Saturday, December 10, 2011

Heisman Eve or Why Baylor Fans Can Wait For Tomorrow

Robert Griffin III may win the Heisman Memorial Trophy tomorrow evening. As a proud Baylor University Alum, I'm over the moon about this and I almost can't decide whether I want the award ceremony to happen tomorrow at all. Everything is perfectly poised, ready to tip in the most unlikely, unexpected, and spectacular way imaginable for a Baylor football fan. It's our own little Christmas Eve and the excitement of the "what if" is too great a dream to even contemplate what it would be like if grandmother actually got us socks.

Baylor fans don't want this to just hurry up and happen. We can wait. Right now is just too delicious, too difficult to wrap our minds around, too much milk and honey after too much time in the wilderness. We kind of just want to sit here for a minute and take it all in. For the last few weeks, sports writers have been taking notice of Baylor football and RG3 and referencing this season as a shocking bolt from the blue engineered at the hands (and feet) of a once-in-a-program quarterback who quietly exploded onto the national stage. While that makes for a compelling lede, it ignores so much of what came before and on which this season was built.

I spent six years at Baylor as an undergraduate and graduate student beginning in 1998. During that time, Baylor went a combined 14 - 54 and were outscored 1,069 to 2,442. I was raised in the Austin, TX area and, although my father also went to Baylor, we were both University of Texas fans. I freely admit that the highlight of my 1998 college football season, as a Baylor freshman, was watching Ricky Williams break the NCAA rushing record en route to winning a Heisman Trophy for The University of Texas. I wasn't alone in this kind of traitorous allegiance. One of my friends on the soccer team was a huge Oklahoma fan. I had cheered for the Longhorns since I was a little kid. Why immediately switch allegiance when my new suitor gave me so little to be excited about? Plus, being a freshman on any university campus in your first semester is a little overwhelming. Not to mention one that was seemingly so antithetically suited to what I was all about at the time. I spent most of my days playing soccer, wondering why I couldn't get a girl to even throw a rock at me, and being generally antagonistic to all things Christian. And at Baylor, there are a lot of all things Christian. In short, I didn't feel plugged in. Baylor is just where I went to school.

But by the second semester I'd found an outlet. Maybe not the most traditional outlet, but a dyed in the wool, uniquely Baylor outlet, and an outlet nonetheless. There's an organization at Baylor called The NoZe Brotherhood. One of the central tenets of being a member in this group is that you remain anonymous and under no circumstance do you reveal your membership therein to anyone. This "central tenet" is adhered to on a sliding scale inversely proportional to the relative attractiveness of any/all members of the opposite sex who might be impressed by your membership in said group. Since I'm well outside Baylor's sphere of influence in both age and distance these days and I have no plans to run for public office, I'm not terribly concerned about revealing this bit of information.

I'm the naked one in the middle of the photo. 

The thing about The NoZe is, they love Baylor. They don't always show it in a way the administration finds palatable, but the pranks, and the articles, and the criticisms (and there are plenty, see: Marc Ellis) are all done because The NoZe Brotherhood genuinely cares about the university, couldn't exist without it, and, as students committed to getting an education there, want the university to be as good as it can be, both academically and on the playing field. These people are not the fringes of the Baylor student body. In fact, as much as the university would cringe to hear it, some of the students Baylor markets as its best and brightest - actors, lawyers, politicians, doctors, judges, musicians, scholars - were all NoZe Brothers. How I got in is still a mystery. No one voted for me.

To be a good NoZe Brother, you have to be plugged in to the university. You have to care enough about what's going on with the university athletically, socially, academically, and politically to write articles that are relevant and plan and execute pranks that are memorable. With so much time invested in caring about what was going on on campus, representing the university on the soccer field, and just settling in, it didn't take long before I felt a sense of ownership toward Baylor. This was my university. I stopped cheering for the Longhorns.

In my time at Baylor, The NoZe definitely lampooned the football team. We couldn't not do it. If you don't laugh, you'll cry...and there was plenty to laugh/cry about. In 1999, we went 1-10 and endured Kevin Steele's signature college football coaching moment when we tried to rush for a touchdown from UNLV's eight yard line up 24-21 with five seconds left on the clock. We fumbled in the end zone and a UNLV defensive back returned the ball 101 yards for a touchdown. We lost 27-24.

In 2000, we went 2-9 and endured three straight shutouts losing to Texas Tech 28-0, Texas A&M 24-0, and Nebraska 59-0.

In 2001, we lost to Southern Illinois 56-12 to cap off a 3-8 season...that's Southern Illinois!

In 2002, we were shut out four times. New Mexico 23-0, Texas A&M 41-0, Colorado 34-0, and Texas 41-0.

In 2003, Guy Morriss took over as head coach, finally putting Baylor out of  Kevin Steele's misery. Morriss seemed destined to be a perfect fit as Baylor's coach after the Kentucky/LSU premature Gatorade bath of 2002. It was Kevin Steelesque and the kind of thing that couldn't help but be associated with Baylor football. Morriss is a genuine football guy with all the bonafides to make a good coach, but recruiting in Texas against the likes of Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Texas, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, and any other college program licking its chops to mine the most talented football state in the country was just a bridge too far. Texas A&M beat us 73-10. And if that wasn't bad enough, The University of North Texas beat us 52-14. Find UNT on a map. I'll wait.

Still, there were just enough "if only" moments to keep a Baylor fan's sad, flickering flame of hope alight. In 2001, myself and the rest of the soccer team listened intently to the radio in one of our team vans as Greg Cicero put in a gutsy performance on a windy day against the Aggies at Kyle Field. We lost 16-10, but it was respectable. Hell, even before that game, Greg Cicero, a one time University of Texas recruit, filled Baylor fans' hearts with expectation when he transferred from UT to be our quarterback. He was a solid guy and his roommate Guy Tomchek, another Baylor quarterback, was a solid guy too (See what I did there?),  but being a solid guy and being a solid quarterback are not necessarily mutually inclusive.

Gary Baxter was a standout defensive back who shut down Roy Williams in Austin one Saturday and was a second round draft pick by the Baltimore Ravens. Unfortunately, there are ten other defensive positions on the field and Gary Baxter couldn't play all of them, although The NoZe Brotherhood suggested it. Reggie Newhouse, in spite of having God-knows-who at quarterback for his entire Baylor career had over 1,000 yards receiving in 2002 and had six 100 yard receiving games that season.

In 2002, we beat Kansas to open Big XII play...but then lost all of our remaining games. In 2003, we beat Colorado to open Big XII play...but then lost all of our remaining games. Rashad Armstrong rushed for 1,074 yards and six touchdowns that season though. That's something, right?

I left Baylor just before the fall semester of 2004 to move on to the adult phase of my life (i.e. not running around a university campus drinking beer and wearing Groucho Marx glasses and a wig), but I still followed Baylor football, returned for Homecoming, and found myself more than willing to defend Baylor and Baylor football when confronted by the Red Raiders, Aggies, Longhorns, Sooners, and Cowboys who run feral across Texas outside of the Baylor Bubble. And for a brief flash, I was armed with a few more weapons to defend myself.

Players like Shawn Bell, Dominique Zeigler, Trent Shelton, Joe Pawelek, Daniel Sepulveda, C.J. Wilson and Colin Allred were the kinds of hardworking, under-recruited players Grant Teaff had coached up to make Baylor a solid and respected football program (Side note: if this new stadium gets built and it doesn't somehow bear Grant Teaff's name, someone is going to have a lot of explaining to do). There was the double overtime win against the #16 Aggies in 2004 and a five win 2005 season in which we lost to Oklahoma in double overtime in Norman. Dominique Zeigler went off in that game and made a catch on a deep ball that I'm still trying to wrap my mind around. We were making strides. Bears were getting drafted and signing NFL contracts. Daniel Sepulveda won the Ray Guy award...twice! I didn't care that our punter was our most hyped player and neither did any other Baylor fan. He was a Bear, dammit! And he could do this.

Then in 2007 the wheels fell off, we went 3-9, and didn't win a Big XII game. Let's be honest, we were already driving on rims.

Exit Guy Morriss.

Enter Art Briles.

I can't not like Art Briles. He coached some relative of mine (I'm not sure of the cousin rules...twice removed...second...distant...whatever) at Stephenville, coached at my high school (waaaaaay before my time), and sounds just about as Texan as you can get without sounding unauthentic. Those appear to be inconsequential qualities when you're tasked with rebuilding a program that has violently resisted being rebuilt, Baylor in 2008 was sort of the Afghanistan of college football, but those are precisely the qualities that have allowed him to attract, improve, and retain players like RG3, Kendall Wright, Terrance Ganaway, Terrance Williams, Danny Watkins, Phil Taylor, Ahmad Dixon, Lache Seastrunk, David Gettis, Jason Smith, Elliot Coffey, Philip Blake, and J.D. Walton.

There's just something about Briles that makes you want to play for him, and not because you're scared of him *cough* Gary Patterson *cough*, but because you believe in what he says and you don't want to let him down. I remember listening to Grant Teaff speak at a luncheon I was invited to as a grad student. One of my buddies from the soccer team was there with me and when Teaff finished his speech, we both  stood to applaud but did so hopping from foot to foot because we were ready to go run through a brick wall for the guy. Briles has that quality and instills belief where others see only reasons to doubt. I remember Briles, in his first season at Baylor, saying something along the lines of, "Baylor fans will get behind Baylor football when we give them a reason to." It was an honest assessment of Baylor football in recent years, but it also pointed a way forward for a program that had been adrift and searching for excuses. Everything will take care of itself when we start winning. Let's start winning. Vintage Briles. He brought in guys like RG3 who are supremely confident, march to a slightly different beat, exude positivity, and wanted to be the start of something.

That start was not without its bumps as Baylor won only four games in each of Art Briles' first two seasons at the helm and RG3 missed an entire season with an ACL tear. But then there was a 7-6 season and Baylor's first bowl bid since I was in junior high. I sat in a bar in Washington, DC the night before my first marathon and sacrificed my finishing time goal to watch the Bears beat the University of Texas in Austin. I yelled and high-fived strangers. The week before, I was at Homecoming in Waco with my dad watching a Baylor football game together live for the first time since I was in elementary school. We beat Kansas State to become bowl eligible and my dad rediscovered his affinity for Baylor football for the first time since Grant Teaff was fired. For the New Year I drove from Indianapolis to Houston to share a suite in Reliant Stadium with a bunch of other NoZe Brothers and watch Baylor play Illinois in the Texas Bowl. Remember, just a few years earlier we had lost to Southern Illinois in the last game of the season to go 3-8. This was quite a change, the start of hope growing into anticipation and excitement.    

The college football public is just sitting up and taking notice of that start, but for my money, it's four years late. RG3 has looked like a thoroughbred class act since he stepped on campus, won the Big XII 400m hurdles, and did that little stutter step juke move on the sideline of the Wake Forest game in 2008. Add to that humility, humor, academic excellence, and the quiet confidence that comes from knowing there's a world out there beyond football. Watching Robert Griffin III win the Davey O'Brien award last night was telling. It's not that he was nonplussed or expected to win it, but that he didn't seem awed by the moment or affected in the way one might expect of superstar 21 year old athletes. It's a prestigious award and he was clearly appreciative, but there's a quality of aloof confidence about him that showed in  his acceptance of the trophy and that he's shown throughout his Baylor career. For the last few seasons, gliding into the huddle with the game on the line, Griffin might as well have been wearing a sign that says, "I got this."

Briles and RG3 have been the college football version of Obi-Wan Kenobi and Luke Skywalker ("Return of the Jedi" Luke Skywalker, not "A New Hope" Luke Skywalker) and if Griffin wins the Heisman tomorrow night it'll be sort of like that last scene in "Return of the Jedi" when The Death Star blows up and all the Ewoks absolutely lose their shit. They're a type of bear, right? For now though, the anticipation is just too perfect. For Baylor fans who love and are proud of their university, this has been a long time coming. This isn't the Griffin to Williams touchdown pass to beat Oklahoma on national television. It's the 21 point, untelevised comeback against Kansas as described by the insufferable, obnoxious, glad-handing, clueless, water-boy-all-grown-up, Voice of the Bears, John Morris. It's the culmination of everything that came before it. It's the work of the players who did what they could in the lean years between Teaff and Briles. It's the Baylor fans who sat in Floyd Casey Stadium at games against Texas, Oklahoma, and Texas A&M when it seemed like there was more maroon, burnt orange, and crimson in the stands than there was green and gold. Rather than a bolt from the blue, Baylor's recent success, RG3's ascendency, and Briles' stewardship of the program are the opening pages in a chapter of what has, until this point, been a very cumbersome book to read, but one that had to be read to get where we are now.

We're finally to the good part. Let us enjoy it for a few moments.



That Bitch said...

Great post... And reminds me how crazy it is that just a year ago I wrote one of the last lines of this post ( while giving no credence to the possibility of "embarrassing football" no longer being one of our trademarks a mere 14 months later. Reveling... And enjoying every second.

hoop_er said...

I've read dozens upon dozens of articles/columns/posts on Baylor Football the past few weeks and this is by far the best. thank you for putting into words what so many of us are feeling. Sic 'em.

Pancho said...

Thanks, guys! This really has been an awesome season. Please feel free to share the post with any other Bears who might get a kick out of it and thank you so much for reading!!!

JDC said...

Love this! I remember my friends and I watching Baxter play, back in college. Every time he made a big play the girls in our group would cheer, "It's Baxter!" and start singing the song from the Meow Mix commercials. We never missed a home/televised game and each carried bottles of Dublin Dr. Pepper, which we weren't allowed to drink unless we won.

Pancho said...

JDC, after tonight you can chug all the Dublin Dr. Pepper you want!