Not all that long ago, some wondered why Baylor belonged in the Big 12. In the name of full disclosure, I was one of the some, arguing in February 2001 that the conference should drop Baylor.
Good thing no one listened.
We're bearing down on February, and in the three sports that matter most in these parts, the Baylor Bears have lost five games. Total.
Baylor football went 10-3, won the Alamo Bowl and, on a wild November night, handed the Sooners a knockout blow from national title contention and the Big 12 a Heisman Trophy, with Robert Griffin's magic game.
Baylor men's basketball is 17-2, with both losses last week, courtesy of fellow-top 10 teams Kansas and Missouri.
Baylor women's basketball is 19-0, the clear No. 1 team in the nation, and sports the nation's best player, Brittney Griner.
Both basketball squads come to Norman this week; the Baylor men play OU on Tuesday night, the women play OU on Thursday night. And now seems as good a time as any to salute the Waco Wonder.
A school that a decade ago didn't seem worthy of Big 12 membership, now is one of the shining lights in a conference trying to regain its footing.
“There were years that Baylor didn't contribute as much to the Big 12 Conference,” admitted Baylor athletic director Ian McCaw. “It has been gratifying the last few years to go to bowl games, go to NCAA basketball championships. I think Baylor is viewed as a very significant and positive contributor to the conference.”
No question. In the first 14 seasons of Big 12 football, Baylor did not qualify for a bowl game. But the Bears went 7-6 in 2010 and reached the Texas Bowl. Then Baylor this season finished third in Big 12 football and beat Washington 67-56 in the wildest of bowl games.
And Baylor men's basketball not only failed to distinguish itself, it embarrassed itself, the league and all the family of man with the Dave Bliss scandal of 2003.
But under successor Scott Drew, Baylor made the NCAA Tournament in 2008 and 2010, making the regional finals the latter year, and will be seeded high for 2012 March Madness.
Baylor's women's basketball has been a power throughout Kim Mulkey's 12 years as coach, making two Final Fours and winning the 2005 NCAA title.
And Baylor's formula is no secret. Dedicate the resources and hire good coaches.
“Starts with great coaches,” McCaw said. “We're kind of at a point where we're riding the crest of the wave.”
Baylor football doesn't have the Taj Mahals found in Stillwater, Norman, Austin and Lubbock, but the facilities have been upgraded. And Baylor hit a home run with coach Art Briles.
Briles reminds Baylor old-timers of Grant Teaff, who coached the Bears to two Cotton Bowls and brought success to a beleaguered program during his 21 seasons (1972-92).
“Both West Texans, both came out of lowly backgrounds,” said Dave Campbell, former sports editor of the Waco Tribune-Herald, who for 52 years has published Texas Football magazine. “He does seem to be a perfect fit.”
Now Baylor is raising funds for an on-campus stadium, and since higher-profile jobs like Texas Tech and Texas A&M have gone unfilled by Briles, there's reason to believe he could be a Baylor long-timer.
“Art's done a tremendous job,” McCaw said. “The program was down when he arrived. He's done a great job recruiting. He knows the state of Texas like the back of his hand.”
Baylor's football ascension is huge for the school.
“Football drives conference realignment and also drives revenue,” McCaw said. “We have to be successful in football.”
Meanwhile, Drew's critics claim he can't coach and that his talent upgrade has come from suspicious means. I don't know anything about the latter; if someone has evidence, offer it up.
As for the coaching part, the charge is circular. Elite AAU talent is hard to coach, Drew has landed elite AAU talent and all of a sudden it's supposed to be easy? All I know is, Drew has elevated Baylor hoops.
And an athletic program that as recently as last summer no one seemed to want in conference realignment, now is a Big 12 beacon.
“It's certainly done a tremendous amount for the university's brand nationally,” McCaw said. “Baylor's always had a good name in the state of Texas. Now that that brand has gone regional and national.”
And the Big 12 is better for it. Glad you're still with us, Baylor.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at email@example.com. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including AM-640 and FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.