Baylor University’s Remarkable Rise of Redemption

Baylor University

Buddy Jones wakes up almost every morning singing “Amazing Grace.” He can’t help himself.

Jones,
the board chairman of the Baylor University regents, is in constant awe
of all the great things his school is experiencing these days.

Pictured: In
this photo provided by Baylor Marketing & Communications, Baylor’s
Brittney Griner, center, dunks over Florida’s Azania Stewart, left, and
teammate Jennifer George. 


Only a few months
after quarterback Robert Griffin III became Baylor’s first Heisman
Trophy winner, the men’s basketball team is in the NCAA round of 16 for
the second time in three years. So are coach Kim Mulkey’s top-ranked
Lady Bears, undefeated and four wins from a national championship that
would make them the first 40-win team in the history of NCAA Division I
basketball.

“Baptists talk a lot about
redemption and Baylor University was redeemed two summers in a row, from
what looked to me to be a surefire, at least near-death experience,
maybe death completely,” Jones said. “Because of hard work, and good
fortune and the way things worked out, we were given a stay of execution
and we hopefully have begun making the most of it.”

If that sounds like overstating things, consider the facts.

Jones
and other Baylor officials spent much of their last two summers
lobbying just to make sure the Big 12’s smallest and only private
university didn’t find itself without a spot in a major athletic
conference – a situation that would have been devastating not just to
prestige but to the bottom line. The league was teetering on the brink
of collapse amid speculation of potential super conferences and the
departure of four schools.

Yet, the story goes
much deeper for the world’s largest Baptist university, making the
culmination of all this success even more remarkable.

“It’s
almost of epic proportion,” said Bob Beaudine, whose executive search
firm brought men’s basketball coach Scott Drew and athletic director Ian
McCaw to Baylor nearly nine years ago in the aftermath of a tragic
scandal that shook college sports like nothing before.

In
the summer of 2003, basketball player Patrick Dennehy was found shot to
death after he had been missing for six weeks. Teammate Carlton Dotson
pleaded guilty to murder. The ensuing investigation uncovered NCAA
violations, illegal tuition payments and unreported failed drug tests
that led to the resignation of coach Dave Bliss, who was secretly
recorded by an assistant coach of trying to persuade others to cover up
misdeeds by portraying Dennehy as a drug dealer.

Drew
inherited a roster decimated by the departure of the three top scorers,
who left under relaxed transfer rules. There were school-imposed
sanctions reducing scholarships and recruiting visits, and the NCAA
limited the Bears to playing only conference games in his third season.

With
three NCAA tournament appearances the past five years, an NIT
championship game in that span and already a school-record 29 wins this
season, many of those bad memories are quickly fading away. The Bears
play Xavier on Friday night in Atlanta.

“You
don’t hear Baylor and think of that whole episode anymore. You think of
RG3, Brittney Griner and this guy right here (potential NBA lottery pick
Perry Jones III),” senior forward Quincy Acy said. “It’s going to take
time to completely erase it and for us to become a complete powerhouse,
but I think we’re headed in the right direction.”

Ah, yes. Griffin and Griner, the 6-foot-8 junior phenom.

Griner,
the only women’s college player who is a U.S. Olympic team finalist,
helped lead the Lady Bears to the NCAA Final Four as a freshman and a
regional final last year before losing to Texas A&M, the eventual
national champion they had already beaten three times.

“It’s
just a great time to be a Bear right now,” said Griner, who became only
the second woman to dunk in an NCAA game during Tuesday night’s win
over Florida. “On campus, everybody is really excited. The community,
fellow classmates, everybody’s behind us.”

All
of Baylor’s sports teams, men and women, have qualified for the
postseason so far this academic year, and the 400-plus athletes on
campus had a combined 3.16 GPA last fall.

Griffin,
who got his political science degree in three years, set or tied 54
school records in 41 games and then went out and charmed everyone at the
NFL scouting combine without throwing a pass. The dual-threat
quarterback led the Bears to only the second 10-win season in their 112
years of football. They had never even had a winning record in the Big
12 before RG3 arrived with coach Art Briles.

The
Washington Redskins traded three first-round picks and a second-rounder
to St. Louis for the No. 2 overall pick in next month’s NFL draft.
That’s presumably to select Griffin since the Indianapolis Colts, now
without Peyton Manning, are expected to take Heisman runner-up Andrew
Luck from Stanford first overall.

Baylor
President Ken Starr – yes, the former independent prosecutor best known
for his investigation into the Clinton White House and the Monica
Lewinsky scandal – believes athletics provide a voice through which the
university speaks to the entire world.

“I’m so
proud of the way our athletes use their God-given gifts coupled with
their very hard work to bring great joy and pride to all of Baylor
nation,” Starr said. “The voice of Baylor athletics is quite eloquent
right now.”

While hard to determine the true impact of athletic success on freshman applications, the numbers have drastically increased.

There
are more than 40,000 applications for the upcoming fall semester for
only about 3,000 freshman spots. That’s up from 15,458 applicants for
the Fall 2005 class, right after the Lady Bears won their first national
title. Average SAT and ACT scores for incoming freshmen also have
significantly increased during that time.

“I
think our national championship erased a lot of negative publicity from
what had happened with men’s basketball,” Mulkey said. “I think timing
in all of our lives is so important – the timing of me leaving Louisiana
Tech to go to Baylor, the timing of when we won the national
championship, the timing of the Heisman Trophy and men’s basketball
doing well and women’s basketball.”

More than
$250 million in new athletic and academic facilities have been added in
the past decade to the campus that’s home to about 15,000 students in
Central Texas. Another $120 million in capital improvements are under
way. The Bear Foundation, the primary fundraising arm supporting the
school’s 19 athletic programs, contributed nearly $7.7 million for
scholarship support during the 2010-11 academic year. It was the seventh
consecutive year with a record total.

There
are also plans for a new campus football stadium, just off Interstate 35
along the banks of the Brazos River in the city of about 120,000
people. The family of former Houston Astros owner Drayton McLane Jr., a
1958 Baylor grad and former regents chairman, recently gave the school
the largest capital gift ever – more than $20 million – for the stadium
the school hopes to have for the 2014 season.

“(The
stadium) has been the talk of the town. Robert Griffin had a great
year, and that got things rolling, and the basketball is continuing. You
need good news, and this is good economic news for Waco,” said Sammy
Citrano, owner of the two George’s restaurants known for their big
chicken fried steaks. “I’ve been here 26 years and this is a great
feeling.”

Bliss has since shared his testimony
and counseled young coaches, telling them he allowed the competitive
world of college athletics to compromise his beliefs. He still gets
calls with questions about what happened, usually when the Bears are
having the kind of success that puts that dreadful time even further
behind them.

“I try to make it as positive for
Baylor as I can, because I put them through enough,” said Bliss, now
coach, athletic director and dean of students at Allen Academy, which
serves nearly 300 students in kindergarten through 12th grade near Texas
A&M.

“I chose to go to Baylor because I
wanted to help be part of the solution, and the aspect of what they have
accomplished doesn’t surprise me because I think I saw a lot of the
great things that were possible there,” Bliss said. “I’m obviously
thrilled for what they’re accomplishing, and the way they’re
accomplishing it.”

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