The halls of the college football elite are hallowed and protected. They are cobbled with gold and trodden on by the privileged, wealthy few.
Membership here is limited, and the list of constituents expands perhaps just once a decade. Representatives from Alabama, Michigan, Notre Dame, Texas and Southern Cal are here in their ivory wingtips. A man in a wide-brimmed wicker Florida hat swishes his drink. Backed by an enormous marble fireplace, someone in a red Ohio State sweater vest tells a joke to another in an Oklahoma golf shirt. A plaque with a crossed-out red Mustang hangs behind a banquet table. SMU was politely asked to hand in its membership card three decades ago.
Identity for these programs is as immutable and inflexible as the legends that hover above them. Sure, there are tough periods, but programs like Alabama only suffer the Mike Shulas of the world for so long. The establishment inevitably spits out the refuse and the machine roars back with devastating efficiency. It’s less a matter of if than when.
For everyone else, the vast majority of the college football iceberg submerged below the relentless spotlight, life is fluid, uncertain. For Baylor, which falls squarely in this category, the wasteland of the Kevin Steele years and the residual aftershocks suffered under Guy Morriss was painful reaffirmation of its membership in this club.
What this means is that for the purposes of attracting better football players, Baylor’s identity in the 21st century does not go far beyond the identity forged by its current coaching staff. Formative though it may have been, Baylor football’s mystique stretching down the halls of time does not go
very far today in a blue-chip recruit’s living room.
Most recruits now couldn’t even watch Baylor games as kids. Ten years ago, when most of Baylor’s current roster was beginning to cling to boyhood sports idols, the Bears lost to in-state foes Texas, Texas A&M and Texas Tech a combined 191-24. Not one of those games were picked up for television. Probably a good thing.
Shrewdly, what Art Briles has done is create his own Baylor identity, one that he can claim for himself and for the program. On the shores of the Brazos, Briles has created the cult of the quarterback.
Exciting niche cultures are must-haves for programs looking to elbow a place at the big boy table, and few have done it better than Briles. By shepherding Robert Griffin into the NFL and then proving he could do it all again with the lesser-known Nick Florence, Briles sent a message to quarterback recruits — I can develop you, and I have the platform in Waco to do it.
Perhaps most importantly, he proved to anyone not paying attention that this thing goes deeper than Griffin.
Bryan’s Chris Johnson heard the clarion call this year and enrolled early. A physical specimen, Johnson will likely battle with Seth Russell for the backup spot behind junior Bryce Petty, who himself has been around for four years. Russell’s athleticism isn’t in question, either.
Just last week, Temple’s Chad President pledged his verbal commitment to Baylor’s 2015 class. President is a gifted athlete who will be handed Temple’s offense as a junior. In the same class, Baylor already has an offer out to Jarrett Stidham, a promising talent from quarterback hotbed Stephenville, where Briles made his name as a high school coach.
It would seem the lineage of Briles’ dynasty of college quarterbacks is alive and well.
At this point, Briles’ pedigree with quarterbacks is hard to doubt. Before Baylor, he brought Kevin Kolb and Case Keenum to Houston, both of whom crushed records. Much like Griffin’s decision to choose Baylor, Kolb would never have gone to Houston had to not been for Briles’ hire. Keenum didn’t even have another scholarship offer.
Think about it this way. Morriss, a competent if unremarkable head coach, didn’t last long enough to see a quarterback he recruited win a Big 12 game. In five years. The cornerstone quarterback of his tenure was Blake Szymanski (Shawn Bell arrived in Steele’s final class). Four years later, Briles was celebrating with a Heisman Trophy winner.
The gravity of that kind of turnaround is hard to fathom. Quarterbacks the caliber of Griffin simply don’t come to programs that haven’t won more than five games in a season in 12 years. Briles made it happen.
It’s telling that even in the midst of all this, Briles’ retention rate with quarterbacks in the age of the petulant transfer is nearly perfect. It’s obvious now that Florence, who broke a number of Griffin’s records, could have gone elsewhere to play earlier. Petty too bided his time, presumably to be rewarded with the keys to one of the most productive offenses in an era of productive offenses.
And those are coveted keys these days. With every NFL throw Griffin makes, Briles can trace a line back to Waco, back to his playbook. He can confidently saunter into talks with high school quarterbacks and tell them about Griffin and Florence and mentally put them in the Heisman presentation ceremony in New York.
What player wouldn’t want to be in those shoes? The attraction for quarterback suitors has to be immense. Baylor’s high-octane offense, which has been No. 2 in the nation in each of the past two years, has more shiny toys than an FAO Schwarz warehouse.
It’s anybody’s guess as to whether Petty can hack it in the harrowing shadows left on the Floyd Casey turf by his two predecessors. He’ll have to prove he can earn the job in August and then keep it during the fall.
But at this point, who’s betting against Briles?