WACO, Texas — Buddy Jones wakes up almost every morning singing "Amazing Grace." He can't help himself.
Jones, the board chairman of the Baylor University regents, is in constant awe of all the great things his school is experiencing these days.
Only a few months after quarterback Robert Griffin III became Baylor's first Heisman Trophy winner, the men's basketball team is in the NCAA round of 16 for the second time in three years. So are coach Kim Mulkey's top-ranked Lady Bears, undefeated and four wins from a national championship that would make them the first 40-win team in the history of NCAA Division I basketball.
"Baptists talk a lot about redemption and Baylor University was redeemed two summers in a row, from what looked to me to be a surefire, at least near-death experience, maybe death completely," Jones said. "Because of hard work, and good fortune and the way things worked out, we were given a stay of execution and we hopefully have begun making the most of it."
If that sounds like overstating things, consider the facts.
Jones and other Baylor officials spent much of their last two summers lobbying just to make sure the Big 12's smallest and only private university didn't find itself without a spot in a major athletic conference — a situation that would have been devastating not just to prestige but to the bottom line. The league was teetering on the brink of collapse amid speculation of potential super conferences and the departure of four schools.
Yet, the story goes much deeper for the world's largest Baptist university, making the culmination of all this success even more remarkable.
"It's almost of epic proportion," said Bob Beaudine, whose executive search firm brought men's basketball coach Scott Drew and athletic director Ian McCaw to Baylor nearly nine years ago in the aftermath of a tragic scandal that shook college sports like nothing before.
In the summer of 2003, basketball player Patrick Dennehy was found shot to death after he had been missing for six weeks. Teammate Carlton Dotson pleaded guilty to murder. The ensuing investigation uncovered NCAA violations, illegal tuition payments and unreported failed drug tests that led to the resignation of coach Dave Bliss, who was secretly recorded by an assistant coach of trying to persuade others to cover up misdeeds by portraying Dennehy as a drug dealer.
Drew inherited a roster decimated by the departure of the three top scorers, who left under relaxed transfer rules. There were school-imposed sanctions reducing scholarships and recruiting visits, and the NCAA limited the Bears to playing only conference games in his third season.
With three NCAA tournament appearances the past five years, an NIT championship game in that span and already a school-record 29 wins this season, many of those bad memories are quickly fading away. The Bears play Xavier on Friday night in Atlanta.
"You don't hear Baylor and think of that whole episode anymore. You think of RG3, Brittney Griner and this guy right here (potential NBA lottery pick Perry Jones III)," senior forward Quincy Acy said. "It's going to take time to completely erase it and for us to become a complete powerhouse, but I think we're headed in the right direction."
Ah, yes. Griffin and Griner, the 6-foot-8 junior phenom.
Griner, the only women's college player who is a U.S. Olympic team finalist, helped lead the Lady Bears to the NCAA Final Four as a freshman and a regional final last year before losing to Texas A&M, the eventual national champion they had already beaten three times.
"It's just a great time to be a Bear right now," said Griner, who became only the second woman to dunk in an NCAA game during Tuesday night's win over Florida. "On campus, everybody is really excited. The community, fellow classmates, everybody's behind us."
All of Baylor's sports teams, men and women, have qualified for the postseason so far this academic year, and the 400-plus athletes on campus had a combined 3.16 GPA last fall.
Griffin, who got his political science degree in three years, set or tied 54 school records in 41 games and then went out and charmed everyone at the NFL scouting combine without throwing a pass. The dual-threat quarterback led the Bears to only the second 10-win season in their 112 years of football. They had never even had a winning record in the Big 12 before RG3 arrived with coach Art Briles.
The Washington Redskins traded three first-round picks and a second-rounder to St. Louis for the No. 2 overall pick in next month's NFL draft. That's presumably to select Griffin since the Indianapolis Colts, now without Peyton Manning, are expected to take Heisman runner-up Andrew Luck from Stanford first overall.
Baylor President Ken Starr — yes, the former independent prosecutor best known for his investigation into the Clinton White House and the Monica Lewinsky scandal — believes athletics provide a voice through which the university speaks to the entire world.
"I'm so proud of the way our athletes use their God-given gifts coupled with their very hard work to bring great joy and pride to all of Baylor nation," Starr said. "The voice of Baylor athletics is quite eloquent right now."
While hard to determine the true impact of athletic success on freshman applications, the numbers have drastically increased.
There are more than 40,000 applications for the upcoming fall semester for only about 3,000 freshman spots. That's up from 15,458 applicants for the Fall 2005 class, right after the Lady Bears won their first national title. Average SAT and ACT scores for incoming freshmen also have significantly increased during that time.
"I think our national championship erased a lot of negative publicity from what had happened with men's basketball," Mulkey said. "I think timing in all of our lives is so important — the timing of me leaving Louisiana Tech to go to Baylor, the timing of when we won the national championship, the timing of the Heisman Trophy and men's basketball doing well and women's basketball."
More than $250 million in new athletic and academic facilities have been added in the past decade to the campus that's home to about 15,000 students in Central Texas. Another $120 million in capital improvements are under way. The Bear Foundation, the primary fundraising arm supporting the school's 19 athletic programs, contributed nearly $7.7 million for scholarship support during the 2010-11 academic year. It was the seventh consecutive year with a record total.
There are also plans for a new campus football stadium, just off Interstate 35 along the banks of the Brazos River in the city of about 120,000 people. The family of former Houston Astros owner Drayton McLane Jr., a 1958 Baylor grad and former regents chairman, recently gave the school the largest capital gift ever — more than $20 million — for the stadium the school hopes to have for the 2014 season.
"(The stadium) has been the talk of the town. Robert Griffin had a great year, and that got things rolling, and the basketball is continuing. You need good news, and this is good economic news for Waco," said Sammy Citrano, owner of the two George's restaurants known for their big chicken fried steaks. "I've been here 26 years and this is a great feeling."
Bliss has since shared his testimony and counseled young coaches, telling them he allowed the competitive world of college athletics to compromise his beliefs. He still gets calls with questions about what happened, usually when the Bears are having the kind of success that puts that dreadful time even further behind them.
"I try to make it as positive for Baylor as I can, because I put them through enough," said Bliss, now coach, athletic director and dean of students at Allen Academy, which serves nearly 300 students in kindergarten through 12th grade near Texas A&M.
"I chose to go to Baylor because I wanted to help be part of the solution, and the aspect of what they have accomplished doesn't surprise me because I think I saw a lot of the great things that were possible there," Bliss said. "I'm obviously thrilled for what they're accomplishing, and the way they're accomplishing it."