On a bone-chilling December afternoon in 2013, Baylor celebrated its first Big 12 football championship by beating Texas in the final game at Floyd Casey Stadium.
The Bears enjoyed that accomplishment so much that they did it again last year by capturing a co-championship in their first season at McLane Stadium.
Those were the first back-to-back football championships in school history, and provided further proof that Art Briles’ program is one of the best in the country.
But those two titles did more than put the football program in the national spotlight; they solidified this era as the greatest in Baylor athletics history.
Baylor has produced some other outstanding eras like the post-World War II years and the 1970s, but the Bears have never featured a better overall athletic program. Not only has success on the field reached an all-time high, the facilities and the national prestige have risen to a whole new level.
“I don’t think there is any doubt this is the golden age of Baylor athletics,” Baylor athletic director Ian McCaw said. “We’ve had an incredible run the last several years. We define excellence as excellence in all 19 sports. All of them are experiencing success and that really creates a great culture in our department and a lot of excitement for Baylor Nation.”
It’s not hard to find celebrations popping up around Baylor’s campus regardless of the sport or season.
The Baylor women’s basketball team has won five straight Big 12 titles and reached three Elite Eights and the 2012 Final Four during that span. Kim Mulkey’s squad finished off a historic 40-0 season in 2012 with her second national championship.
During the past six seasons, Scott Drew’s men’s basketball teams have reached two Elite Eights and a Sweet 16 while also winning the 2013 NIT championship. This season, the Bears reached back to back NCAA tournaments for the first time in school history.
Baylor tennis has been a force for years and helped kick off the athletic program’s renaissance with the 2004 men’s national title. This year, the men’s and women’s tennis teams won Big 12 championships and went deep in the NCAA tournament.
Jay Goble’s women’s golf team finished as the national runner-up as it took Stanford to the wire in a scintillating championship match. After leading Oregon to four straight national titles, Felecia Mulkey led Baylor to an acrobatics and tumbling national title in her first season on the job.
“Felecia Mulkey and Jay Goble led two of the greatest turnarounds I’ve seen in my career,” McCaw said. “She took a team that had a losing record last year and led them to an undefeated season and a national championship. Jay took a team that started the year ranked 121st in the country and took them to the final hole against Stanford.”
Glenn Moore’s softball team reached its 10th NCAA tournament in the last 12 years. The Lady Bears have made three Women’s College World Series appearances since 2007, advancing to the semifinals in both 2011 and 2014. The equestrian team won the Big 12 title this season and made the national semifinals.
If 2011-2012 was the Year of the Bear, this could be the sequel.
Most recently, Baylor’s track program has been in the headlines with sprinter Trayvon Bromell finishing second in the 100 meters in the NCAA and USA meets and qualifying for next month’s World Championships in Beijing, China.
“You’re excited for all the programs that are doing well,” Baylor track coach Todd Harbour said. “It makes you think you’ve got to bring it all the time. The expectations have risen so so high — it’s not just little old Baylor any more.”
Since McCaw’s arrival as athletic director in 2003, Baylor has spent nearly $400 million on athletic facilities, including $266 million McLane Stadium. That commitment has given Baylor’s coaches a huge reason to stay even though many of them have been sought by other schools.
With 19 years under his belt, highly successful men’s tennis coach Matt Knoll is now the dean of Baylor head coaches. Following three straight losing seasons, baseball coach Steve Smith was fired after 21 years and has been replaced by former Pepperdine coach Steve Rodriguez.
Joey Scrivano completed his 13th year as women’s tennis coach while Harbour finished his 10th year as head track coach.
“There is a direct correlation between the retention of coaches and success,” McCaw said. “When you have a lot of turnover it tends to cause disruption and forces rebuilding. We’ve had a great track record in the retention of our coaches and that’s caused our programs to thrive over time and continue to experience success.”
Entering his eighth season at Baylor, Briles is the fifth longest tenured football coach in the Big 12 behind Kansas State’s Bill Snyder with 23 years, Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops with 16, TCU’s Gary Patterson with 14 and Oklahoma State’s Mike Gundy with 10.
While McCaw expected Briles to lift a football program that was coming off 12 straight losing seasons when he arrived in 2007, nobody foresaw the level of success that he’s attained in such a short period of time.
“The vision he laid out was for us to become competitive and then go to bowl games and then win Big 12 championships, and he’s done all that,” McCaw said. “But I don’t know if any of us expected it to happen as quickly as it did. I hoped we could eventually get there, but he moved us at a very accelerated pace.”
Of course, when the football program is thriving it makes the whole athletic department shine. During the past four seasons, the Bears have won 40 games including 11 in each of the last two seasons. Baylor’s five straight bowl appearances are a school record.
“Coach Briles and the success he’s had in his program have meant so much in terms of building the Baylor brand nationally,” McCaw said. “The Baylor name is so strong right now. Football is both a huge brand builder and a great revenue generator. Both of those have been critical in terms of our athletic program being repositioned.”
Success in recent seasons has come on the heels of some of the school’s most foreboding times. When Texas A&M, Nebraska, Missouri and Colorado announced they were leaving the Big 12, the conference appeared on the verge of collapse.
Baylor and several other schools looked like they were destined to be nomads in search of a conference home. But the Big 12 stuck together with the addition of TCU and West Virginia.
After that crisis period, Baylor has come back stronger than ever. Not only have the Bears produced at an unprecedented level on the field, donors have come through with the funding to build some of the best facilities in school history highlighted by McLane Stadium.
“Certainly during the Big 12 realignment period there were tense moments for all of us,” McCaw said. “But out of those days of despair came some of the greatest days in Baylor athletic history. The tension realignment created certainly inspired the university’s leadership and all of us to know just how important college athletics is to our university and how influential it is to conference realignment.”
Bears of the past
Baylor has enjoyed some notable athletic eras in the past like the post-World War II era when the football program finished in the top 20 three straight seasons from 1949-51. The 1951 Baylor squad finished ninth in the final Associated Press poll and reached the Orange Bowl where it lost to Georgia Tech.
“It was the first time Baylor had ever gone to a major bowl,” said former Baylor linebacker Gale Galloway, who went on to head several Fortune 500 companies. “It was a wonderful thing for Baylor. It was an absolutely terrific thing for young players to go to a bowl as a pay day for all the blood, sweat and tears that go into being a good football team.”
The men’s basketball program made the NCAA tournament three times in five years following the war, including an appearance in the 1948 national championship game. The Bears traveled to New York’s Madison Square Garden where they lost to powerful Kentucky.
Former Tribune-Herald sports editor Dave Campbell, a Baylor student during the late 1940s, remembers the excitement surrounding that basketball team as fans packed the school’s tiny gymnasium for home games to see All-American Jack Robinson and his teammates.
“We played at little old Marrs McLean,” Campbell said. “There was such a demand for tickets that people with odd numbers got in one game and even numbers got in one game. They had a great coaching and great ability.”
After Grant Teaff arrived as football coach, the Bears experienced another athletic renaissance as they won Southwest Conference football titles in 1974 and 1980.
But Baylor thrived in a lot of sports during that era. Mickey Sullivan’s baseball teams made consecutive World Series appearances in 1977-78 while the women’s basketball team experienced success in the AIAW national tournament.
The men’s basketball team gave fans a lot of excitement with Vinnie Johnson and Terry Teagle leading the way. Clyde Hart was building a strong track program during that era that included Harbour, a four-time SWC 1,500-meter champion and a three-time national runner-up.
“We didn’t have the facilities back then,” Harbour said. “We just did it with Baylor and God’s favor and who we were. We came to Baylor for its uniqueness. Now as coaches we can’t get away from that. We have a unique product to sell.”
More success to come
Harbour marvels at the facilities Baylor has now and the success the athletic program has experienced in all sports. Those facilities have helped Baylor retain successful coaches. McCaw has every reason to believe this golden era has just begun.
“I’ve really come to believe the most important part of my job is that we have great coaching leadership in place,” McCaw said. “Our coaches came to Baylor for a reason and they’ve stayed at Baylor for the same reason. We have a great culture on campus within the athletic department that makes it very difficult to leave.”