By Shehan Jeyarajah
This past summer, I went on a family trip to Washington, D.C. Despite being almost 1,500 miles from Waco, I got multiple comments along the way on my Baylor apparel.
Many in Washington talked to me about Robert Griffin III, former Heisman winner and current quarterback of the Washington football franchise.
Other college football fans came up and talked to me too, whether to ask about how I thought Baylor would do in the first year of the College Football Playoff, or to brag about how much better the Southeastern Conference is than the Big 12.
No matter if interactions were positive or good-naturedly competitive, one thing became clear: people across the country know what Baylor is. Whether you are a sports fan or not, the rise of Baylor athletics has played an integral role in increasing the national profile of the university. Sports are the most efficient way that the school can take the next step.
I got into Baylor in November 2012. I did not think much of it; Baylor was not on my radar. Only a month later, the school got my attention once more when RG3 won the school’s first Heisman Trophy. A few weeks later, the school played a high-profile Alamo Bowl against Washington
Three months later, Baylor basketball advanced to the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament before losing to eventual champion Kentucky. Soon afterwards, the Lady Bears women’s basketball team won the national championship with a perfect 40-0 record.
When I was a casual college sports fan at the time living in Dallas, Baylor only really entered the forefront of conversation when sports converged. Baylor started to appear on ESPN starting with the Heisman Trophy and received even more attention when the Bears played in the highest-scoring bowl game in the history of college football.
Baylor is an academic institution, but the university has put a premium on using its athletic presence to further the academic footprint and overall branding profile of the university.
Since 2011, the proverbial Year of the Bear, Baylor has experienced record applications, attendance and national interest. It is no secret that when athletics perform at a high level, especially football and basketball, the college as a whole benefits.
Baylor is not unique in its transformation through athletics. In 1913, a small Catholic school in Indiana burst onto the national scene with a surprising upset against the powerhouse Army football team.
Since then, the University of Notre Dame has claimed 11 football national championships. That small Catholic school in Indiana also ranks No. 16 on US News and World Report’s National University Rankings.
Obviously it would be simplistic and misleading to say that football was the only factor in Notre Dame becoming a national powerhouse; the school concurrently took a big step forward. However, the football team’s presence has been key to Notre Dame’s profile.
Some downplay the influence of sports to the university. There are plenty of students who will go through four years at Baylor without ever attending a game. However, whether or not someone cares for Baylor sports, he or she benefits more from Baylor sports than any other area.
Baylor has plenty of high-profile graduates, including Drayton McLane, Angela Kinsey, Trey Wingo, Ann Richards and many more. However, no one’s academic success has even come close to matching the attention Baylor has gotten from being ranked No. 3 in the country in football.
As Baylor football continues to thrive, the university will have an opportunity to increase its branding profile.
If Baylor can play its cards right, athletics can bring the university widespread recognition and allow the school to move from a regional religious school into a major national institution.
Shehan Jeyarajah is a junior political science major from Coppell. He is the sports editor for the Lariat. Follow him on Twitter @ShehanJeyarajah.