WACO, Texas (BP) -- It wasn't long ago that Baylor was the joke of the Big 12 conference. Aside from the success of its track and field program, which garners less of a fan base than football and basketball, Baylor athletics drew little national attention -- unless it was negative attention.
How things have changed. The Bears can now claim a Heisman Trophy winner, the nation's top-ranked women's basketball team, a men's basketball team in the top 10 and a football team that finished 12th in the nation. A 7,000-word story by S.L. Price in the Feb. 27 issue of Sports Illustrated chronicles the rise of Baylor athletics from obscurity to national prominence.
"From Nov. 1 until Jan. 16, the Bears' football and men's and women's basketball teams combined to go 40-0," Price writes. "In that same time 10 other Baylor teams also sat in the nation's top 25, and the athletic program as a whole finished with its best semester ever in the classroom (3.17 GPA)."
The story traces some of the athletic program's missteps in recent years -- recruiting violations, academic fraud, NCAA probation -- including the 2003 killing of Baylor basketball player Patrick Dennehy by teammate Carlton Dotson. In the aftermath of that tragedy, men's coach Dave Bliss was in the media glare when an NCAA investigation of the program "uncovered illegal payments, rampant drug use, unreported failed drug tests and a lack of institutional control," the SI story says.
"It was embarrassing, horrifying really," former Bears football coach Grant Teaff said in the story. "You look back on it and say, How could it be? Yet it was."
From that low point, the Bears have risen. Former Baylor president Robert Sloan, the mastermind of the "Baylor 2012" long-range plan that caused much turmoil on the campus, included as part of the plan a goal for improving the school's athletics program.
"Now comes a medium-sized (12,575 undergrads) private university from a town (pop. 120,805) long known for disaster -- natural, man-made and, in the case of Koresh's cult of Branch Davidians, apocalyptically faith-based -- suddenly collecting blue-chip players, beating its elephantine public rivals and doing it all, it swears, for the highest of purposes," the story says. It then quotes Ian McCaw, Baylor's athletic director: "Our role is to glorify God through our athletic program."
Baylor hasn't always achieved that -- and even now, in maneuvering through the world of high-profile college athletics that often rewards the cutting of ethical corners -- some still question Baylor's purity. Men's basketball coach Scott Drew, for example, is often chided for what some consider to be less-than-pure recruiting tactics.
"We all have flaws, we all make mistakes," Drew said in the story. "That's why, I guess, we don't go to church worshipping ourselves."
Even with the questions, the story points to positive developments -- both athletically and spiritually -- surrounding Baylor athletics.
"I've had people come up to me on campus and ask if they could pray for me -- and then just sit and pray with me," Baylor women's basketball star Brittney Griner said in the story. "It was weird at first: I was like, Ummm, yeah! I'm not going to tell you no."
"Look what's going on: Our women's volleyball team made the playoffs; our women's soccer team made the NCAA tournament; football team's Number 12 in the [BCS rankings]; men's basketball team was Number 3," Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III said. "There's great things going on at Baylor, and no one wants to miss out. I still want to experience that."
Football coach Art Briles said Baylor's doormat days are in the past.
"We're not going to be small, we're not going to be scrubby, and we're not going to be gentle," he said in the story. "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."
The full Sports Illustrated story is available at sportsillustrated.cnn.com/vault/article/magazine/MAG1195167/1/index.htm.
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