The Big Little Things of 2013

So Chill

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images Quarterback Bryce Petty #14 of the Baylor Bears

Can God Save Baylor?

The lovable losers of the Fiesta Bowl

Let me tell you how to measure football success in Texas. There is a grocery store there called H-E-B. H-E-B is for people who feel alienated by Whole Foods. Over by the carrot salad and the wilting poinsettias, there is a collection of football gear. This gear isn’t meant to be bought, exactly. It is meant to be observed as a barometer of success. Call it the H-E-B Test.

In a typical autumn, about half the gear belongs to the University of Texas. The other half belongs to Texas A&M. The mix may change depending on Heisman Trophies and conference titles. But not by much.

“I was in an H-E-B,” Burt Burleson, the chaplain of Baylor University, said the other day. “I walked into this Baylor paraphernalia section. It was just massive. It wouldn’t have been this way before.”

This proved two things. One, the Baylor Bears were playing in the Fiesta Bowl. Two, almost unthinkably, Baylor had gotten really, really cool.

They came to Phoenix from all over. They sipped cans of beer at the tailgate but not too many of them. They tucked their polo shirts into khaki shorts and added a belt for good measure. When you asked what it was like for Baylor to be really good at football, to be attached to the words “national championship” until late November, they said, “Wonderful!” Or: “Monumental!”

“Think about five years ago,” said Brad Goebel, who played quarterback for Baylor from 1987 to 1990 and later played in the NFL. “Ten years ago. Fifteen years ago. We were a laughingstock. We were everybody’s whipping boy. … Shoot, once Art got there, Baylor Nation has kind of risen up.”

Art Briles is the tactician, outreach specialist, and brand manager of Baylor football. As rumors circulated that he was going to leave for the University of Texas (or was it the Redskins?), fans wore T-shirts that said “In Art We Trust.” Such was their deference to him.

There are superficial reasons Briles’s teams are cool. His fast-tempo spread offense arranges wide receivers from sideline to sideline and creates gaping holes for Lache (pronounced “Lake”) Seastrunk, who upon landing in Phoenix declared that it reminded him of Waco, “minus the mountains.” At the Fiesta Bowl, Baylor wore gold helmets and black uniforms. The colors didn’t look like C-3PO, as some said, but like one of the rejects in the Jawa sandcrawler.

Safety Ahmad Dixon was asked earlier this year if Baylor could win the Big 12. Baylor hadn’t won an outright conference title in 22 years. Dixon looked at the reporter and replied, “Can God save a hooker?”

That gets us closer. Because what’s cool about Baylor isn’t what’s new. It’s what’s quaint and old-fashioned. This is the campus where dancing was prohibited until 1996, a decree that led to the immortal Gary Cartwright line, “Baylor fans did not make love standing up, lest God mistake the act for dancing.”

Briles hasn’t erased that past. In the age of Rivals rankings, he has slyly embraced it. The new Baylor shows how you can marry religion with athletics without committing blasphemy against either of them. It shows how a religious school can be a football school and also a religious school.

“I don’t think there’s any question,” said Bob Beauchamp, the vice-chairman of the Baylor Board of Regents, “that Baylor is one of the coolest schools out there.”

Baylor’s 11-1 regular season was not without precedent. Baylor used to be a pretty decent football team. Between 1980 and 1992, the team averaged more than 6.5 wins a year. The best of those teams was the 1980 squad, which had striking similarities to this year’s group. “We were good enough to win a national championship,” said Jay Jeffrey, quarterback of the ’80 team. “We were that good.”

What Briles’s team is to offensive production, the ’80 team was to defense. Mike Singletary was the middle linebacker. Singletary wore thick, round, dorky glasses. “We always thought he was playing racquetball,” said Jeffrey. But nobody on the offense said that to Mike.

The school’s facilities were some of the worst in the conference. “Baylor wouldn’t want to hear this,” said Doak Field, an all-conference linebacker, “but the truth is they didn’t even show us the weight room on our recruiting visit. There really wasn’t one. There was a universal set with a couple of neck machines on the wall. And, I kid you not, there were gallon paint buckets filled with concrete and someone had stuck a pipe through ’em.”

The ’80 Baylor team was cool. It had players called Radar Holt (“Just get it close and he’ll catch it”) and Ice Cube McNeil. But it also had a streak of old-school, hard-ass Texanness. The defensive coordinator was Corky Nelson. Nelson would run his defense into shape while the offense watched in amazement. When the two squads met after practice in the cafeteria, they would often have to be pulled apart.

“All of these things you’d never think would happen at the largest Baptist university in the world,” Field said. “But I don’t think we could have competed if we ‘turned the other cheek.'”

Speaking of which … “There were on-campus revivals,” said Field. “I’m talking about the old tent revivals that would pop up every semester. You’d be invited to those, but nobody twisted your arm. There would be guys that came by from time to time that wanted to witness to you.” They soon learned they had better odds of sharing the good news if they avoided the athletic dorm.

Waco was smaller and more pious than other Texas cities. But it wasn’t spared the sexual and pharmacological glories of the ’80s. Field said, “If you wanted it in Waco — whatever ‘it’ was — you could find it.” And when “it” ran low, you drove to Austin.

On October 11, 1980, Baylor beat Eric Dickerson and Craig James’s SMU team. We know now that SMU — if not the entire Southwest Conference — was receiving money in suitcases. But Baylor was an outpost of probity. The rumor of Dickerson’s gold Trans Am was like news from another dimension. “I remember getting $2.58 in an envelope mailed to me at the athletic dormitory,” Field said. “I think it was from a little old lady who sent a note saying, ‘Enjoy a hamburger on me.'”

This year, Bryce Petty was a Heisman candidate by halftime of the Wofford game. The ’80 team, which started the season with seven straight wins, had only a faint idea of how good the nation thought it was. It didn’t see the weekly AP rankings until Monday mornings, when coaches posted clips from the Waco Tribune-Herald. “There was no ESPN,” Jeffrey said. “Well, there might have been ESPN, but nobody had it. None of us had TVs.” The Bears used their single athletic-dorm TV to watch The Grant Teaff Show, in which the head coach broke down film without the benefit of a cohost.

Baylor was undefeated and ranked no. 10 in the country when it played San Jose State at home. It was similar to this year’s Waterloo against Oklahoma State. The ’80 team lost by eight. But the next week, it beat Lou Holtz’s Arkansas team by four touchdowns. Two weeks after that, it played Texas in the rain to end the regular season. After it stopped Longhorns quarterback Donnie Little on the first few drives, somebody on the Baylor sideline said, “There’s nobody over there that could come over here and play for us!” The boast was as true as it would be until 2013.

Baylor finished 10-1 and undefeated in the conference. The Bears played Alabama in the Cotton Bowl. Walter Abercrombie, a running back who became a first-round NFL draft pick, spotted Bear Bryant on the field before the game. “He was standing on the 50-yard line,” Abercrombie said. “He was in that old houndstooth cap and jacket. I eased myself over to him. I said, ‘Coach Bryant, I’m Walter Abercrombie.'”

“He said, ‘Oooooh, boy, I know who you are.'”

A bad omen: The greatest Baylor team ever lost 30-2.

All week before the Fiesta Bowl, George O’Leary, the coach of Central Florida, hinted that Baylor wasn’t the only Cinderella. “This is [our] first BCS game,” O’Leary said on Monday, “same as Baylor, if I read right.”

Reporters asked O’Leary about the speed of Baylor’s backs and receivers, about the complexity of the offense, about how tough the Bears were to tackle in space. O’Leary nodded. Yep, sure they are.

When the game started, it was Central Florida that came out looking like offensive innovators. Its first touchdown drive lasted 3:36. The second lasted 2:27. Subtract the time spent huddling and it was Baylor-worthy. Moreover, it was the Knights who couldn’t be tackled in space: Rannell Hall when he caught the ball downfield, Blake Bortles and Storm Johnson when they ran the zone-read. (Running back William Stanback said of Johnson, “[We’re] both Cancers. It doesn’t mean a lot, but it means a lot.”)

Baylor got within a point in the second quarter. Central Florida scored another touchdown. For people who demand that players supply championship “moments,” Baylor quarterback Bryce Petty faked a handoff, ran around the right end, and flipped head over heels into the end zone. He stood up with an air of defiance, kissed his hand, and pointed to the sky.

In 1996, a terrible thing happened to Baylor: It joined the Big 12. During one stretch, the Bears lost 29 conference games in a row. In 2002, Field and some other former players rented a plane to fly over Floyd Casey Stadium carrying a banner that called for the firing of the AD and the head coach.

But something interesting was going on at the same time. Baylor was modernizing. In ’96, the ban on dancing was lifted. A few years later, the school undertook an ambitious program called Baylor 2012. “The grand experiment,” said Burleson, the university chaplain, “is that there’s never been an evangelical school that was Christian in a serious way that also aspired to be a top-tier research university.” One plank of Baylor 2012 was to resurrect the athletic program.

While Baylor was struggling, Briles was still at Stephenville High School, experimenting with his spread offense. “He’d just got his first yellow pad,” said Branndon Stewart, a Stephenville quarterback who became one of the highest-rated recruits in the country. Briles’s offense has been dissected — see Chris Brown’s Grantland story. But Briles’s managerial prowess, his ability to tend a large program, is less well-known.

In the offseason, Stephenville’s players sprinted from class to an old basketball court during their football period. Briles had laid turf from a decommissioned field on the floor. “We called it the Green Room,” said Stewart. “For one half of the workout, we would do mat drills, bouncing around on the mat. For the other half, we’d do ropes and monkey bars. I’m not talking about going up and down the monkey bars. We’d go up one side. Then we’d go down the other laterally — sideways. Then we’d go up again and do a push-up after every bar. We’d do that, and the next day it’d be a weight circuit.”

Briles lifted weights alongside his players. “He was pretty ripped,” Stewart said. Briles, who unfailingly wears Dri-FIT shirts, was always running somewhere — exercising while he coached. He called it “gettin’ some work in.”

Briles is a charmingly odd dude beneath the Nick Saban scowl. In his memoir, Looking Up, Briles allows that he is a fan of the band Creed. Briles gives everybody he works with nicknames. “In high school, mine was Stew,” Stewart said. “Now, he calls me ‘Gov.’ I’m not sure why. I don’t know if it’s a British reference or what.”

Briles was hired by Baylor in 2008 to win football games. But he made several gestures to the school’s evangelical mission. It was well known within the state’s Fellowship of Christian Athletes chapters that Briles had a team chaplain when he coached at the University of Houston, a public school. He hired another chaplain at Baylor. On Sundays, Briles sits in the back row of Columbus Avenue Baptist Church in Waco. When the service ends, he is known to sprint out the door faster than Tevin Reese.

There is no litmus test for recruits, of course, other than Rivals stars. But Petty, linebacker Eddie Lackey, and offensive lineman Spencer Drango are regulars at the Fellowship of Christian Athletes meetings held on campus every other Monday. Levi Norwood, a wide receiver, was recently asked by FCA Magazine, “Considering your relationship with Christ, what does it mean to relentlessly pursue Him?”

“Relentlessly pursuing Christ is never letting anything stop you,” Norwood replied. “That goes for me on the playing field and in my walk with Christ. Even if I get tackled or make a mistake, I must get up and keep pursuing my goal.”

When Briles began to win, buildings grew up around him. A $260 million stadium will open next to I-35 next season. “It may not be grandioso,” said Goebel, “but it’s good. It’s real good.” Mega-donors have paid for two new “centers,” as they’re called in the Age of the Facility. One is the Simpson — as in Bob, the oil magnate — Athletics and Academic Center. The second will be the Beauchamp — as in Bob, the tech magnate — Athletics Nutrition Center.

“It’s a far different feeling from the past,” said athletic director Ian McCaw, “when we had to beg people and get doors slammed in our face and get hung up on.”

Beauchamp is the CEO of BMC Software. Forbes once estimated that he earned $87 million in executive pay over a five-year period. Beauchamp told me he had been looking to make a “transformational” gift to the school. Just as Baylor 2012 predicted, the success of the football team helped show that Baylor was not a provincial school — Liberty on the Brazos — but one that was hip. If you consumed Baylor through ESPN, it seemed no different than UCLA. “What a top-tier athletic program is does,” Beauchamp said, “is turn that brand up loud.”

But what Beauchamp really fell in love with was Briles’s Baylorness. A few years ago, Beauchamp saw Briles at a hotel in Waco. “I was walking through the lobby,” he said. “I saw Art but he didn’t see me. An athlete and the athlete’s parents were standing next to him. What Art told the athlete’s parents was, ‘I want you to know your son has a wonderful heart.’ That’s what he said. He talked about his heart.”

The 2013 Baylor Bears should not be understood as a mere football team. They should be understood as a national ad campaign, as a symbol of modernity, as a giant church sign gleaming on the side of the road.

“I‘m extremely disappointed in myself,” Briles said after the game. Baylor had tied the score at 28 in the third quarter on a Petty quarterback sneak and two-point conversion. But Central Florida went on a 24-7 run, with Baylor piling up penalties. At his press conference, Briles guessed his team had 12 to 14 penalties. In fact, it had 17. The left tackle, Kelvin Palmer, earned six penalties by himself.

“I don’t think I did a good job,” Briles said. “I don’t think we were prepared like we needed to be prepared.”

A reporter asked Briles how he would have prepared differently. Briles chuckled, realizing he’d been called on his own cliché. “That’s a little bit of coachspeak,” he said. He is as knowing as any coach this side of Spurrier.

Simpson, the oil magnate and Baylor donor, was sitting in the audience. “All indications from our friendship are that he’s gonna stay,” Simpson said of the University of Texas rumors. But Simpson added, “When you got somebody as good as he is, the world’s gonna come after him. It’s not just gonna be UT. If we survive this one, there’ll be more.” It reminded you that even if Baylor no longer has cement buckets in the weight room, if little old ladies no longer buy players a burger, Baylor is still the little guy.

Out on the field at University of Phoenix Stadium, Petty was congratulating the Central Florida players. He still had his gold helmet on, as if to lessen the blow of losing. Someone threw a pile of fresh T-shirts on the grass. They said “2014 FIESTA BOWL CHAMPIONS.” They featured an absolutely atrocious pun. These are the spoils of being a new face in the Top 25. If you live in Florida, be sure to check your local grocery store.

Filed Under: Baylor, Teams

Bryan Curtis is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ curtisbeast