And the Lord said, "Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them."
- Genesis 11:6 (ESV)
As a new academic year and new athletic seasons approach, and as we get closer to actually putting our butts in the new seats of the finest sports stadium ever built, I find myself thinking about where we’ve come from and what all of our hard-won athletic success means for the university that we love. We all know the story, but I’m going to re-tell it first because I enjoy retelling it and second because I think it’s a story with some excellent lessons for us.
When I was a sophomore at Baylor, our university President at the time, John Lilley, hired a marketing firm to analyze Baylor’s brand and make suggestions for how Baylor could improve its national recognition and become more visible. In and of itself, this seemed like a reasonable idea. I myself had only been vaguely aware of Baylor’s existence until my senior year of high school when my parents convinced me to visit, and after being irrationally completely opposed to the idea, I came away knowing that Baylor was something I wanted to be a part of. Clearly by marketing standards, the brand was not where it needed to be; I came in spite of my initial perception of Baylor, not because of it. So the marketing firm, which we will call Toadwaffle & Associates to preserve anonymity and dignity, suggested doing away with the traditional Baylor logo: the interlocking BU. Instead they wanted to put Baylor’s full name on everything. This, they said, would improve Baylor’s national brand recognition and avoid confusion with Boston University.
Students and alumni went nuclear. Outcry came steady and strong against the idea. "The interlocking BU is Baylor," we said, and we refused to let it be taken from us. The outcry eventually overpowered President Lilley’s overwhelming capacity for failure and stupidity, and we, the students and former students, saved the symbol of our beloved university. Lilley himself was chased out at the end of the year. Good triumphed over stupid, obnoxious evil.
Unfortunately, even though his solution was dumb and offensive, Lilley and Toadwaffle & Associates had been right about one thing. Baylor’s brand was suffering. Why? It is nationally regarded as excellent in academics, the women’s basketball team had won a national championship a couple of years previously, the men’s basketball team was improving and becoming a force, and Baylor had produced champions and Olympians in sports like track and tennis. But we sucked at football. And this is America, and this is Texas. When I told people that I was going to Baylor for college, the responses I heard were never, "A good choice, Baylor is a fine academic institution," or "They’ve had a lot of success with Kim Mulkey recently, haven’t they?" It was invariably, "Have fun at the Big XII’s whipping boy." To many, Baylor was synonymous with futility.
Before we continue let me pause to talk about branding. I hate the term branding, and I hate when people talk about it. I don’t hate it because I’m a hippie who thinks, "Bro, you totally shouldn’t care what people think about you, man." That’s nonsense. Perception is very important. But when people talk about "protecting the brand," or the meaningless drivel, "growing the brand," they are typically missing the point. Phrases like this reveal the flaw in brand-think: it tends to be aimed at symptoms. The problem with Baylor’s national perception wasn’t the BU. It was having a football team that was hot garbage. Changing the symbol doesn’t change what is signified. If you want to change perception of the symbol, you have to change what it signifies. If I am known as a bad employee, the solution isn’t to start wearing a suit and tie instead of jeans and a tee shirt. The solution is to start doing a good job, and that may include wearing better clothes, but you can’t change perception solely by improving your appearance; eventually your substance shows through any veneer, good or bad. Your brand is important; the product it represents is infinitely more important.
Enter Art Briles. Art Briles talked about changing the narrative about Baylor. He talked about Baylor being synonymous with excellence and achievement. How did he propose to do this? Not by changing the uniforms (although we did that). Not by doing a better job of marketing (although we did that too). But by winning. By creating and then fulfilling an expectation of excellence. By setting realistic yet challenging goals (win the Big XII, build a new stadium on campus, make Robert Griffin a Heisman Finalist) for the players and the program that reflected the excellence that the rest of the university’s programs were known for. Many of his quotes can be summarized this way: "Baylor is one of the greatest universities in the world, and our football program should start reflecting that." This, in my opinion, is at the root of why Ian McCaw did not interview anyone else for the job: Briles had a stirring vision of how to change the narrative of Baylor football, and thereby the most publicly recognized narrative of the entire university.
However, vision is not enough. If you want to make a vision a reality you have to get other people to buy into the vision, and you have to work hard at a specific plan to achieve it. Briles sold recruits on being a part of changing the narrative at Baylor, and then delivered on that promise by giving them the tools to do so. Baylor is now recognized as having one of the most stringent and successful strength and conditioning programs in the nation, turning good athletes into freaks of athleticism. He also slowly implemented a brilliant offensive scheme and hired someone to do the same for the defense. All of this required hard work and dedication both from the coaches and the athletes. And results were slow in coming for the first few years. But come they did, and now Baylor has in a three year period won the Heisman trophy via Robert Griffin III, won two bowl games, built a new stadium on campus, and played in the BCS after winning the Big XII.
Now Baylor’s perception nationally is improving. We're number 10 in the Coaches' Poll before the season has even started. When Baylor is mentioned, the achievements of the men's and women's basketball teams and the football team are all mentioned together as models of how to build successful athletics programs with limited resources. Baylor is the team that turned things around, that committed itself to achieving excellence and then did it. Some old perceptions remain because some people are unintelligent, uninformed, prejudiced clownbuckets (looking your way, Kirk Herbstreit). But by and large, national perception of the university has flipped from, "Who cares what else Baylor’s good at, they blow at football," to, "Look at all the things Baylor is good at now!"
This is why Baylor’s first Big XII championship meant so much (and why winning it at the last game in Floyd Casey Stadium, long a symbol of mediocrity, was so special). It means that Baylor’s brand is strong, not because we changed the brand, but because we changed the substance behind it. It means that Baylor sports, the symbol of the university that the outside world most often sees, has begun to accurately reflect the quality of the institution and the community itself. It means that Baylor has committed itself to excellence in all things, just as we learned at Baylor that we should dedicate ourselves to excellence in all aspects of our own lives.
But I think the most poignant lesson represented by this milestone in Baylor athletics is an affirmation of the Bible verse I opened this posting with. In that verse, God, referring to the group of people who had come together to build the tower of Babel, remarks that when people come together and dedicate themselves to one goal and a plan to reach that goal, when they achieve real unity, then nothing they propose to do will be impossible. Whether you’re a Christian or not, that is a powerful statement, and the football program has borne this principle out beautifully. Art Briles presented a vision, found a group of men who shared his vision, and they unified in pursuing a plan to achieve that vision. And nothing that Art Briles proposed to do was impossible for his team. Likewise, Ian McCaw and Ken Starr had a vision for the university to reflect excellence in all things athletically, academically, and spiritually, and they have done a remarkable job of hiring people who share that vision and imparting that vision to students and alumni. The result is that, while Baylor has always been a glorious institution, I would argue that there has never been a time when Baylor has flung its green and gold so far afield. This isn’t to say that Baylor still faces some real issues presently; it’s not a perfect institution. But by committing themselves to a specific vision of institutional success, Ken Starr, Art Briles, and the rest of Baylor's current leadership and student and alumni body have "grown the brand" better than the man who was actually concerned about "growing the brand."
We know from the past that our current success could go away at any time. But no one can take away what has already been done, and this is what the Big XII championship and the new stadium mean: we have been allowed to witness and participate in a group of people coming together to achieve a vision of excellence, to accomplish a mission that they set out for themselves. We got to be part of a program that changed the interlocking BU from a symbol of futility to a symbol of excellence in all things. That is significant. That is compelling.
That is how we define what, "We are Baylor, and Baylor we will always be," means.