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Baylor Athletics: An Unrivaled Golden Era

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Jan. 14, 2012


By Dave Campbell
Special to the Baylor Bear Insider

As the great novelist began his classic story about two cities, "It was the best of times, it was the . . ." But let us stop right there. This simply is the best of times for those who wear the green and gold of Baylor. No worst of times to it.

Consider the evidence:

In football, Baylor fans are still jubilant about the Bears' great quarterback Robert Griffin III winning the university's first-ever Heisman Trophy in December and then later in the month, in the historic old city of San Antonio, leading coach Art Briles' team to Baylor's first 10-victory season since 1980.

The Bears finished the regular season ranked 12th in the coaches' poll and 13th in The Associated Press voting. That's the highest they have finished in the AP poll since 1986 after knocking off Colorado, 21-9, in the Bluebonnet Bowl. That Cody Carlson team, 9-3 for the season, was 12th in the final AP voting and 13th in the coaches' poll.

Of more significance for Baylor fans because of the way the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) has grown in college football minds, the Bears went into the Alamo Bowl showdown with the University of Washington ranked 12th in the BCS.

And great things from that good-as-gold nugget could grow. Things like a knockout new football stadium for the Bears and a better harvest in recruiting, exciting things like that.

BUT THE SUPER GOOD tidings continue to spring up beyond football.

In basketball, both the Bears and Lady Bears are blowing the roof off expectations. Coach Kim Mulkey's women's team is No. 1 by a decisive margin in all the polls and boasting a 16-0 record after twice turning back No. 2-ranked challengers, first Notre Dame and then Connecticut. The Lady Bears also brought home a road victory over traditional powerhouse Tennessee.

The Lady Bears also finished strong in a 57-45 victory over Iowa State in Ames, where victories have been as scarce as those hen's teeth you often hear about.

Of course, this Baylor team is paced by 6-8 Brittney Griner, the almost-universally accepted No. 1 player in women's college basketball. Griner proved her prowess in Ames, scoring 26 points and devaluating an Iowa State defense that held the Lady Bears' superlative point guard, Odyssey Sims, to a mere two points. That is probably the last time Sims will be held to two points until the sun starts coming up in the west.

Question: How long has it been since Baylor athletics could feature the most acclaimed player both in football and women's basketball?

Answer: never.

And it is hardly stretching the picture to note that Sims also may be the best point guard in all of women's basketball. After Wednesday's 71-44 thrashing of Oklahoma State, Cowgirls' head man Jim Littell called Griner the best player on the planet, "And I'm not sure that they don't have the second-best player in the country with Odyssey Sims."

Regardless, Mulkey, a well-certified Hall of Fame coach (in Texas, Louisiana and nationally) herself, has plenty to go with Griner and Sims. Those include such well-established treasures as Nae-Nae Hayden, Jordan Madden, Destiny Williams and Brooklyn Pope, and there are other gifted athletes at Kim's beck and call who proved capable of winning this particular Baylor squad's first victory ever in Ames. As Mulkey keeps emphasizing to the disbelievers, "Life on the road is tough."

WHILE THE LADY BEARS picked up a big one on the road and then moved to 16-0 with a win over Oklahoma State two days ago, coach Scott Drew's unbeaten men's team did likewise, first in Lubbock, defeating Texas Tech, 73-60, and then stretching the No. 4-ranked Bears record to that same 16-0 with a 75-73 come-from-behind win over No. 18 Kansas State on Tuesday night in Manhattan.

This is the highest-ranked Baylor men's basketball team in history (exceeding last year's team, which at one time was ranked No. 9), and the first Baylor team ever to win its first 16 games.

Drew put it in a capsule for one and all with this fascinating mailout the other day:

"It's Baylor's World!

"Football, basketball teams since Nov. 1: 31-0 cumulative W-L; 6 wins over ranked opponents; 23.1 average margin of victory; 2 in-season tournament champions, 1 Heisman Trophy; 1 Alamo Bowl championship."

Wow. And after seven more victories, Drew now can make that a 38-0 cumulative W-L.

Impressive is hardly the word for it. As RG3 would say, "Unbelievably believable!"

What you should know by now is that Drew has the tallest and longest Baylor team in history -- Perry Jones at 6-11, Anthony Jones at 6-10, Quincy Miller and Cory Jefferson at 6-9, and Quincy Acy who is "only" 6-7 but plays much taller. Those are just the really tall Bears. And they are not merely really tall, they are also really talented.

But they would hardly be what they are without their twin zone-busters, those much shorter guards Pierre Jackson and Brady Heslip. They give the Bears what they didn't have last year, consistent scorers from 3-point land.

The best Baylor men's team of the modern age (since the late 1940s and early '50s, which is going back to different era)? We'll see. But you can take it from two former Baylor coaches, Carroll Dawson and Jim Haller, this is the "most talented" Baylor basketball team ever and never mind how tall they are.

I WAS STANDING in the press room at the Ferrell Center last week, before the start of the Lady Bears' blowout victory over Missouri, and Milton Cunningham asked me: "Did you ever think you would see Baylor have the best football player in the country, the best women's basketball player in the country and the best women's softball pitcher in the country, all at the same time?"

The answer, of course, is no. And neither has Cunningham, whose intimate knowledge of green and gold doings go way, way back.

But as the late humorist Irvin S. Cobb once said, "Until you go to Kentucky and with your own eyes see a Kentucky Derby, you ain't been nowhere and you ain't seen nothing yet."

The way this school year is going for Baylor athletics, maybe we truly ain't seen nothing yet.

Still, let us not get greedy.

On the other hand, what is out there challenging us and still legitimately within reach? How about a team national championship or two to go with the one Matt Knoll's men's tennis team won in 2004 and Mulkey's Lady Bears won in 2005?

And how about maybe getting the go-ahead for construction on that super-duper new football stadium being talked for the east side of the Brazos River, just across from the current Baylor athletic complex?

Wouldn't that package be just about the ultimate?

LAST WEEK I TALKED to Gale Galloway, co-captain with Stan Williams of Baylor's 1951 Orange Bowl team. "I remember how it was after we had lost to Rice at the end of the 1949 season. Coach Bob Woodruff told us, 'Boys, next season we're going to build you a new stadium.' A 50,000-seat stadium right there in Waco. We couldn't believe it. Baylor had been playing all those years in the old Muny Stadium (capacity was about 15,000). But they did build it and got it ready for the 1950 season and we played in it and had a great team," Galloway remembers.

Indeed, starting in 1950 the Bears in the next seven seasons, coached for six years by George Sauer and then by Sam Boyd, produced seasons of 7-3, 8-2-1, 4-4-2, 7-3, 7-4, 5-5 (injuries at quarterback and discipline problems wrecked the team) and 9-2, with the 1956 season culminating with a shocking upset of No. 2-ranked Tennessee in the Sugar Bowl. Over that span the Bears fielded teams that went to three bowls (there weren't nearly as many bowls then) and four teams that finished in the AP's Top 20, two of them in the Top 12.

During that 1948-56 era, Baylor baseball teams also finished second or third in the SWC seven times and men's basketball teams won the SWC title outright once and tied for the crown twice, and finished second nationally in 1948.

All in all, said Galloway, "that was our golden era. And I think now it's another golden era. I give Ian McCaw a lot of credit. He's done a marvelous job (as Baylor's director of athletics)."

(Incidentally, Galloway and I are in agreement where RG3 is concerned: "We've had some great quarterbacks in our time, but Griffin is the best," he said. "Adrian Burk was a great pocket passer. Don Trull was very good. I've always favored Larry Isbell, but I have to put Griffin ahead of Isbell because he's made more sacrifices, he's more committed than Larry was. But I have to say Stan Williams is very similar to Kendall Wright on this year's team. Stan was truly great."

THE SOFTBALL PLAYER Milton Cunningham was referring to was Whitney Canion, only a junior and already named a preseason third-team All-America. Canion pitched for the USA National Team during the summer after pitching the Lady Bears to a berth in last season's College World Series. They finished third in the World Series, winding up a 47-15 season.

The Lady Bears return all but two starters from that team. The returning cast not only includes Canion but also outfielder Kathy Shelton, "an all-around great athlete, also a third-team preseason All-America," said coach Glenn Moore. He doesn't claim Canion is the nation's best ("I'd say one of the three or four best"), but "I think we will have a very similar team this season, with more maturity and higher expectations. And we get all our pitchers back, including Liz Paul and Courtney Repka."

That's valuable information because softball fundamentally is a pitcher's game.

OF COURSE, IF YOU are a life-long tennis fan, as I am, you keep a close eye on Baylor tennis. Once again, this year will be a great time to keep a close eye on netters who swing for the green and gold.

Coach Matt Knoll's men's team goes into the 2012 season ranked No. 5 nationally and Joey Scrivano's Lady Bears are ranked No. 6. Both are coming off outstanding seasons -- outstanding, that is, for most college tennis teams but pretty much what Baylor fans have come to expect the Bears and Lady Bears to deliver each spring.

Such are the expectations that have taken root since Knoll took over what was a hopelessly down-and-out program more than a decade ago and rapidly brought it to full flower. One of the best things he did was hire Scrivano and turn the women's program over to him.

Knoll's Bears have won the Big 12 men's championship nine of the last 10 years, including last year, and they have finished in the Top Eight nationally for 10 years in a row. No other men's tennis team in the land has matched that record. Four times they have advanced to the Final Four, finishing with a national title in 2004 and their only loss the next season was in the championship match against UCLA.

Going back to 2003, Scrivano's teams have won eight Big 12 crowns, they have fought their way to the Final Four twice and three more times to the Final 8. And they go into the 2012 Big 12 season as the league's defending champion.

Talk about a Golden Era. . . .

Scrivano refuses to put in any claims on 2012. "We're a work in progress," he said early this week. But he does return his top three netters from last year "and they're all three Top 10-caliber players."

As for Knoll, "We're really excited. There's a great opportunity for us. We have five freshmen on the team, and we could start as many as four. And the good news is they're really good."

Better take the lock off that trophy case, Matt. You can do so while the construction guys are building Baylor's long-awaited indoor facility. "It will have six indoor courts, and we expect to break ground in March," said Knoll.

AS FOR THE OTHER spring sports, women's golf is stirring quite a bit of excitement with new coach Jay Goble, baseball is coming off a season where the Bears were one strike away from making it to the NCAA Super Regional, Baylor track and field still has tradition to spare, men's golf is said to be "very promising," and coach Ellen White's equestrian team won the Big 12 title in 2010, finished third nationally in hunter seat competition in 2011, and last fall beat Texas A&M and just about everyone else except Oklahoma State.

Why the outburst of fresh excitement about women's golf? "Coach Goble could have a very good team. They were ranked in the Top 20 all through the fall, and I believe they have the potential to make it to Nationals this year. He has one freshman who is really exceptional," said McCaw.

AND THAT TAKES US back to football, and recruiting, and where the Bears go from here, post-RG3.

Here's a brief look at Baylor's football future as provided by Art Briles: "We're a whole different level now after Robert's Heisman and the bowl victory. Our national brand is as high as it's ever been.

"What we plan to do is work harder to get better. I feel we made some positive strides defensively last season, and we're only losing three seniors on that side of the ball. Also, this will be our (defensive) players second year in the system. On special teams, everybody will be back and that's always a big deal."

And offensively, he said, "we're going to keep doing what we've been doing (and what they've been doing produced 67 points against Washington in the Alamo Bowl. That point avalanche was a new all-time record for bowl play, but the record lasted only five days. Future Big 12 member West Virginia then broke it in the Orange Bowl, embarrassing Clemson, 70-33.).

As for Baylor defensive coordinator Phil Bennett's view of the future, "We bit the bullet last season and redshirted some guys who could have helped us -- four guys up front, two linebackers, up to three in the secondary. Next season we'll have the numbers where we can substitute different packages. This season we couldn't. And right now we have at least two (recruits) already on campus who can help us."

All that, and February's recruiting harvest has yet to be announced. Sounds pretty golden, doesn't it?

EDITOR'S NOTE: Many thanks to former Baylor Bear Insider editor Dave Campbell for his wonderful perspective on the unparalleled recent success of Baylor Athletics.