Grantland gets the ghosts in the Baylor football saga

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Regular readers will know that I have been arguing, for quite some time now, that it’s hard to believe that anyone would try to write the story of the Baylor Bears football team, and the story of Head Coach Art Briles in particular, without getting into all of that Baptist stuff. How do you not even mention the faith angle woven into the fabric of this particular educational institution?

Well, the long-read pros at the ESPN.com feature site, Grantland, clearly decided to end that journalistic losing streak.

I am sure, however, that they thought the heavily favored Bears would win that last game. It’s sad but they didn’t (at least sad for a Baylor alum like me), but that upset is almost beside the point after the Big 12 championship and the symbolic changes represented by Baylor’s new on-campus stadium and extended contract for Briles. The double-stack headline had lots of ground to cover:

Can God Save Baylor?

The lovable losers of the Fiesta Bowl

The key to this fine Grantland news feature, by scribe Bryan Curtis, is that the faith element never detracts from the football facts. The Baptist identity is shown to be what is really is — both a challenge to the success of the program and a potential source of its strength, with the right mix of players and coaches.

The here’s the current question: How did Baylor become cool, all of a sudden? How did the relatively small Baptist school end up winning, or even holding its own, in a major conference in the whole big TV/BCS era?

Safety Ahmad Dixon was asked earlier this year if Baylor could win the Big 12. Baylor hadn’t won an outright conference title in 22 years. Dixon looked at the reporter and replied, “Can God save a hooker?”

That gets us closer. Because what’s cool about Baylor isn’t what’s new. It’s what’s quaint and old-fashioned. This is the campus where dancing was prohibited until 1996, a decree that led to the immortal Gary Cartwright line, “Baylor fans did not make love standing up, lest God mistake the act for dancing.”

Briles hasn’t erased that past. In the age of Rivals rankings, he has slyly embraced it. The new Baylor shows how you can marry religion with athletics without committing blasphemy against either of them. It shows how a religious school can be a football school and also a religious school.

And how it can be a normal school, at times, too.

The alum in me (I actually helped cover, as a Baylor Lariat reporter, the 1974 “Miracle on the Brazos” championship team) truly appreciated the fact that the story recognized that Baylor teams have always included their share of party-hearty, non-Bible study types. Check out this nice passage, featuring the voice of linebacker Doak Field, a team leader the late 1970s and on the 1980 Southwest Conference championship team:

The ’80 Baylor team was cool. It had players called Radar Holt (“Just get it close and he’ll catch it”) and Ice Cube McNeil. But it also had a streak of old-school, hard-ass Texanness. The defensive coordinator was Corky Nelson. Nelson would run his defense into shape while the offense watched in amazement. When the two squads met after practice in the cafeteria, they would often have to be pulled apart.

“All of these things you’d never think would happen at the largest Baptist university in the world,” Field said. “But I don’t think we could have competed if we ‘turned the other cheek.’”

Speaking of which … “There were on-campus revivals,” said Field. “I’m talking about the old tent revivals that would pop up every semester. You’d be invited to those, but nobody twisted your arm. There would be guys that came by from time to time that wanted to witness to you.” They soon learned they had better odds of sharing the good news if they avoided the athletic dorm.

After all, if people really wanted sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, it wasn’t that far to Austin.

This story isn’t perfect. For example, there is plenty of discussion of the on-the-field excellence of linebacker legend Mike Singletary, who was THE MAN on that 1980 team. But how do you cover that unique player without covering his role as a spiritual leader and as an academic force?

Ditto, of course, for Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III many years later.

In the end, the faith and the football have to mesh. Thus, this crucial section on Briles:

Briles was hired by Baylor in 2008 to win football games. But he made several gestures to the school’s evangelical mission. It was well known within the state’s Fellowship of Christian Athletes chapters that Briles had a team chaplain when he coached at the University of Houston, a public school. He hired another chaplain at Baylor. On Sundays, Briles sits in the back row of Columbus Avenue Baptist Church in Waco. When the service ends, he is known to sprint out the door faster than Tevin Reese.

There is no litmus test for recruits, of course. …. But (quarterback Bryce) Petty, linebacker Eddie Lackey, and offensive lineman Spencer Drango are regulars at the Fellowship of Christian Athletes meetings held on campus every other Monday. Levi Norwood, a wide receiver, was recently asked by FCA Magazine, “Considering your relationship with Christ, what does it mean to relentlessly pursue Him?”

“Relentlessly pursuing Christ is never letting anything stop you,” Norwood replied. “That goes for me on the playing field and in my walk with Christ. Even if I get tackled or make a mistake, I must get up and keep pursuing my goal.”

There are many other players who could be added to that section of the story.

The story would have been more fun to write, with a Fiesta Bowl win, but the Baylor bread and butter made it into the text, good and the bad, the faith and the football. Read it all.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.


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