WACO, Texas – In a sport replete with soaring cathedrals and mammoth Century-old monuments that inspire awe and nostalgia, Floyd Casey Stadium here is about the most dingy and downtrodden spot remaining, at least at the highest levels of the game.
Built in 1950, it sits down the interstate from the actual campus of Baylor University, surrounded by old parking lots and strip malls. Not even the locals are enthralled with its undeniably retro blue-collar charms – it used to play to minimal crowds, routinely averaging just over 20,000; and who knows how many of those were actually there to cheer for the other team. Eventually, empty seats became such an eye sore, they set up a huge tarp to envelope the bleachers of the south end zone.
[Fashion Police: Arizona State, Notre Dame and Baylor bring the flash]
You could attribute the poor attendance to the other entertainment options of Waco except, um, well …
The truth is Floyd Casey Stadium was a suitable mirror for Baylor football. Just as the sport was modernizing and growing over the last few decades the program wasn't just horrible, it was seemingly hopeless.
There's just only so much momentum you can still ride from that 1974 victory over Texas, the one when pregame, in order to fire up the players, the coach put a worm in his mouth. It's still considered one of the biggest wins in school history. Of course, what's the competition?
From 1996 thru 2009, Baylor was 43-117 overall and 14-98 in Big 12 play. That's an average of one conference victory a season. There was a stretch when the Bears went 6-76 in the league. There was a seven-year run in there that Texas beat them 362-38. In 1999, they lost all of their eight Big 12 games by an average of 35.7 points.
The Baylor media guide is a real page-turner if disastrous sporting carnage is your thing.
"We had some lean years there," school president Kenneth Starr said with a laugh.
All of which makes this so utterly astounding.
It's not just that Baylor is good – 4-0 on the season after a 73-42 blitzkrieg of West Virginia and sure to continue climbing from its No. 16 ranking. A lot of teams can get "good" and the schedule hasn't been particularly arduous.
It's that Baylor is something that nobody could've imagined possible … cool, exciting, cutting edge, wild, brilliant, pyrotechnic. It's one thing to have a generational local talent such as Robert Griffin III fall through the cracks of the Longhorn recruiting net, show up and win a Heisman. That was a great story.
This is even better because Baylor is even better. More athletes. More skill. More speed. More depth. The offense is enthralling, whether it's courtesy of the arm of Bryce Petty (17 of 25 for 347 and two touchdowns on Saturday) or the legs of Lache Seastrunk (15 carries for 172 yards and two touchdowns.)
[Winners and Losers: Baylor is the new standard for offensive production]
Seastrunk may represent the new Baylor better than anyone. He isn't just a flash, but he's flashy. He was a five-star recruit out of local Temple, Texas, and originally signed with Oregon, the kind of program that he seemingly fit. He never got comfortable in Eugene though. There was a recruiting controversy and some personality clashes. He finally found himself back here, grateful for another chance and discovering the Bears had changed.
"I couldn't have envisioned it honestly," Seastrunk said. "But I'm here now. We put the hard work in and now we're starting to see the harvest."
Seastrunk is just one on a roster full of burners. His official time in the 40 is in the Usain Bolt range, although it's not relevant. He prefers to run longer distances, like the 80-yarder he peeled off Saturday.
Altogether the Bears gained a school-record 872 yards against WVU, a number that sounds exaggerated even to the purveyors of it.
"Good grief, really?" Petty said. "That's a lot of yards."
It was actually even more impressive than that. Baylor's first team played just one series in the third quarter, following its trend of getting yanked early for sportsmanship purposes. (Talk about role reversal.)
That first-team offense scored 63 points on 68 plays, which covered 689 yards. The drives lasted an average of just 1:53. Two were just one play long. This was the old 50 yards and a cloud of dust offensive. It scored a touchdown on nine of its ten possessions, pushing its season number to 31 of 36.
The roaring crowd of 45,000-plus delighted in every last bit of it. There's nothing quite like having the long bullied become the bully, fans who were used to losing suddenly walk around with the confidence of a favorite.
Baylor even dresses the part these days. Gone is the drab and in is a rotation of fashion – on Saturday, the Bears featured all black uniforms with glowing golden helmets that reflected in the stadium lights. "I'm in love with [the helmets]," joked running back Martin Glasco. "I think I'm going to put a ring on it."
This is everything Baylor never was. The Bears have swag.
[Photos: College football - Best of Week 6]
"When I was in high school Baylor was just a team in the Big 12," said senior Demetri Goodson. "It was always looked at as a second-tier team. Now we're big time."
"I got made fun of when I committed here," defensive end Chris McAllister said. "Baylor didn't win. It was in the bottom of the Big 12. There were a whole lot of questions why I committed to Baylor. I don't get those questions anymore. They want to come see me play."
And that's the next step. Soon, you won't have to come to Floyd Casey to see Baylor.
Off in the distance, back on the modern, clean campus, cranes are putting together a new quarter-billion dollar stadium, right on the banks of the Brazos River. It seats 45,000 with possible expansion, has every bell and whistle anyone could dream up – including 200 "sailgating" spots so you can party on boats – and when it opens next season it will forever change everything around here.
President Starr is sparing no expense on athletics and football is always the main focus here in Texas. He sees it fitting into the private Christian university's goal of being "the protestant Notre Dame," he said. It's a little late to the party, but Baylor is going modern, part of a massive push of athletic success under director Ian McCaw.
"The stadium means a lot to Waco, Texas, it means a lot to Central Texas, it means a lot to Baylor because it gives an image of a complete university," coach Art Briles said. "And then it gives us an opportunity as a football team to continue to recruit the best talent in Texas because [next year] you can walk to whatever you need to do on this campus."
Briles, 57, hails from the little West Texas town of Rule and is now in his sixth season. He was a long time high school coach, then assistant at Texas Tech, then head coach at Houston before taking on this challenge. He had a knack, at both the high school and college level, of building programs where little confidence existed.
So perhaps he was the only one who walked around Waco in 2008, surveyed Floyd Casey, stared out at all the uninspired green and yellow color scheme and imagined a night like this was possible.
"I knew I could get good people," Briles said. "I knew I could recruit Texas because I'm a Texas guy and that's all I ever want to be. You get good players and good coaches and good support, you're going to have a good team."
Not that he thinks it's that simple. He declares this team a work in progress. Afterwards, he told some players to enjoy the victory for 20 minutes and then start thinking about their trip to Kansas State next Saturday. Sometimes winning easy is terrifying. Complacency must be guarded against.
Baylor might want to guard against the University of Texas too. It sits 90 minutes down I-35 and is likely looking for a new coach by season's end. They've got money and resources and history and everything else. Maybe they'll have an interest in the miracle worker up here.
Starr would only promise that Baylor will do all it can to keep its coach, leaning on the idea that this is the program he built, that these are the nights that he created and there isn't a dollar figure that can be placed on that.
Of course, for good measure, he throws an arm around the shoulders of a visitor, bows his head and breaks into prayer.
"Dear Lord, please keep coach Briles at Baylor. Amen."
Then Kenneth Starr springs up and laughs. All these years later, after all those lost Saturdays and seasons, old Floyd Casey Stadium is going out with a bang.
Yeah, Starr said, this sure is fun. Baylor sure is fun.