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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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Starr was in his second day on the job when he arrived in Kansas City, Mo., for a meeting with the Big 12 board of directors and spotted Nebraska athletic director Tom Osborne. Starr's first thought was to get an autograph; then they chatted. Osborne made it clear that Nebraska wanted out. "And so," says Starr, "it started falling apart."

The Cornhuskers left for the Big Ten. When it became clear last August that Texas A&M was edging toward the SEC and that Texas and Oklahoma might follow, Starr knew that Baylor's grand ambition might not survive. The school faced a loss of an estimated $20 million annually in TV revenue, a figure that playing in a smaller conference would never make up. Starr worked the phones, sent e-mails to at least one SEC president, wrote an editorial for the Houston Chronicle and then bared the teeth of that Ken Starr, dangling the threat of litigation against the SEC, Texas A&M and anyone else who might pique his interest.

It was, for a time, a singular stance, until the presidents of Iowa State and Kansas State chimed in. Criticism fell hardest on the Bears, though, most notably from TV yapper Jim Rome, who mocked "scrubby little Baylor" for holding up the inevitable. Baylor fans loved it. Not only did Texas and Oklahoma decide to stay, with an agreement handcuffing their first- and second-tier TV rights to the Big 12 for six years, but Starr's saber-rattling reinforced the school's increasingly feisty self-image.

"We're not going to be small, we're not going to be scrubby, and we're not going to be gentle," Briles says. "Our face has been rubbed in the sand for a long time, and now we get to come out of it, stand up, put on our hat and T-shirt that say BAYLOR. And instead of people snickering, they're thinking, Hey, those people are good."

Many of those snickers, of course, came from within city limits. Longtime relations between Waco and Baylor weren't so much hostile as cool; students and teachers lived within their private, cozy Baylor bubble, and residents ignored them right back, reserving their love for UT, A&M or Tech.

But in the last two years Baylor has tried to puncture that wall—announcing plans to move its school of social work to downtown Waco, collaborating with a nearby college and the city on a new research center. "Ever since Judge Starr came to Baylor two years ago, it's been totally different," Mayor Bush says. "Baylor is Waco's team now. It's just unreal."

It's also good for business. Baylor's plans for an estimated $250 million football palace on the other side of the Brazos make it imperative to market tickets to non-Baylor folk, and the city sees the stadium as a catalyst for riverfront development. Just as important, Waco, which since the Koresh debacle has felt unfairly saddled with a reputation for fanatic religiosity, has found a way to remake its image.

"I compared it with the Kennedy assassination: For years Dallas was the place that killed the President, and now people [associate it with] the Cowboys or maybe the TV show Dallas," says Lyon. "It never occurred to me that Baylor athletics might be the tool to redefine the community in a more positive way. But it has been."

Even as far out as Mount Carmel. "I don't think people think of Waco as what happened here anymore," says Alexa Pace, whose husband, Charles, is pastor of a new church of Branch Davidians that sits upon the land where so many people died. "Baylor's so big now and popular."

On Dec. 14, when Baylor honored Griffin at halftime of a basketball game, the couple and their 16-year-old son, Ben, made the 20-minute drive in. All 8,800 stood in the Ferrell Center when RG3 and the trophy appeared, and Ben was thrilled. He's a running back on his school's six-man team, and what ballcarrier doesn't dream of the Heisman? "He just loves football," Alexa says.

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