Baylor Athletics enjoyed a banner year in 2016-2017 as 17 of the school’s 18 varsity programs reached postseason. With every spring sport making postseason play, Baylor has the potential to post its best National Association of College Directors of Athletics (NACDA) Learfield Directors’ Cup finish in school history.
Acrobatics and Tumbling claimed its third straight national title, while women’s basketball won its seventh straight Big 12 title and reached the national quarterfinals—as did equestrian and women’s golf. Softball upset second-ranked Arizona on the road in the Super Regionals to reach the Women’s College World Series for the third time in seven years and fourth time ever.
Women’s track and field finished 14th at the NCAA Indoor Championships after claiming the Big 12 Conference indoor title—the program’s first conference championship. Volleyball made the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2011, upsetting 14th-ranked San Diego in the first round, and women’s tennis earned an NCAA Tournament bid for the 13th consecutive season.
Football reached a bowl game for the seventh consecutive season, defeating Boise State in the Cactus Bowl. Men’s basketball earned a No. 1 national ranking for the first time and reached the Sweet 16 for the fourth time in eight seasons. Men’s golf claimed a regional title, was ranked No. 1 nationally and reached the national quarterfinals—all program firsts.
Baseball earned an NCAA Tournament bid for the first time since 2012, and men’s tennis advanced to the round of 16 for the 15th time in the last 16 years.
The lone Baylor program not to reach postseason play this year was women’s soccer, and the Bears were 12-7-1 and tied for third in the Big 12 Conference.
Undoubtedly, it was a highly successful year on the field, court and track. However, Baylor Vice President and Director of Athletics Mack Rhoades is as concerned—if not more so—with the athletics department’s success in another realm.
“Every organization has to have a purpose, a mission, a vision,” Rhoades said. “It’s that one thing that binds us all together. Preparing Champions for Life. That is our vision.”
Rhoades came to Baylor in July 2016 after a stint as director of athletics at the University of Missouri. He said it is imperative that Baylor prepare student-athletes for life after sports through academics, social responsibility and spiritual growth.
“We aspire to win Big 12 championships. We aspire to win national championships. But it is less about the trophy and so much more about the process,” Rhoades said. “That’s where our young people grow and develop. We have to be committed to this championship process, one that we continually tweak and have an insatiable appetite to improve.”
Certainly, Baylor student-athletes excel in the classroom. Eleven of Baylor’s 15 programs tracked by the NCAA matched or improved upon their Academic Progress Rate (APR) scores in 2016-2017 with a conference-best nine programs posting perfect one-year APR scores of 1,000. Each athletic program scored at least 947 this year, and no Baylor program has been subject to an APR penalty since it was implemented in 2003.
“Academic success is paramount in fulfilling our Preparing Champions for Life mission,” Rhoades said. “These APR scores speak to the dedication our student-athletes, coaches and staff members apply to the area of academic excellence. We will continue to prioritize this core value and strive for excellence in our commitment to academics.”
Rhoades said numbers such as APR, graduation rates, credit hours passed per semester per student-athlete and student-athletes named to the Deans’ List are important. But preparing for life after Baylor is more important. In May, 77 Baylor student-athletes earned diplomas. Rhoades wants to make sure they have a plan for the next stage.
“When should they start thinking about that plan? Not six months before they walk across the stage,” Rhoades said. “Our student-athletes need to begin thinking about that plan as freshmen and sophomores.”
Intermingled in this process is the need to educate student-athletes to their social and community responsibility.
“It is a great opportunity that we have 500 of the best student-athletes in the country to help mold and develop with a deep understanding of their social responsibility,” Rhoades said. “We must develop an innovative, dynamic, realistic curriculum that leads the nation in teaching our young people about social responsibility. We are excited about that future and where we can go in terms of developing the whole person.”
While academic success is easily tracked through the numbers, social responsibility success is more difficult to quantify.
“It is about developing a culture—who we are and what we’re about,” Rhoades said. “Hopefully five years from now, 10 years from now, our student-athletes will be able to look you in the eye and say, ‘My time at Baylor was an unbelievably complete experience. I grew in athletics and academics. I grew in my faith. I grew as a person in terms of being responsible, serving others and developing as a leader.’”
Rhoades said Baylor’s identity as a faith-based institution plays a unique role in the Preparing Champions for Life process. He believes Baylor should excel in that process better than any other school in the realm of major college athletics.
“We have a lot of work ahead of us,” Rhoades said. “But given our Christian mission, our values, our principles, absolutely we should strive every day without fail to be the best in Preparing Champions for Life.”
The task with which Rhoades was presented last summer was daunting. He said his first year at Baylor felt like two years in many ways. Nonetheless, he is excited about the direction in which the athletics department is headed.
“We have such great opportunity here,” he said. “Baylor Athletics has had some great moments, but our best days lay ahead.”
Rhoades said those days will only be great if Baylor excels in all four areas: athletics, academics, social responsibility and spiritual growth.
“We can’t be great in one of the four, two of the four, three of the four. We have to be great in all four,” Rhoades said. “If we get to a point where we can do that and never rest, we’re going to like where we land.”