By Jerry Hill
Baylor Bear Insider
Nearly a month after winning the Heisman Trophy, Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III can't go anywhere in town without being swarmed by adoring fans and autograph seekers.
Such is the price of fame.
But it's also lifted the national brand of Baylor football to unparalleled heights, coach Art Briles said, "because of all the accolades that go with it just from the respect standpoint."
"You can't put a price tag on it," Briles said this week as he reflected on a 2011 season that will be remembered for a long time to come. "And then just the way, of course, that Robert represents himself, which reflects directly on our university and our football team. That part right there is something we can really be proud of, because Robert is a great ambassador for not only Baylor but for college football and college athletics in general. Our national brand right now is up there pretty good."
As Briles put it, arguably it's never been higher. With Wisconsin and Virginia Tech both losing their bowl games, Baylor could move into the top 10 when the final BCS Standings are released next week.
The Bears (10-3) posted just their second 10-win season in program history, set a litany of records in a 67-56 win over Washington in the Valero Alamo Bowl and play an exciting style of offense that "allows opportunities like (winning the Heisman Trophy) to happen," Briles said.
"You can go to any part of America," Briles said, "and if someone's remotely interested in college football and you say Baylor football, they're going to know what you're talking about and they're going to know some people involved in that football team.
"It's the culmination of a lot of things, when you start looking at the Heisman, winning the football games we did this year playing what some people say was the fifth- or sixth-toughest schedule in America, and then coming out of that with 10 wins. Finishing third in the Big 12 Conference and setting some pretty amazing records along the way that had been standing for years and years, not just within our program but nationally. Those are things that people notice."
With a recruiting "dead" period over, Briles is already seeing the Bears' success paying dividends.
"Just since the (bowl) game, we've had numerous phone calls - guys that are interested in Baylor and the direction of our football program, the style of play, the way our guys conduct themselves," he said. "We're certainly getting phone calls answered and phone calls delivered that we hadn't been getting the last four years, without question."
Partly because of the Heisman Trophy and the FBS bowl-record 777 yards total offense the Bears put up in the Alamo Bowl, "we're on two quarterbacks right now that we weren't on six days ago," Briles said.
And that's the key. Baylor has to strike while the iron's hot.
"The climb's hard, but sustaining is harder," Briles said. "What we've got to do is make sure we do whatever we can as a university, as a football team, to stay proactive as possible to keep that brand high. Because when you get to the top, people try to cut you down. So what we've got to do is make sure we put everything full force into making sure Baylor stays right where it needs to be, and that's up toward the top."
In at least one area, though, Briles and the Bears remain in a holding pattern.
After meeting with Briles this week, Griffin III is expected to mull over his options this weekend and decide by Tuesday whether he will return for his senior season or enter the 2012 NFL Draft by the Jan. 15 deadline. A consensus All-American, RG3 threw for a school-record 4,293 yards and 37 touchdowns and added 699 yards and another 10 TDs rushing.
"It all dependent on Robert's decision, quite honestly," Briles said. "If he decides to come back, then we're probably not going to take a guy, or we might take a high school guy. If he goes into the NFL, then we have to speed up the process a little bit. Right now, we're just sitting on the runway, and we're waiting to see which way the plane's going to take off. But hopefully it lands in Waco."
If RG3 does return, Briles believes the Bears will be a preseason top five nationally, "no question." One poll already has them at No. 7.
But if he leaves with a year of eligibility remaining, the controls will be handed to senior-to-be Nick Florence, sophomore Bryce Petty or possibly a transfer out of the junior college ranks. In his only action of the year, Florence threw for 151 yards and two touchdowns in the second half of a 66-42 win over Texas Tech.
Regardless, Briles has to replace the all-time leading receiver (Kendall Wright), single-season rushing record-holder Terrance Ganaway, two of the five offensive linemen (center Philip Blake and right guard Robert T. Griffin) and three defensive starters (tackles Tracy Robertson and Nicolas Jean-Baptiste and middle linebacker Elliot Coffey).
Wright finished with 302 career catches for 4,004 yards and 14 touchdowns, all school records, while Ganaway broke the one-year-old rushing record with 1,547 yards and 21 TDs.
"We're losing some dynamic players, which happens every year," Briles said. "We're losing some guys that have contributed for a long time. And that's a compliment to them that they were able to come in and contribute early and get in on the ground floor and help get it to this level."
But Briles said there are young players "waiting in the wings, chomping at the bit and ready to go to work."
"What we've been doing is recruiting good football players, because that's all we're going to recruit. If you can't play, we're not going to recruit you," he said. "Now what they've got to do is turn their talk and their anticipation into action, which they will. I'm just indebted and grateful to the guys that we've had to clear the path, because some of these guys have been here since Day 1. And they've done a great job of opening doors for us."
With Jarred Salubi, Glasco Martin and Oregon transfer Lache Seastrunk next in line at running back, Briles is hoping for another smooth transition. Last year, Ganaway came out of the pack to replace record-setting running back Jay Finley.
"It's kind of the same place where we were sitting a year ago," Briles said. "We had just lost the all-time leading rusher in Baylor history and wondering what was going to happen. We had three or four guys that we thought were really good, and Terrance ended up being the main guy and having a pretty good year. Now he's the all-time leading rusher. So our plan is to be sitting here a year from now saying the same thing, because that's how you do it when you get the right people in the right situations."
The situation is similar at center, where Blake replaced All-American J.D. Walton, who's in his second year as a starter for the playoff-bound Denver Broncos. "And Philip's going to be an NFL guy. He'll be drafted this spring," Briles said.
At that spot, the list of candidates includes redshirt freshman Tim Smith, sophomore Stefan Huber, freshman Desmine Hilliard and possibly Ivory Wade moving from right tackle.
Competing for Coffey's spot in the middle will be redshirt freshman Bryce Hager and junior college transfer Eddie Lackey. Backups Nick Johnson and Kaeron Johnson will be joined by freshmen Beau Blackshear, Trevor Clemens-Valdez and Suleiman Masumbuko to give the Bears good depth at the defensive tackles.
"As far as personnel, honestly, we just had a staff meeting this morning (Wednesday), first time back since the bowl game," Briles said. "Right now, we're going through self-evaluation of coaches, and then we're doing personnel. So once we kick around personnel after we get past ourselves, then we'll have a lot more definitive answers."
With wide receivers coach Dino Babers leaving after four seasons to take the head coaching job at Eastern Illinois, Briles has one spot on his staff to fill. And while it's not official, he said we know "what's going to happen."
Spring football will begin the week of March 19, following the university's spring break, and will wrap up around April 14 after the Easter break.
Maybe by then, the Bears will come down from the clouds of a euphoric season.
"When that clock read zeroes the other night, we enjoyed that," Briles said of the bowl-game victory in San Antonio. "It was fun to share it with the people that love Baylor. I like seeing people that love a university, that care about a university and the people that are involved it have smiles on their faces. That's the payoff, because that's what it's all about is having people happy about something they love."