's toughness is assumed; the former federal judge and solicitor general has argued 36 times before the U.S. Supreme Court and rocked a presidency. In other words, he was the perfect man to champion Baylor's cause when the Big 12 verged on collapse—a danger that, in Waco anyway, felt like, "a threat to Baylor in totality," Teaff says.