By Jessika Harkay | Sports Writer
When head coach Matt Rhule arrived to Baylor in 2016, he overtook a program in shambles. But in just three seasons, the Bears have found their identity again after a decade that consisted of Baylor’s most successful achievements and utter disaster.
With a peak in the first half of the decade (2010-15), the Baylor Bears advanced to five consecutive bowl games after a 15-year drought and produced a Heisman Trophy winner. The pinnacle of Baylor football was short lived as it came to a sudden collapse when the infamous sexual assault scandal came to light in 2016.
After Rhule’s introduction, the Bears witnessed a transformation from an 1-11 season, to clinching the Texas Bowl the following year and starting the 2019 season with nine straight wins for the first time since 2015 — their only loss of the season so far coming from Oklahoma.
The football team has seen the ultimate highs and lows a program can endure and recover from — and some may call it the quickest turnaround in college football — including Jerry Hill, the director of sports journalism at Baylor.
“I think everybody thought, ‘Well, they’ve had their time, and they won’t get back to that point.’ And now you’re sitting here at -0, and you’re back to that point,” Hill said. “You’re in November and you’re playing games to get to a conference championship game. The other rebuild […] was a little more gradual. You started out 4-8, 6-7, then you started hitting some of those seasons. This has been 1-11 to back into a bowl game the next year.”
The rebuild of the football program began in 2008 with the arrival of former head coach Art Briles and quarterback Robert Griffin III.
The Heisman winning quarterback opened his tenure with the Bears starting 11 of 12 games his true freshman year. Over the course of three complete seasons and a three-game redshirt season in 2009, Griffin completed 67.1% of his passes with 10,366 yards, 2,254 total rushing yards, 78 touchdowns and a quarterback rating of 158.9 under his belt.
To Waco-Tribune Herald sports editor Brice Cherry, Griffin was unlike anything Waco had ever seen before and “push[ed] Baylor to new limits.”
“McLane Stadium would not be here without him. I mean, it’s truly the house that RGIII built,” Cherry said.
The cherry on top of the former quarterback’s record-setting career was Baylor’s 45-38 victory over Oklahoma, the Bears’ first-ever win against the Sooners. When Griffin was drafted in 2012 as the second overall pick to the Washington Redskins although having a year of eligibility left, the Bears were without their superstar.
Usually when you lose the captain of your offense, you expect a dropoff. That held true in the beginning of the following season, as the Bears began 4-5 and on a four-game losing streak. The team didn’t panic, though.
Senior quarterback Nick Florence led Baylor to a tone-setting 52-24 victory against No. 2 Kansas State at the time, which not only sparked a four-game win streak, but also marked the start of a new transition — a focus on defense.
“That was a big deal, because I really think that’s kind of what people were thinking was, ‘They’re just going to go back to being Baylor,’ and that year really helped and set off what happened in ‘13 and ‘14,” Hill said. “The defense really started clicking. Phil Bennett had come in as the defensive coordinator and […] you could see where the defense went from that point to the end of the year when they were just shutting down teams.”
The Bears came back stronger than ever in 2013, finishing the season 11-2 and outscoring opponents 681-306. The impressive offensive season proved one important thing under new quarterback Bryce Petty.
“I think it showed that, you know, Baylor didn’t have to have one guy. They can keep doing it,” Hill said.
The dominating offense continued, racking up 1,936 points in three years. But the Bears fell apart in the postseason, dropping two of three bowl games played over three seasons from 2013 to 2015. Those postseason runs nearly foreshadowed what would happen to the program — a complete downfall.
In early 2016, Briles and former Baylor president Ken Starr were terminated and athletic director Ian McCaw stepped down when news broke out about the Baylor football team’s involvement in numerous sexual assaults, and the burial of police reports.
John Werner, a sports writer for the Waco Tribune-Herald, described the program’s collapse as more “widespread than anyone knew.”
“It was a big blow to Baylor, just as far as, because they built the football program so high with two Big 12 championships,” Werner said. “A lot of people here were huge Briles fans, obviously, and you know, a lot just couldn’t accept that. He wasn’t really keeping house very well. He was taking too many chances on questionable players. He wasn’t a very good disciplinarian. I mean, he seemed like he just kind of shoved stuff under the carpet.”
Jim Grobe overtook the program for a year, bringing the Bears to a 7-6 season before Rhule signed as the new head coach. Rhule’s signing was a shock to Werner, who said the coach’s name wasn’t brought up until the day before he was hired.
“Nobody really knew much about him. You know he won — he really built the Temple program. They won two games his first year as head coach, went 6-6, then they had a couple 10-win seasons,” Werner said.
That’s exactly what Rhule did when he inherited a young team to rebuild. With one commit and a group of underclassmen, Rhule had almost nothing going in his favor. But now, the team had time to develop into their roles.
“Rhule really started with a depleted roster and the scandal hanging over Baylor — that’s pretty tough to build from,” Werner said. “A lot of the guys who are playing really well today were freshmen or sophomores in 2017. And they were kind of forced to play. You know, they weren’t ready back then. But they’ve gotten a lot of experience. And now they’re good. So I think, you know, just the fact that those guys had to play in 2017 probably really contributed to this team.”
Hill agreed, believing that the 2019 team is built to become champions. The adversity Rhule faced showed his strength as a coach, which projected onto his players and changed the direction of the program.
“There’s just a grit in this team, and it starts at the top — it always does,” Hill said. “He doesn’t mind, you know, putting his hand in the dirt and just win in that way. […] Whereas before it was more like, well, ‘All we want is the ball last,’ and ‘We’re going to score. We’re going to score one more touchdown than you,’ now it’s, ‘We’re going to shut you out.’”
It’s worked out. On their 9-1 run, the Bears this season have racked up 33 sacks for 188 yards, average 34.9 points per game compared to opponents’ 20.5 and leads the Big 12 in scoring defense.
As Baylor prepares to enter a new decade, the future looks bright for their athletic teams. As football is back on the rise, Hill said if there’s one word to describe the program, it would be resilient.
“They’re not going away.” Hill said. “One of the things is, I don’t think fighters go away.”