I have been attending Baylor games since the mid-70s and admittedly am a dyed-in-wool fan. Am I objective when it comes to the Bears? Definitely not. Am I a realist when it comes to setting expectations for the football team? Absolutely. Any Baylor fan that is old enough to have owned a Duran Duran cassette tape knows what I am talking about. Be happy during the good times but don't get too comfortable.
I sat through the competitive seasons in the 80’s and 90’s, happy to go to an occasional bowl and to play the spoiler role on more than one occasion in the South West Conference. One very clear memory was during the comeback against SMU in the 1980 season. There was a feeling in the air that the team was not to be denied, we had something special going that year. Jay Jeffrey brought the boys back from being down 28-14 late in the game to steal a victory from the previously undefeated Mustangs. I was also in the Cotton Bowl that season when Bear Bryant’s Tide rolled over Baylor in Dallas. As I trudged back to the family van, wearing a green and gold ski suit, I can distinctly remember thinking that it was still a good season, we won the conference and represented ourselves well even in defeat. The "something special" was for the team to have gotten this far.
Grant Teaff was a hero of mine, I had a signed picture of him on my bedroom wall. I had one of Bubba Hicks as well… I wanted to play middle linebacker in high school because of Mike Singletary, but alas I never broke a helmet and my blazing speed relegated me to the offensive line. Those were good days though. Baylor was competitive, they beat Texas on a semi-regular basis and found themselves edging into the rankings with some regularity.
No one mistook Baylor for a dominant champion and no one thought they would ever garner a number 1 ranking. To be honest though, things were different in those days. To be guaranteed a bowl, you needed to win your conference, the top 68 teams in Division 1A did not get invited to play in the post season back then. What I am saying is that the definition of success was different especially in Waco. Baylor fans were on an even keel and were fairly happy with where they were in the grand scheme of the football world.
Then Grant Teaff retired and the slow tailspin started. The Baylor football program started losing altitude under Chuck Reedy and augered into the ground under Dave Roberts. Most planes only crash once, but the Baylor football plane crashed again and again. Kevin Steele piloted the ship into the turf with relative alacrity and while Guy Morris was able to get a bit of air under the wings, he still found himself flying below terrain and plowing into a mountain.
There was a feeling in those days as well. As distinctive in my mind as the SMU comeback was the 100 yard, fumble return for a touchdown, with no time on the clock, loss to UNLV in 1999. To this day it has to be the lowest moment of my Baylor fanhood. The feeling at that time was that Baylor was a loser. No matter what, we would find a way to lose the game as evidenced by running the ball with 12 seconds on the clock nursing a less than one score lead. Given that victory was a foreign word, there was no way that the offense would line up in the victory formation and kill the clock. I was too shocked to even utter a swear word. Floyd Casey was absolutely silent except for the 55 fans that were wearing UNLV colors. How on earth did that happen? We were about halfway through what felt like 40 years of wandering in the wilderness. What had we done to deserve such a fate? I wasn't sure, but I was definitely an unhappy Baylor fan.
Fortunately for me, I took a job overseas in 2002 and was forced to listen to the games on internet radio for several years. I kept my season tickets while I was away though. Friends and others seeking to watch a circus-like, spectacle of oddity sporadically used them. Baylor was the bearded lady or crocodile boy of the NCAA. No one came to see Baylor win, they were wondering how we would figure out a way to lose.
"Boy that was funny, can you believe that fumbled kickoff return? Ha ha." "Can’t wait for Baylor to come to College Station (insert Austin, Lawrence, Lubbock, Norman, etc. as you see fit) for this year’s homecoming, should be a real beat down for the alumni to witness. Ha ha."
Ha ha. Yes, it was really funny for everyone not a Baylor fan. But then something changed. My family moved back to Dallas in 2009 and when we started going to games during that season, Baylor was actually a little more competitive. They had a good quarterback that I was thinking had a chance to make a name for himself and a new coach that everyone seemed to be high on. There was a lot of talk about Baylor getting kicked to the curb out of the Big 12, but that wasn't anything that we could control so why worry about it.
After the 2011 season Baylor was sitting on a Heisman trophy, an Alamo Bowl win, 10 victories in the same season, a stabilizing Big 12 and a bit of credibility. A win over the #1 ranked team in the country and a 2012 Holiday bowl shellacking of UCLA followed. The team was out of the wilderness and moving towards the promised land. In my lifetime Baylor had gone from relatively good to extraordinarily bad back to relatively good. Maybe even a bit better than relatively good. We won the conference twice in the late 70s/early 80s, something the Bears are yet to do in the current incarnation of the team, but hey, we had a Heisman trophy winner, something that the traditionalists couldn't boast either.
So that brings us to 2013. Is this team a BCS title contender? What about a Big 12 contender? All we know at this point is that the Bears are bowl eligible and they are making a lot of teams look really bad on the field. They are also highly ranked and most pundits consider them the class of the Big 12. The debates have run rampant all over the news wires and blogs though, Baylor football is still a divisive subject. Lots of people are saying that Baylor is a national championship contender and lots of people are saying they are not. To be honest, the fact that people have to confirm that they don't think we deserve to play in the national title game is a huge compliment. That is a first for the Bears or at least in the last 5 decades that I have been paying attention.
As I said at the beginning of the article, I am a realist when it comes to Baylor football. Biased yes, but a realist to the end. I have been burned too many times in the past not to have at least a few questions. So have I bought my tickets to Pasadena yet? The answer is no. Before the Baylor faithful reading this pull out your pitchforks and torches to storm my twitter account, let me explain what I have no question about. This is the best team that I have ever seen Baylor field, bar none. They are putting on the most complete performances and have the most disciplined approach that has ever been in Green and Gold. That includes the Walter Ambercrombie/Mike Singletary/Jay Jeffrey Bears of 1980 as well as the 1991 Bears team that included JJ Joe, Melvin Bonner, and Santana Dotson. During both of those seasons the Bears found themselves breathing in the rarified air of a top 10 national ranking. Both of those seasons also saw a bowl loss and precipitous drop from the AP high water mark.
Will that happen this year? Only time will tell as they say. Anyone with a 2nd grade education in football could look at Baylor’s schedule and know that this season will be made or lost in November. 6-0 at this point and ranked #5/#6 in the nation is about the best possible outcome for the present moment. While it is fun to speculate about paths to the national championship game, calculating the chances of running the tables, trying to decide who would be the most preferable foe in the Fiesta Bowl, all of that is just talk. Idle talk at that. None of it matters if Baylor does not keep winning. I am certain that the Bears have the talent to do it, they have the coaching to do it, and they have the desire to do it. By anyone’s estimation though, a lineup of Oklahoma, Texas Tech, TCU, Oklahoma State, and Texas is daunting. Lose one or two of those games and secure a spot in a higher tier bowl is a good result right? Something Baylor fans can be proud of right? That is exactly what I was feeling walking to the parking lot from the Cotton Bowl on January 1st, 1981. But now I realize that there was another feeling buried away that day and it was a hollowness, a sense of what could have been.
So even though I am realistic about Baylor's chances and have not bought my tickets yet to Pasadena (or Scottsdale, or Dallas, or San Antonio, or anywhere else for that matter) I am thrilled that we will be bowling once again. I am equally thrilled that we have such a fine team, national cred, a new stadium under construction, an outstanding coach and staff and great recruiting classes to feed the future. All the pieces are in place to have a memorable run to the end of the season.
As Art Briles says – "we haven’t done anything yet". I expect that he will be saying that all the way up to the end of the season which is exactly why my confidence is rising. Coach Briles does not look past opponents and knows what it takes to get the job done this week and next.
So my suggestion to all Baylor fans is to stop worrying about rankings and bowls and start focusing on Kansas and buying tickets to the OU game so that we can have the God-forsaken tarp taken out. One week at a time. But while you are being realistic, realize that the hollow feeling that comes from having a "good season" but not playing up to your potential is something that no one wants to feel. That feeling, like hand times, is "for your momma..."
Sic 'Em Bears, take care of business this week and every week so that I can start looking into flight reservations.