By Chris Derrett
Before speaking at Sunday’s press conference, a smiling head coach Art Briles slapped himself. He offered an explanation to the media in attendance, but there was more understanding among the reporters and camera operators than confusion.
“Just making sure this is real,” Briles said. “It’s real.”
If Baylor’s football history seemed like a 16-year long nightmare of futility to the green and gold faithful, Baylor Nation finally awakened as McCaw and Briles officially revealed the Bears’ bid in Houston’s Texas Bowl.
“The perception of Baylor has certainly improved; the image of Baylor has improved. There are people still standing on the playground, and we got chosen,” Briles said.
After Kansas State announced it would be playing in New York City’s Pinstripe Bowl, the Texas Bowl’s choices essentially became either Baylor or Texas Tech, both of whom finished 7-5 overall. Fifth in the Big 12 bowl pecking order, the Texas Bowl chose the Bears, leaving the Red Raiders to Dallas’ TicketCity Bowl.
The Bears face Illinois on Dec. 29 at Reliant Stadium, a familiar site for Baylor fans.
Just over eight months ago Baylor fans packed the stadium to watch their men’s basketball team in the school’s historic Elite Eight run. Briles and the team expect the same homefield advantage when Robert Griffin III and Co. take the field.
“Everybody has been waiting, because it has been a really long time. Everybody is going to have a reason to be there, whether it is a special trip or they call in a sick day at work, so I am sure they will be ready to go,” Griffin said.
The game holds meaning to any and all associated with Baylor football, and more broadly Baylor University and its surrounding community.
For a number of men on the field, it will be the final chapter in a story filled with both success and disappointment.
“I know those guys have always talked to me and told me about all the things they have been through with different coaches and different transitions they have had to make,” senior Byron Landor said.
Current fourth-year Baylor players began their collegiate career with a 3-9 effort in 2007 under head coach Guy Morriss. A rocky start to the Briles era brought a 4-8 campaign in 2008, and unexpected injuries to offensive leaders Griffin and Jay Finley in 2009 hindered the Bears as they again went 4-8.
Healthy and experienced, this year’s squad can finish the way it always envisioned.
“You have to get there first, and now you have to do a great job in preparation and doing whatever we’ve got to do to win the football game. That’s the way I want this senior class to go out, as winning the first bowl game around Baylor [since 1992],” Briles said.
For other players, it could be a only a taste of things to come.
“It is one chip off the shoulder. I mean, I have a couple more I need to pluck off, and I am sure these guys do, too,” Griffin said alongside Landor and senior Danny Watkins. “So we will continue to play with all those chips on our shoulders and be ready to go out there and get after somebody.”
Finally, for the Bears’ future, an appearance on ESPN during primetime can prove an immense help in the recruiting game.
“There’s going to be a lot of recruits that are going to be able to come out and watch us practice and be around us for two or three days,” Briles said. “Those are huge advantages. We’re still in the news and football season is going on, so that’s big.”