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A winning tradition

July 6, 2012

A winning tradition

By Jerry Hill

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Athletics has been described as the window through which people view a university. If that's the case, Baylor University has never offered a better view than right now: national championships in women's basketball and equestrian; Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Robert Griffin III; women's basketball National Player of the Year Brittney Griner; a trip to the Elite Eight in men's basketball; baseball's Super Regional run and 24-game winning streak; first-round picks in both the NFL and NBA drafts; Big 12 Players of the Year in football, women's basketball and baseball; and postseason appearances for all 19 teams for the first time in school history.

"Anytime you see Baylor's name come across the TV screen, it adds value to our reputation at Baylor," says National Coach of the Year Kim Mulkey, who's now won a pair of national championships in women's basketball.

"It helps you in recruiting when you see a Robert Griffin at your national championship game, cutting down nets. It helps you in recruiting when you see Brittney Griner in the stands at a football game with her body painted. It gives you a sense of what a true collegiate athletic experience should be about."

As part of Baylor 2012, the call was for the university to "strive to be competitive in every athletic venue in which it participates" while also "creating a winning tradition with complete integrity."

The numbers say that Baylor athletics has exceeded the goals set out in Baylor 2012. Not only have the Bears and Lady Bears experienced unprecedented success on the fields and courts of athletic competition, Baylor has had 32 Academic All-America selections in the last 10 years and is coming off a school-record 3.22 combined grade-point average for its student-athletes during the 2010-11 school year.

"In the athletic realm, we've exceeded expectations in terms of how far the program has come," says Baylor Director of Athletics Ian McCaw. "I think the reason we've come to the place we are right now is because we've been humble and we've been hungry. And I think we need to continue to follow that mantra. Success is going to create more success for us in the future. But we need to stay focused on the things that have brought us to this point, because sustaining success is going to be more difficult than it was to achieve in the first place."

Think back to where the overall program was 10 years ago when those lofty goals were set. Football had just finished its third straight winless conference campaign and was in the process of losing 29 consecutive Big 12 games; men's basketball had made one NCAA appearance in the last 50 years; and baseball had not been to the College World Series in a quarter of a century.

"There was a mentality that Baylor could do okay in some sports, but we couldn't do really well in the big sports," says softball coach Glenn Moore, who's taken the Lady Bears to two World Series appearances in the last five years. "For the most part, even Baylor fans were skeptical about whether we really belonged in a conference like the Big 12."

Those thoughts have been put to rest over the last decade with Baylor winning 39 conference championships and bringing home a total of four team national championships. Even acrobatics and tumbling -- the newest of Baylor's 19 intercollegiate sports -- won an individual national title in its 2011 debut season.

"We're not the Baylor of old anymore," says Mulkey.

The truth is, though, Baylor's respect factor went up tenfold and more when the football team returned to its glory days of the past.

Olympic gold medals in track and even the 2004 national championship in men's tennis could only do so much. The Bears' road to respectability got a huge lift in 2010, when RG3 led the Bears to their first winning season in 15 years and their first bowl bid since 1994.

"I remember sitting there at the Texas Bowl with one of our academic advisors, and he was like, 'Man, this is awesome! Baylor's in a bowl game!''' says Bart Byrd, associate athletic director for student-athlete services. "And I was like, 'You don't even understand how amazing it is.' It was painful. But the amazing thing is that throughout all of that, even though we struggled on the field, we had kids who were going to school and being successful."

Byrd's first stint at Baylor came as an academic advisor from 1997-2002, when he was the only paid staff member at the "rat's maze" study hall in Neill Morris Hall.

"We had rooms, but it was like a dungeon," Byrd says of the old study hall before Baylor moved into the spacious Simpson Athletics and Academic Center in November 2008. "You'd go in, and you didn't know where anyone was. Now, if a coach calls me and says, 'Hey, is so-and-so up there?', I can walk around the facility in two minutes and find him."

On top of winning athletically, Baylor's more successful than ever in the classroom. The school has finished first or second among Big 12 institutions in the NCAA's Graduation Success Rate (GSR) scores in five of the last six years and had a school-record 115 Academic All-Big 12 selections last year.

In the six years since returning from the University of Arkansas, Byrd has added three learning specialists for at-risk students and a full-time life skills person, nearly doubling the staff of the student-athlete services department.

"When Don Riley was my mentor here and hired me in 1997, he had the smallest budget in the Big 12 year-in and year-out, no questions asked. It wasn't even close," Byrd says. "Ian has been very supportive. And not just Ian, but our whole athletic department, our coaches, the administration, the Board of Regents ... They've all wanted this. It's helping tremendously in what we're doing. You can see it every day."

The move to the Simpson Center, which includes a computer lab, tutoring rooms and offices for all the academic advisors, has created a learning atmosphere where the "students actually want to come here to study," McCaw says.

"We've created a culture where the student-athletes have a high expectation of success," McCaw continues. "We have all the amenities that students need to succeed academically, and I think the numbers reflect it with a 3.22 GPA last year."

While Mulkey led the Lady Bears to their first NCAA Tournament appearance in her first year and won a national championship four years later, some of the other programs have taken longer to come around. Softball made its first postseason trip in 2004, then made it to the Women's College World Series in 2007 and again in 2011.

"We have facilities now that surpass most universities and definitely are with the elite," says Moore, who added an indoor practice facility last year to go with Getterman Stadium that opened in 2000. "You look back and see that investment is all it really took. And we've really done it the right way, I think."

Drew took over a program in 2003 that was coming off one of the worst scandals in the history of the game. But he ended a 20-year drought with an NCAA Tournament appearance in 2008, led the Bears to the NIT finals the next year and has made Elite Eight appearances twice in the last three seasons.

"When we came here, we talked about building consistency," Drew says. "You need to be ranked every year, so you're in that ESPN ticker going across the bottom of the screen."

Football earned one of the last seats at the table. And it started with the simultaneous arrival of Griffin III and head coach Art Briles before the 2008 season.

Along with talented players like Kendall Wright, Terrance Ganaway, Philip Blake and Robert T. Griffin -- who were all taken in the 2012 NFL Draft -- those two men led a revival of Baylor football that put the Bears back on the national map.

It started with a 7-6 finish and a trip to the Texas Bowl in 2010, then hit its crescendo last season with just the second 10-win campaign in school history (10-3), a Heisman Trophy for RG3 and a thrilling 67-56 win over Washington in the 2011 Valero Alamo Bowl.

"You can't put a price tag on it," Briles says of Griffin III winning the Heisman. "What it means is our national brand has skyrocketed, probably unparalleled in Baylor history. ... Robert is a great ambassador for not only Baylor, but for college football and college athletics in general. That part of it really shines toward Baylor University. Our national brand right now is up there pretty good."

Almost as impressive as RG3's play on the field -- a school-record 4,293 yards passing and 37 touchdowns -- was a Heisman speech for the ages.

"This moment right here, it's unbelievably believable," said Griffin III, who was selected by the Washington Redskins with the No. 2 overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft. "As we say, the hotter the heat, the harder the steel. No pressure, no diamonds. We compete, we win. We are Baylor. Baylor we are, and Baylor we will always be. But it's up to us to define what that is. And this Heisman Trophy is only the beginning of that process. To Baylor Nation, I say this is a forever kind of moment."

Building off that momentum, Mulkey's Lady Bears capped off a perfect 40-0 season with an 80-61 win over Notre Dame in the national championship game in Denver. The 6-foot-8 Griner won the Naismith Trophy and Wooden Award as national player of the year, averaging 23.2 points, 9.5 rebounds and a national-best 5.2 blocks, while sophomore point guard Odyssey Sims also earned All-America honors.

At the same time, Drew's Bears were winning a school-record 30 games en route to the Elite Eight and a Memphis Regional loss to eventual national champion Kentucky.

And then there was the feel-good story of the Baylor baseball team that won 24 games in a row, reached No. 1 in the rankings and clinched an outright Big 12 championship with two weeks still left in the season.

"We're like a player who came from a small town with big dreams," says 2012 Big 12 Baseball Coach of the Year Steve Smith, who's won three Big 12 titles to go with his 2005 World Series appearance. "He worked really hard and made it big. Now, is he still the same guy? Are his values still the same? That's the challenge. ... We want to have a voice, we want to be relevant. We've got a message that is world-changing. And we don't want to compromise our message. There's no success on the field worth losing that over."

To that end, Baylor hired former football letterman Wes Yeary as its full-time athletics chaplain in 2008. Not only has he served as Baylor's Fellowship of Christian Athletes and in-season spiritual leader, but Yeary has taken sports ministry trips to Kenya each of the last four years, went to Mexico over his first Christmas break and went to Cuba last year with baseball.

"I think more than anything [it's great] just watching the transformation that takes place in the student-athletes' lives as they go and give of themselves and maybe see things that they haven't seen before and experience a way of living that is different to them," Yeary says. "It opens their eyes to needs and the realities beyond the little circle or bubble that we sometimes live in."

In addition to the mission trip to Cuba, Smith has taken the baseball team down to the Houston area for a hurricane-relief project and been involved in local missions like Habitat for Humanity.

"There are some players in sports, including ours, who didn't come here because this is a Christian university," Smith says. "They came here because we're good, and they want to win. But you know what, while they're here, they are being exposed to the gospel -- not just in word, but in deed. And they may never have this kind of opportunity again."

Similarly, Moore took the softball team to Panama last August.

"It takes them out of this luxury that we sometimes live in and brings them back to what life is really about," Moore says. He reminds his players of Luke 12:48, which says, "For everyone to whom much is given, of him shall much be required."

In the unofficial "Year of the Bear," Baylor has been given plenty. And with projects to add a new on-campus football stadium, track and indoor tennis facility, you can make the argument that times have never been better. But over his eight-year tenure as athletic director, McCaw says nothing has pleased him more than the growth of the sports ministry and the way the student-athletes have given back.

"Jesus shared that the greatest command is to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength," Yeary says, "and love your neighbor as yourself. These opportunities not only help them understand who their neighbor is, but show them practical ways to love them and serve them."

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