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.”
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.
The construction of a new $250 million stadium is well underway along the banks of the Brazos River. Situated right beside Interstate 35, Waco residents have been able to watch the progress, to see the massive structure rise out of a barren area where only massive power poles were before.
“Building the new stadium has affected the imagination of everyone,” Campbell said.
The thing is, Baylor athletics has been outstanding for several years. Kim Mulkey and her women's basketball team have a couple national titles. Men's basketball has recovered from scandal and become a force in the Big 12. Many other sports are ranked nationally.
But football remained a missing piece until the past couple years — and in a football-mad state like Texas, it was a big piece.
“We've been through some lean years that were no fun,” said Citrano, the owner of George's. “Nobody was coming to games.
“And now, they're selling out.”
The excitement is palpable all around town. Used to be, Citrano ran into few people who wanted to talk Baylor football. His restaurant has done team meals for nearly 30 years — steak, baked potato casserole and southern green beans are favorites this season — so fans know his passion for the Bears.
Now, Citrano can't go anywhere in Waco without someone wanting to talk to him about the team.
The stigma of what's happened in the city's past has been overtaken by the promise of what's happening now on the football field.
“People aren't thinking about those days,” Citrano said. “They're thinking about the good times.”
But you get the feeling like Waco is still trying to distance itself from those episodes, especially David Koresh and the Branch Davidians.
Asked about the standoff, Citrano mentioned that the compound where Koresh and dozens of his followers along with four federal agents died was 30 miles away from Waco.
“We got tagged for it,” he lamented.
In reality, the compound was only a little over 11 miles from the Baylor campus, and as the crow flies, it's even shorter.
A year ago, Baylor basketball coach Scott Drew was quoted in a New York Times story as joking, “That wasn't in our city. Give that one to Dallas. The president's ranch is closer to us than that is, but they say he's from Crawford. We get David Koresh. That's messed up!”
The Bush ranch is actually 36 miles from the Baylor campus.
It's hard to blame folks in Waco from trying to keep that episode at arm's length. It detracts from the great things happening in their city. Revitalizing downtown. Expanding I-35. Developing the riverfront. Growing the university.
Baylor football is highlighting the positive to the outside world.
(Does this sound familiar or what, Oklahoma City?)
“The city is pumped up,” Citrano said. “The crowds at the games are something else.”
Citrano says George's Party Zone has never been busier. They're selling as much food and drink as ever. The only difference is that once kickoff approaches, beers and burgers give way to the Bears.
“They're all going to the game,” Citrano said of the fans.
“It's just so exciting to be like this.”
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at (405) 475-4125. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK, follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok or view her personality page at newsok.com/jennicarlson.