By DJ Ramirez, Matthew Soderberg and Drake Toll | Sports Editor, Sports Writer and Broadcast Reporter
In just one decade, Baylor athletics has risen from the wallows of mediocrity to the peak of athletic achievement. From five acrobatics and tumbling national championships to two women’s basketball national titles and even a Heisman Trophy winner, every program has seen unprecedented success in the last decade.
Voices of the Bears
While most Bears fans are constrained to observing the success from bleachers and TV screens, a few lucky Bear insiders have had a front-row seat to both the highs and lows of the past 10 years. John Morris, Jerry Hill and Brice Cherry are three of those lucky ones. Each has worked as close to Baylor’s golden era as anyone. They have watched it unfold before the eyes of the world and witnessed firsthand all of the unexpected twists and turns.
Morris, the signature “Voice of the Bears,” has been with the university for over 30 years and covered more than a dozen sports since arriving. Morris is a Baylor guy to the core, and, as the assistant director for broadcasting, he’s seen it all.
“I mean, I love it,” Morris said while reclined in his office filled with Baylor memorabilia. “I love doing the games, win or lose, because this is my school. I went to Baylor. I graduated from here, and I love representing Baylor in this way.”
In a similar way, Jerry Hill, the director of sports journalism for Baylor athletics, hasn’t missed a beat. Hill has covered the rollercoaster ride of the last decade from multiple angles. Hill was hired by the university to be the Baylor Bear Insider in 2008 and has been in charge of writing Baylor-endorsed sports recaps ever since.
Brice Cherry adds another angle, coming into the picture as the sports editor of the local paper, the Waco Tribune-Herald. He’s covered a majority of Baylor sports since 2008, when the climb began.
Football Sparks Resurgence
The turn of the decade was an ideal time for Morris, Hill and Cherry to cover Baylor sports considering the Bears’ football drought was ending, and ending dramatically. Other sports were winning at the time, but football is the flagship program of collegiate athletics, especially in Texas. And Baylor football, for a long time, had been seen as a joke — that is until Art Briles walked in the door and brought revival in the form of a quarterback like Baylor had never seen.
Across the decade there have been many stars in the constellation of Baylor’s athletic successes — from Brittney Griner to Johnathan Motley to Bryce Petty, among others — but the rise to the top began to click with a kid from Copperas Cove named Robert Griffin III.
“There was a lot of excitement with [RGIII] and just the way he came on, and you could see immediately … that he could make a big difference,” Hill said.
With an offense tailored around RGIII and Kendall Wright, the Bears began to win game after game — which was new. In 2010, Baylor returned to postseason play and prepared the program for a great awakening. The Bears dominated a record-setting 2011 with the first 10-win season since 1986 and their first Heisman trophy winner in Griffin.
“Before Briles arrived and before RGIII got here, that would have been like foreign concept for Baylor football,” Cherry said. “And even as it happened, I think a lot of people were still just so caught up in, ‘This is unbelievable’… that this happened at Baylor.”
Building off the momentum of the 2011 football season, Baylor athletics embarked on what is now known as the Year of the Bear Baylor garnered two national championships, two national players of the year, three Big 12 championships and each of the 19 athletic programs made a postseason appearance.
“The Year of the Bear, we called 2011-2012,” Morris said. “That year when we had more success than any school in the country. Every sport was so good. Every sport was playing at a really high level, conference championship, threatening for national championship level.”
Over the course of the season, Baylor broke a national record for combined wins between the four major sports (football, men’s basketball, women’s basketball and baseball) with an overall finish of 129-28. The Bears dominated a stretch between Nov. 1, 2011, and Jan. 16, 2012, where football and men’s and women’s basketball combined for an NCAA record 40 straight wins.
“It did feel like one season just kind of bled into the next,” Cherry said. “I do feel like there was this idea, espoused by [former athletic director] Ian [McCaw] that, ‘We want to be good in everything.’”
At the close of the year, Baylor athletics took a hit when RGIII left early. With a year of eligibility remaining, Griffin declared for the NFL draft and was the second pick of the first round by the Washington Redskins in 2012.
“The thinking was, and maybe even internally, but certainly outside was ‘OK, they had their guy … Baylor will go back to where Baylor is supposed to be,’” Hill said.
They didn’t go back. Football followed up RGIII’s departure with five-straight bowl appearances and two Big 12 titles, and each program continued to steamroll. Men’s and women’s basketball combined for 12 postseason appearances in seven years, with two women’s titles. Soccer and volleyball have each made four postseasons and baseball won their first Big 12 Tournament title. The turn in sports culture goes as far as the acro and tumbling team who had been in the doldrums of the ACTA before Felecia Mulkey showed up to town.
“It was unbelievable … you’re winning a national championship with a lot of the other coach’s recruits, so that was fun to see,” Hill said. “You knew she had won at Oregon, but you had no idea she’d be able to do it that quickly here.”
Fall from Grace
But what goes up must come down, and Baylor fell into an ugly spiral of sexual assault allegations and lawsuits that rocked the university. Many of the allegations revolved around the once heralded football coach, Art Briles, and his football program.
According to Cherry, everyone knew that Briles was the kind of guy to take risks and give second chances. The culture around Baylor football had become rooted in a “win at all costs mentality.”
“Specifically speaking from a football perspective here, I think winning got to be intoxicating for Baylor, and Briles was right at the head of that,” Cherry said.
Briles was fired in late May of 2016, and soon after that, McCaw handed in his resignation and the university’s president, Ken Starr, was also fired. The scandal presented a major culture shift, not only within the football program, or even just the athletic program, but throughout the entire university.
“With what we went through, that’ll shake you to your core,” Morris said. “We had a lot of good people here that got caught up in that, and kind of that tidal wave of cleaning house. And it’s a shame that we lost some of those people because they are really good … but it was part of it. And it just showed that we were committed to doing whatever it took to make sure things were clean.”
Attacking the Watchdog
With Baylor under fire, the rest of Waco was under the spotlight as well, and that included the local media. Local newspapers and stations came under heat for missing the signs of what the players and people associated with Baylor had been accused of.
While Cherry believed that local media could have handled the scandal better, the aftermath led to news outlets in the area re-evaluating how they covered Baylor.
“In response to that, we doubled down a little bit in terms of, ‘we can’t let anything get past us now,’” Cherry said. “I thought a lot of the criticism was unfair because we have never looked at ourselves as Baylor cheerleaders or Baylor haters. We’ve just looked at ourselves as impartial journalists who try to follow the story and be fair. And I think we had been doing that, but there were things that just slipped through.”
Since then Baylor, the Waco Tribune and the rest of the local media have been devoted to being more vigilant.
“People know now what Baylor stands for more than any time in the past,” Morris said. “It’s a safe place to come — safer than probably any school in the country to come to. It was tough to go through, but kind of like the old ‘iron sharpens iron,’ you go through it, and maybe you’re better coming out of it than we were going into it.”
In the aftermath of the scandal, Baylor rebranded almost entirely. Dr. Linda Livingstone was named the new university president and Mack Rhoades filled the position of athletic director.
With the football program becoming a pile of rubble to resurrect, Rhoades brought in a 21-year coaching veteran from New York City who had just wrapped up his fourth year at mid-major Temple University.
“Mack went out and got a guy that nobody had heard of, you know. I had no clue who Matt Rhule was,” Hill said. “But he was looking for a specific type of guy … I think they’re looking for those coaches that can make an impact on not just wins, and that’s the big thing because that’s what keeps them here. But I think they do look for coaches that can make a difference … preparing champions for life.”
Rhule began to put the pieces back together, caring more about sticking to the process of developing his young team on and off the field. That mentality has translated to wins in the football and life columns.
According to Hill, you can see the changes in coaching through the athletes. They aren’t as cocky anymore, and they’re more “laser-focused” on the next opponent.
“[Senior linebacker] Jordan Williams talks about it. I mean, he hears [Rhule] in his sleep,” Hill said. “These guys, it’s ingrained in them. So yeah, I think there is a little bit of a difference. There’s probably a little bit more of a humility with these guys.”
There hasn’t been enough time to truly put the past behind just yet, but in just three years, Rhule and his staff have turned the remains of Baylor football into a postseason contender once again.
“I think that because of the scandal that Baylor is always going to have, for a while at least, have a microscope on it,” Cherry said. “I think Matt Rhule takes the idea of building up the man as much as the player very seriously. And that’s good. That’s good to see.”
Wouldn’t Want to be Anywhere Else
The past 10 years have certainly been a rollercoaster for Baylor’s sports teams and for the journalists that have had the privilege of covering them. But more than just being witness to the winning and losing, as well as the grizzly underbelly of college athletics, these three men have fallen in love with Baylor over the last 10 years.
“There’s no way you could say that there’s been a better decade than this. It’s been the best decade overall,” Hill said.
According to Cherry, it was a decade that surprised a lot of people.
“We’re not fans, but we felt the excitement just like everybody else did because it was unbelievable, and it was a breakthrough. And the buzz around town — everybody was just walking on air. It was incredible,” Cherry noted.
“We have things in place here that are going to make whoever the student athlete is, whatever the sport, a better person and help them to grow in every aspect,” Morris added. “Athletically, yes, but also academically, socially, spiritually — in all those ways. We have things in place here that are unbelievable … There is no place better than Baylor.”