Way back when I was in college, soon after the cooling of the earth’s crust, the always confident folks at the University of Texas (rivals in the region would use a different adjective) fired an interesting salvo at a key rival.
The marketers for the Tea Sippers created a burnt orange and white car window decal that simply said “The University.”
The message was clearly targeted at the humble Aggies over at Texas A&M University in their semi-military fortress. There was, you see, only one university of Texas and it was in Austin, not in College Station.
And in Waco?
While that hubbub lingered, someone at my alma mater had an interesting idea. They created a green-and-gold decal for the much smaller university on I-35 that said “Thee University.”
In other words, Baylor University answered to an authority even higher than the folks who ran higher education in the Lone Star State. That “thee” move was clever, since there was no way for Baylor people to deny that the school’s image was completely dominated by the fact that it was the world’s largest Baptist school. There was a reason that people liked to call Baylor — as a tribute, or with a touch of venom — “Jerusalem on the Brazos.”
After all, it’s hard to play truly Texas-worthy football when you’re a rather bookish Baptist school, the kind of place where just as many players, or more, frequent Bible studies as often as they do the local watering holes (ask for a Big O). Right?
Maybe not. Right now, the Baylor Bears are on a bit of a multi-year roll, riding the waves still rippling from that remarkable Heisman Trophy run (and pass) by Robert Griffin III, a church-going do-gooder who was as skilled in the classroom as on the gridiron.
So, how does anyone try to tell the Baylor story without mentioning the whole “Jerusalem on the Brazos” angle?
Ask the folks at ESPN.
To my shock, the world’s most powerful multi-media sports empire recently ran a lengthy piece on Baylor, Griffin and head football coach Art Briles without mentioning the word “Baptist” or the word “church.” How about “Christian”? How about “faith”? That would be “no” and “no.”
But what about the history and identity of the program?
What about The Miracle on the Brazos in 1974 (some of which I witnessed from the sidelines, with a student press pass)? There is this about the present and the past:
Briles calls it “instant name recognition.” Acknowledgment of a program quickly becoming one of college football’s coolest. A program on the cutting edge of blistering offense, big points and brash uniforms. A program Briles rebuilt — and RG III expedited — into a Big 12 title contender, perhaps perennially.“Our style of play, our mentality, our location, and then you throw in an icon like RG III in there,” Briles said. “Then being somewhere people look at as a great place to get a great education, and, oh by the way, them suckers play some good ball. I think that’s it. Throw in all those factors, and you have a chance to have a good football program.”
Before Briles and his star quarterback arrived, Baylor was anything but a good football program. In fact, it was a program in shambles.
Baylor was respectable during the 21-year era of Grant Teaff in the Southwest Conference. But after Teaff retired in 1992, Baylor fell into rapid decline.
It’s crucial to know that Teaff completely bought into Baylor’s Christian identity and sold that atmosphere as a plus, in Central Texas. Briles has done the same, in part because he can’t tell his own story without talking about the faith component. Click here for a classic example of that.
And what about athletic department director Ian McCaw, a strong Catholic who came to Baptist Baylor in part because of the emphasis on academics and faith? He’s in the ESPN story, too. Well, part of him is in the story.
And the players? Some of them have interesting stories to tell and for some of them — repeat, “some” — faith is a big part of what brought them to Baylor.
Take that Heisman Trophy candidate at tailback, the young man with the controversial Oregon University past and the promising future after returning to his Texas roots. His name is Lache Seastrunk and, in a recent feature story about him there was this interesting material:
Seastrunk agrees that his Oregon experience created “a little faith problem. But God is a giving God, and he just said, ‘Be patient, son. You’ve got to weather the storm to get to the sunlight.'”
THE GAME IS a sacrament. Before each one, Seastrunk gets down on both knees in the locker room and opens a vial of anointing oil his pastor gave him. He pours it on his legs for safety and his chest for fortitude and his forehead for clarity. He reads Good to Great in God’s Eyes and the Bible. He gives thanks for his renewed relationship with his mother and the acceptance of his teammates and the people at Baylor who took him in. The thoughts of gratitude inevitably take his mind back to the two years he couldn’t play, then ahead to this moment before he steps onto the field and turns word to action.
“People criticize me for setting my goals high,” he says. “Who are you to criticize? If I don’t have dreams, who am I? It’s in the Bible: If you don’t have dreams, you shall perish. If you speak it into existence, it will happen.”
The religion angle is not all of the Baylor story, of course. But it’s part of the story, for Seastrunk and for others.
You know that the team at ESPN knows that, because that earlier faith-friendly piece about Seastrunk ran where? ESPN.com.