WACO, Texas – The first guy I saw after parking my car at McLane Stadium on Friday night was wearing a gold T-shirt that read, “Bears against the nation.”
So, welcome to the Baylor bunker?
Maybe, maybe not. If that is the prevailing mindset here – that poor Baylor has been unfairly pilloried for allowing a violent culture of sexual predators to proliferate on its football team – it was hidden Friday night. The one guy in the one shirt was the only overt example I saw of anyone playing that card prior to the No. 23-ranked Bears’ season-opening, 55-7 demolition of FCS Northwestern State.
There were no visible signs in the stands voicing support or sympathy for fired coach Art Briles or any of the other administrators swept out in reaction to a damning outside counsel report last spring. There were no signs saying anything, other than one young girl with an “I heart Baylor” message. This was an environment scrubbed clean of any larger program context.
There were tailgating boats in a man-made basin right outside The House That Art Built, and fans on blankets on the hillside, and several thousand Baylor students who got to run across the field pregame in matching yellow shirts. That tradition that came with a twist, because the person who used to lead that charge was fired president Kenneth Starr. This time, the team captains led the charge.
“Things change,” quarterback Seth Russell said.
And some things don’t change. Baylor scored a ton of points. There were a lot of female fans in attendance. Season tickets were sold out, and the crowd was announced at 44,849 – slightly more than last year’s home opener, although there were a lot of empty seats in a stadium with a listed capacity of 45,000.
If you didn’t know better, you’d think this was high-end college football business as usual.
“We needed it,” said Baylor cornerback Ryan Reid. “We needed to let it go. Let everything go and just play football.”
It was a change of subject, to be sure, one the players and fans were desperate to embrace. But make no mistake, the residual stain of scandal is still there. This isn’t a complete makeover, not yet.
Just look at the sideline.
The guy calling the plays in the Bears’ familiar, up-tempo offense is Kendal Briles – Art’s son. He had his dad’s initials written on his hand last night, something interim head coach Jim Grobe said was fine with him. At least one Baylor staffer wore a pullover that had “#CAB” – Coach Art Briles – on the chest.
The guy coaching the offensive line is Jeff Lebby – Art’s son-in-law. The guy in charge of the defense – the side of the ball where so many of Baylor’s bad actors played – is Phil Bennett, who held the same position under Briles.
“Offense didn’t change, defense didn’t change,” said running back Shock Linwood. “KB’s still here, he’s calling the plays the same.”
Baylor bit the bullet administratively and with the head coach because it had to. But in a very difficult spot, it kept Briles’ staff intact to salvage this season. That’s not a complete culture change; that’s a half-measure, a concession that shows winning football remains very important here.
The figurehead brought in to lend an element of class and dignity to the program is Jim Grobe. The 64-year-old former Wake Forest coach is being paid a reported $1.25 million this season to basically handle news conferences and special teams, while the younger Briles and Bennett take care of the offense and defense. It’s a pretty sweet seven-figure gig for a guy who had been out of coaching for two years, but I’d like to know if they turned on his headset.
Grobe spent most of his first Baylor game walking the sidelines with hands on hips, staying clear of the coordinators and their unit huddles with players. After good kickoffs, he bumped fists or slapped hands with the kicker. He occasionally directed the punt returner on how deep to line up for the many Northwestern State punts. He did seem to make a couple of fourth-down decisions, opting to kick field goals twice in situations where Art Briles might have gone for it.
Grobe is a very good coach who is taking over a program that bears no stylistic resemblance to what he built at Wake Forest. In one night with Baylor, his team scored more points than in any of his previous 226 games as a college head coach.
“I love being back on the sideline,” Grobe said. “I love coaching. … I thought there was a lot of doubt, kids were in shock, coaches, too. But I think after a while the kids realized I’m here to help.”
He’s had a few new off-field revelations to deal with through the summer, including a wide receiver who was suspended three games for inhumanely whipping his dog. Given the track record, all the Baylor coaches are likely to sleep with their cell phones on and nearby this weekend.
“The key for us going forward, these guys need to make really good decisions off the field,” Grobe said.
That’s the expectation across the athletic department. Mack Rhoades officially took over as athletic director Aug. 15, jumping out of the dumpster fire at Missouri for the tire fire at Baylor. Rhoades said he’s met individually with every coach to express his vision going forward.
“The message was, ‘It’s going to take some time and it’s going to take doing the right thing,’ ” Rhoades said. “The combination of those two things, we’ll get it back to where it needs to be. … Baylor athletics has been really, really good, but I believe the best days for Baylor are ahead.
“We’ll learn from this, we will. Hard lesson learned, obviously, and we’re still learning from it.”
After opening night, it seems one lesson learned is for Baylor not to publicly embrace a persecuted mindset. There are far bigger victims here than the fired football coach and a team that has undergone a wave of bad publicity. That mentality was largely kept under wraps.
But does it exist behind closed doors? Almost certainly. Quarterback Russell was asked what it was like to lead the student charge across the field, and his answer was interesting.
“It’s great to have unity with Baylor Nation and with the students,” Russell said. “It’s not just us against the world. It’s all Baylor against the world.”
That sounded like a pregame T-shirt I saw, and it required a follow-up question about whether that is the team’s outlook this year.
“It’s more that you have a lot of negatives surrounding us,” Russell said, changing course. “We’re going to try to make those negatives into positives.”
That might be harder to do than putting 55 points on the scoreboard. Winning games and winning over detractors are two very different things.
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