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:

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Baylor’s Art Briles: Diehard Texan and what else?

Try to imagine national-level journalists writing about how a coach does or does not fit into the culture of Notre Dame University without mentioning Catholicism.

Try to imagine sportswriters writing about how a coach does or does not fit into the culture of Brigham Young University without mentioning the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Now try to imagine sportswriters writing about how a coach does or does not fit into the culture of Baylor University without mentioning the fact that it is the largest Baptist academic institution on the world? Without mentioning whether or not the coach is a man of faith?

What if the coach in question was a man whose life pivoted around a tragic, soul-crushing event in which, as a young man, he lost both of his parents in a tragic car crash as they were driving to see him play? What about it, ESPN?

What if the man in question — in the midst of an amazing Big 12 championship season that could make him the national coach of the year — also lost his beloved brother in yet another tragic accident?

Would it be possible for journalists in yet another national-level newsroom to skip the religious element of that story?

Well, Washington Post folks, what about it?

It appears that Briles veered onto the elite radar at the Post, in large part, because of his more-than-a-mentor relationship with Robert Griffin III and a rumor, that lasted for a few days, that the professional football team in Washington, D.C., might want to pull him inside the Beltway as a head coach.

Thus the Post team dedicated nearly 2,300 words to Briles the other day in a long and very ordinary football-coach profile.

That’s a lot of ink.

So what did the Post editors decide is the crucial element of the Briles story, the main reason that he is such a great fit for Baylor and its unique cultural and educational challenges?

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That holy ghost in Baylor head coach’s guilt and grief

Right now, Baylor University coach Art Briles is one of the hottest leaders in college football, the creator of the hottest offense in around. Last night, the No. 6 Bears clawed the No. 10 Oklahoma Sooners to the tune of 41-12, even while losing three of their top four players on offense to injuries of various kinds.

Yes, I am a Baylor alum, one who a decade-plus ago thought my alma mater faced certain gridiron doom if it stayed in the Big 12.

Crazy things are happening. GetReligion readers who follow sports will have noticed that.

Meanwhile, what can we make of ESPN’s important story about the amazing personal story behind Briles and his work? This feature includes some fine work, even if — surprise, surprise — it offers no major insights into the obvious faith issues at the heart of this story.

So what is the heart of this story of God, grief and eventual glory (in terms of success on the field)?

The first act of the drama is, of course, right at the top where it should be.

WACO, Texas – Reminders of the worst day of Baylor coach Art Briles’ life come every year like clockwork. There are a few dates on the calendar — his parents’ birthdays, their wedding day, holidays and, of course, the anniversary of their tragic deaths — that tug the painful memories from the back of his mind.

Briles, 57, has never forgotten how much his life changed on Oct. 16, 1976. Nearly four decades later, the deep emotional wounds still fester because he never allowed them to heal. How could they? Briles still shoulders much of the blame for the deaths of his parents, Dennis and Wanda, and his beloved aunt, Elsie “Tottie” Kittley, who was more like a grandmother to him.

“I think about them every day, every second,” Briles said, while sitting in his dark office last month. “I can sit here right now and know that tomorrow is the anniversary of it. It never leaves you.”

It was a car wreck on a Texas highway. His loved ones were driving a long way to the Cotton Bowl on the chance that the 20-year-old Briles would be able to play wide receiver for the Houston Cougars, after fighting hard to win a fight with an achy knee. They didn’t make it after a collision with an out-of-control tanker truck. It could have been worse: Briles’ girlfriend, and eventual wife, almost made the trip with them.

Frequent GetReligion readers can probably sense where this is going: theodicy.

So who or what is to blame? God, man or the sickness of a fallen creation?

Briles blamed himself, and still does. That brings us to the key moment in the ESPN piece:

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The return of Baylor football, minus all that Baptist stuff

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?

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