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Football helps change perception of Waco

Nowhere is the Bears' success felt any more deeply than in Waco, Texas.
by Jenni Carlson Modified: November 5, 2013 at 10:00 pm •  Published: November 4, 2013

To understand how Baylor football has changed the vibe in Waco, Texas, you need only visit George's Party Zone right before kickoff.

A huge green and white tent is the temporary game-day home for George's, the most popular restaurant in Waco. Baylor fans flock there on the south of the stadium for beer and burgers.

But when the Bears have been bad — and there have been lots of seasons where they were very, very bad — fans would not only come to the party zone but also stay there.

“We were always full,” George's owner and Waco enthusiast Sammy Citrano said, “because nobody wanted to be at the game.”

Nowadays?

The party zone is deserted by kickoff.

“It's just amazing the amount of people that want to be part of it,” Citrano said.

The “it” of which he speaks is Baylor's football success. What started with the hiring of Art Briles and continued with the winning of the school's first ever Heisman Trophy by Robert Griffin III has hit a crescendo this season. The Bears are No. 6 in the BCS, unbeaten and virtually untested. They're everyone's favorite to win the Big 12 and a dark horse to make the national championship game.

Here's how good Baylor has gotten: it is nearly a double-digit favorite against Oklahoma on Thursday night.

Less than two years ago, the Sooners were 20-0 all-time against the Bears.

What has happened with Baylor has altered the college football landscape, but nowhere is the Bears' success felt any more deeply than in Waco.

The city has carried a stigma for many years. First, it was scarred by the deadly standoff between federal agents and the Branch Davidian group in 1993. Then a decade later, it became the place where one former Baylor basketball player killed another and sparked one of college sports' biggest scandals.

People from across the country and around the world knew about Waco — and what they knew was not good.

Folks in Oklahoma City can empathize. For years, what the world knew of our city involved an explosive-filled Ryder truck and the loss of 168 lives. Even as the city blossomed, outsiders' first thoughts of Oklahoma City were of the bombing.

But in recent years, people have come to associate Oklahoma City with something different. The Thunder has changed the perception of our city and shown a light on all the good stuff that was already happening. In the process, a bunch of guys in baggy shorts made us feel better about ourselves.

So it is with Baylor football and Waco.

The Bears have changed the tenor in town.

“It's just really electrified the town,” Dave Campbell said.

If there's a Mr. Baylor, it's Campbell. The 88-year-old grew up in Waco and went to his first Baylor football game in 1937. He attended Baylor, became the sports editor of the Waco Tribune-Herald, then started what has become the bible of football in the Lone Star State, Dave Campbell's Texas Football.

Campbell has seen the Bears at their best — there was a Southwest Conference title in 1974 on the heels of a one-win season — and their worst. In the decade before Briles' hiring, the Bears won a total of 29 games.

“There was such a famine there, a drought,” Campbell said of seasons that spanned from Dave Roberts to Kevin Steele to Guy Morriss. “They just didn't have any success at all.”

Now, the Bears aren't just winning. They are transforming the city.

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by Jenni Carlson
Columnist
Jenni Carlson, a sports columnist at The Oklahoman since 1999, came by her love of sports honestly. She grew up in a sports-loving family in Kansas. Her dad coached baseball and did color commentary on the radio for the high school football...
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