By Michael Haag | Sports Editor
When Baylor football stopped Oklahoma State University on fourth down in 2021 winning a Big 12 Championship by mere inches, head coach Dave Aranda looked as if the game had just started. His facial expression and body language were nowhere close to joyous or celebratory. It was only stoic, composed and ready for what was next.
The same can be said from the Sugar Bowl, proven by his calm expression even while getting a Gatorade bath from his players.
Why wasn’t Aranda jumping up and down like all the other Baylor fans? The thing is, the former Louisiana State University defensive coordinator is not the outgoing college football coach the sport is so used to.
It all starts with Aranda’s approach. Since becoming head coach for Baylor, he has liked to keep the focus on other more
“It’s not about perfection,” Aranda said. “You have to move with imperfection, continue to move, continue to get better. That’s the goal for us: to keep your eyes on that and focus on what’s real. What’s real is what’s happening day-to-day in your locker room, in your weight room, in your cafeteria, how the team is handling each other or how they’re handling situations and all of it. Are we becoming a player-led team? Do we still need to be a coach-led team? [It’s important] to put the focus where the focus needs to be.”
Aranda puts a keen emphasis on things off the gridiron that are not commonly heard of, including a “person over player” culture.
“We talk about person over player,” sixth-year senior defensive lineman Cole Maxwell said. “I’ve dealt with a couple of injuries. When Aranda came in, it was good for me to have person over player. It’s not just about football. Even though I play football every single day, I think becoming a man and learning some of these things we talk about will help in the future.”
The Bears had success before Aranda. In 2019, they went 11-3 and made an appearance in both the Big 12 Championship Game and the Sugar Bowl. Even during that time, senior defensive lineman TJ Franklin said the culture was nothing like it is now.
“Before Coach Aranda, it was all smash-mouth football,” Franklin said. “Coach Aranda brought a really genuine feel to the team, called everybody to come together as a brotherhood — playing for each other and living for each other rather than being selfish.”
Now in his third year at the helm, Aranda is in his element and preaching how he wants his program to be. According to him, a successful team starts with authenticity from each and every player.
“I think for there to be enough trust and love, really, where guys make themselves available to each other,” Aranda said. “Whether you’re not pretending or performing or trying to be what you think a coach wants you to be or what you think a position group wants you to be, but for you to really be yourself. When you do have that feeling, to kind of put it out there under the lights and all of it, take the praise and the criticism and know that that’s what you did — that’s not who you are.”
That genuineness is something that has positively struck Aranda’s players.
“Coach Aranda has always been 100% real with me,” sophomore wide receiver Hal Presley said. “He’s the realest coach I’ve ever met.”
When Aranda joined the program in 2020, he didn’t have the smoothest start with the green and gold. The team went 2-7 in a shortened season that was obstructed by the pandemic.
It would have been easy for the team to be discouraged and not buy into what the new head coach was trying to build. However, sixth-year senior wideout Gavin Holmes said what Aranda preached spoke levels to the squad and thus led to future success.
“We all bought into Coach Aranda, and we all believed, we all believed in each other,” Holmes said. “We had great relationships on the team, with our coaches, and I think that’s just carried on to this year. And now, we can keep that tradition going.”
Even seventh-year quarterback Luke Anthony, who’s new to the program, sees the culture Aranda has built. Anthony transferred from Louisiana Tech University after spending three seasons with Abilene Christian University.
Anthony has been all over, but the 24-year-old said if he could do it all over again, Baylor would be his choice.
“They’ve established a great culture, and these guys have been awesome,” Anthony said. “I’ve told everyone this is the place that if I had the opportunity to play here the whole time, I would’ve never passed up to begin with. I think Coach Aranda’s done a great job cultivating a positive culture, and the guys really care about each other, and the coaches care about the players.”
The Dallas native said the positive environment is one of the reasons the Bears transitioned from a 2-7 finish to a 12-2 finish in just one year. He said the family-type bond makes it seamless for any player to fit in.
“I feel like that’s why this program’s made a huge leap in the last year, just based on what I’ve heard being around here a short time,” Anthony said. “I think guys just buy into that mission. Kind of less of just a ‘meat market’ and a little more like, ‘Hey, we care about you, and we’re going to make you the best player possible.’ It’s easy for guys to buy into that.”
Baylor hopes to utilize that bond in order to find success when it opens the season against the University of Albany. The contest is set for 6 p.m. Saturday at McLane Stadium and can be watched on Big 12 Now on ESPN+ or listened to via ESPN Central Texas 1660 AM radio.