By Shehan Jeyarajah
Baylor is one of only three universities in the country to be ranked in the top 25 in football, men’s basketball and women’s basketball.
Baylor has two football players in the top 10 on ESPN’s Heisman Watch. The Bears also have a perfect 7-0 record and are No. 6 in the BCS standings.
Women’s basketball is ranked first in the Big 12 and No. 10 in the nation in preseason polls.
Men’s basketball is among four finalists for two of the nations top three Class of 2014 basketball recruits, along with traditional powerhouses Kansas, Kentucky and Duke.
Only ten years ago, success like this would have been unthinkable.
On August 8, 2003, Baylor athletics was at the lowest point in school history. Men’s basketball coach Dave Bliss turned in his resignation after information came out tying Bliss to major recruiting and monetary infractions during his time at Baylor. As a result, Baylor was hit with penalties that included probation and loss of scholarships.
A few weeks earlier, the body of former Baylor basketball player Patrick Dennehy had been found in Waco. Teammate Carlton Dempsey had been charged with the murder. The tragedy was unprecedented and sent the entire school reeling.
Only a month after the tragedy, Baylor hired Ian McCaw as its new athletic director.
“I felt a strong sense of calling to Baylor,” McCaw said. “I felt like this program had a lot of promise being in the Big 12 and being a great academic institution. I love challenges. There were definitely challenges at Baylor at that point.”
As of McCaw’s hiring, there were only six basketball players on basketball scholarship; the rest of the team had transferred out of the disastrous program.
“It was a very challenging time,” McCaw said. “Those early days were very difficult. We had a real morale problem; people were discouraged by what happened with the scandal, and there was a loss of confidence within the athletic program. There was a lot of rebuilding to be done. It was really an unprecedented situation rebuilding this basketball program.”
A few weeks before McCaw’s hire, former Valparaiso University basketball coach Scott Drew had been hired as the head basketball coach at Baylor.
“Coach Drew brought a new excitement and energy and vision to the program. There were certainly challenging times, but it excited us that you could see progress by day, by week, by month.” McCaw said.
The transformation was not immediate. In Scott Drew’s first four seasons, he finished with a record of 36-69. The 2008 season was a turning point as Curtis Jerrells and LaceDarius Dunn led Baylor to its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1988 and the first top 25 ranking since 1969.
Since then the Bears have made the NCAA Tournament three times and have made two appearances in the Elite Eight. Drew has also led the Bears to a National Invitational Tournament final game and NIT Championship in 2013.
“He did a tremendous job rebuilding, and he has turned Baylor men’s basketball into an elite national program,” McCaw said.
Since his arrival, Drew has been one of the best recruiters in college basketball. Since 2007, Drew has signed at least one top 100 prospect each season. Since 2009, Drew has signed at least two in each class. That includes getting three top 10 prospects: Perry Jones III, Quincy Miller and Isaiah Austin. Jones and Miller are among four current Baylor products in the NBA, along with Ekpe Udoh and Quincy Acy.
With basketball headed in the right direction, McCaw’s attention turned to football. In 2007, McCaw’s administration made a decision that would change Baylor University forever: he hired University of Houston coach Art Briles to rebuild Baylor’s football program.
“From the time Coach Grant Teaff left in the early 1990s, we had been in a long football drought,” McCaw said. “It had been an extended period since we had gone to a bowl game. There was no question it was a critical moment in rebuilding the football program. As we looked to make that coaching change, Coach Briles had all the attributes we were looking for.”
Coach Briles talked about his decision in an interview with ESPN’s Mark Schlabach this past week.
“I didn’t view the Baylor job maybe the way many other people did,” Briles said. “To me, it was a chance for accomplishment. You can have opportunity anywhere. It was a chance for people to accomplish something. I knew Texas well enough to know that Baylor is centrally located and you can go two-and-a-half hours in every direction and recruit every high school in the state. I knew I had about a 15-year window left in coaching. It seemed like a good fit at a good time.”
The shoe seems to have fit perfectly. After 14 straight losing seasons for the Bears, Briles led Baylor to its first bowl appearance since 1994 during the 2010 season. In 2010, 2011 and 2012, Briles led Baylor to its three consecutive bowl games for the first time in program history.
In 2011, Baylor finished ranked for the first time in 25 years. In the same year, quarterback Robert Griffin III became the first Baylor player to win the Heisman Trophy.
“It takes a really unique individual to turn around a program,” McCaw said. “A lot of coaches are able to maintain a successful program, but it takes a unique coach to build one up. We thought he had that. I knew 10 minutes after meeting him that he had the energy and the vision to build a great program here at Baylor.”
After only seven games in 2013, Baylor has clinched its fourth straight bowl appearance. The Bears currently sit at No. 5 in the Associated Press poll, the highest Baylor’s been since 1953. For the first time in the history of Baylor football, the Bears are favored to beat Big 12 powerhouse Oklahoma. Briles has showed that spark that McCaw anticipated around the program.
“Nobody wanted the Stephenville High job,” Briles said. “Nobody wanted the Houston job. Nobody wanted the Baylor job. Traditionally, I’ve had jobs that more people turned down than applied. You have to go into it believing that you’ll turn it around.”
The historic “Year of the Bear” from 2011-2012 was a turning point at Baylor University. Women’s basketball became the first ever team to go 40-0, football posted its second 10-win season ever and men’s basketball went to the Elite Eight for the second time in three years. Those three sports and baseball combined for 129 wins, the most in NCAA history.
“That was the year the administration realized what we had here,” McCaw said. “We had success up until then, but that was the year we really went national. We captured the attention of the country with our 129 wins in the four sports and Heisman Trophy. I think that was the year that we showed the potential this athletic program has.”
The rise of the athletic program has sparked the rise of Baylor University. Enrollment at Baylor has risen 6.3 percent since 2010, thanks to record numbers of applicants. Despite the increased enrollment, Baylor’s acceptance rate has plummeted below 40 percent as the competition for admission increases.
“On a college campus, athletics is so visible,” McCaw said. “I think the success we’ve had has re-engaged some of the alumni who had gone off before and put us on the map nationally, which certainly helps with fundraising, recruiting students and getting the university name out there from an institutional and branding standpoint.”
Since 2003, Baylor has built multiple residential halls, numerous athletic facilities, has established the Honors College and has renovated several other buildings. Baylor has already green-lit a new business school, as well as the $270 million Baylor Stadium that will be opened next football season.
“We’re going to continue to move forward as a university and athletic program,” McCaw said. “In 10 years, this could be the Decade of the Bear. I think we’re just scratching the surface with the potential of this athletic program.”