SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Baylor fans were on the edge of their Fiesta Bowl seats as the Bears struggled and ultimately failed to catch the lower-ranked University of Central Florida in Baylor’s first BCS bowl game.
But die-hard fan Mike Dunham of Waco was taking it in stride.
“It’s so great just to be able to be at a BCS game,” the 1992 Baylor alumnus said just before halftime, hoping for a bowl turnaround. “It’s hard to believe we’ve come so far in four years. I can’t wait for them just to get their jitters out. I have confidence in our guys to fight all the way through.”
The Bears finally tied the game early in the third quarter 28-28, but UCF quickly struck back and pulled ahead.
Regardless of the outcome, Baylor fans in Phoenix before the game were already in a celebratory mood. They were about to watch a once-scorned team turned Big 12 champions play in front of a crowd of 65,172 people. Inside, Baylor fans appeared to far outnumber UCF fans at the 73,000-seat University of Phoenix stadium.
The UCF Knights were likewise ebullient with their team’s rising fortunes, and it was hard to find any trash talk at a huge pre-game party for both teams.
“I have no enmity toward the other team right now,” said Matt Chelf, a Baylor sophomore from Houston who took a nonstop chartered bus to the game with 340 other Baylor students. He and a friend already had painted their faces green and gold.
“I don’t know that much about them, even though they’re one of the biggest schools in America. We haven’t had time to have them as a rivalry.”
Though UCF is Florida’s largest university, with 60,100 students, the name initially drew a blank for some Baylor fans when they were picked as the Bears’ opponent for the Fiesta Bowl.
Misty Reeder, a 2008 UCF graduate who was working on a glittery poster for her team during the party, said people have asked her where UCF is.
Her friend, 2008 UCF graduate Matthew Velie, said the university has discovered its school pride as the team has improved.
“Having a real football team is a new thing,” he said. He said the team was an underdog in the game with Baylor, but he had no sense of a real rivalry.
“I just hope it’s an exciting game,” he said. “The reason we traveled all this way was just to see some good football.”
While Baylor was favored to win the game by 17 points, some fans warned against complacency.
Rich Gochis, a Baylor physical therapist who drove in with his family for the game, said UCF was hungry for a bowl win and had some strong leaders.
“‘We’ve got to be ready to play,” he said. “They could beat us.”
In a gesture of friendship between the two teams, spirit squads of both teams, along with officials such as Baylor President Ken Starr, worked together to assemble about 1,840 meals for a Phoenix food bank earlier in the week.
Jesus Lopez, a San Antonio attorney who graduated from Baylor and Baylor Law School in the early 2000s, was observing the game in a novel way: through Google Glass. With the eyeglasslike apparatus, he could take pictures and video with the blink of an eye, literally.
“I’ll keep them for my collection,” he said.
Lopez said Baylor’s recent success makes those pictures all the more memorable.
“It’s completely different from when I was an undergrad,” he said. “Back then, winning one game was cause for celebration.”
The rising tide of Baylor’s football program also has lifted the fortunes of the Golden Wave Band, which has a record membership of more than 300 students this year. The band traveled to the game on nonstop charter buses earlier in the week and played at several events, including a pep rally Tuesday that drew an estimated 4,500 people.
Drum majors Blake Haag and Brittany Bonner said students are riding the wave of excitement, even if the bus ride required a lot of togetherness.
“We didn’t fall asleep until 1 in the morning,” Haag said. “People were sleeping on the floor.”
The student buses that Chelf and others rode to the game arrived in Phoenix about 11 a.m. on New Year’s Day and would be heading back to Waco on Thursday. The cost for the students, including a hotel night, a game ticket and transportation, was only $150.
“It was a really good trip, day and night, 18 hours,” Chelf said. “We stopped for New Year’s to do a countdown. We bonded on the bus and made friends. I would do it again in a heartbeat.”