Dallas — In 2009, the Baylor Bears finished tied with Kansas University at the bottom of the Big 12 Conference standings, 1-7 in Big 12 play and 4-8 overall.
Three years later, after ripping off seasons win totals of seven, 10 and eight victories from 2010-12, the Bears sat in the Omni Hotel ballroom on Day 2 of Big 12 media days talking about conference titles, national championships and Heisman Trophies.
Although chasing such lofty goals are closer to the norm for Baylor these days, several Bears in attendance Tuesday remember exactly what it took to reach that point and take steps forward while KU continued to struggle.
“The first thing I felt like we had to do was be respected and be credible because neither one of those things were facts at that time,” said Briles, now in his sixth season at Baylor. “So the first thing we had to do was make people respect us as opponents and then be a credible, formidable opponent, which we’ve accomplished both of those.”
As Briles continued to talk about the transformation from perennial doormat to national contender and his players chimed in, the whole process sounded very much in line with what second-year Kansas coach Charlie Weis and the Jayhawks are attempting to do.
“Learning how to get people close-knit really quick,” said senior offensive tackle Cyril Richardson when asked to pinpoint the most important ingredient in the rebuilding project. “Being a college athlete, you think five years is a long time, but it really isn’t. You gotta join together early and get with these guys and learn from them and see what they’ve experienced. That’s everything. And I think that’s what we do best. We learn from each other.”
In order to go from tied with Kansas for last in the league to three straight bowl seasons, Briles said the entire Baylor program had to lock in on the little things, which included as many things off the field as on.
“I think it’s about everything,” he said. “It’s about how you walk, how you talk, how people listen and look at ya. It’s gotta start with how you brush your teeth and, if you got any hair, how you comb it.”
Asked if preaching that kind of program overhaul was a tough sell, Briles said it was a difficult message to get across to the athletes he was attempting to recruit but added that it was much easier to push on the guys who already were in the program.
“Those people hadn’t eaten in years so they were just, ‘Throw me a bone and I’ll eat it,’” Briles said.
Having fought for respect, built confidence and amassed victories, the gains the Bears are making these days are a little more flashy and fun.
“You don’t want a coach that’s gonna come out there and give you this and give you that,” said senior defensive back Ahmad Dixon, a Waco, Texas, native. “We’ve had to work for everything. Everything we’ve ever had has been earned. You see the gold, shiny helmets; we earned that. The black uniforms, we earned that. The new stadium, we earned that.”
There’s no question that an influx in talent — Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III certainly helped — played a role in the Bears’ rapid rise to the upper half of the Big 12, but the current players charged with maintaining Baylor’s success believe the most important ingredient in the recent turnaround remains in Waco. His name is Art Briles.
“It all starts at the top,” Dixon said. “You have to have a great coach. That’s something that we have. If coach Briles went to the NFL, I’d probably try to enter the supplemental draft and go with him right now. When you have a coach that’s understanding of you and who you are and all you’ve been through, why not play hard for him? Why go play for a coach who can’t even tell you your mom’s first name or where your mom works? Coach Briles goes to my barber shop, he hangs out around the community, and you want to play for someone like that. He’s seeing what your life is about, and that’s a big plus, to me.”
Briles appreciates the love but said he was not about to become complacent. That’s why he sets such high goals and pushes his players to reach them. He also gets a little help from the diminishing number of critics out there who claim Baylor was a merely flash in the pan and say the Bears cannot sustain this type of success.
“I think there’s still doubters out there and that’s fine,” Briles said. “That’s understandable. That’s what drives us as coaches, as players and as a program. That’s motivation for us and that’s how we’ll use it.”