As I write this, virtually every prognosticator in the sports’ world who deals with such matters has declared that Robert Griffin III, the quarterback of the Baylor Bears football team, will win the Heisman Trophy this Saturday in a landslide victory.
This continues to amaze me (in a positive way, of course).
Anyone who has a passing knowledge of football and has watched RG3 play during his college career can see that he is a great player. But that observation only begins to scratch the surface of what makes this young man so unique. The athletic accomplishments are there: he owns over 40 school records, he just set the NCAA record for passing efficiency and he’s an Olympic caliber track and field athlete on the side. For people who still care about such things regarding “student-athletes,” he also has an impressive academic resume: graduated high school early (ranked #7 in his class), got his degree in political science in three years (while making the dean’s list each semester), will complete his MA in Communications* in the spring and has repeatedly spoken about starting law school should he return for his final year of football eligibility.
(*Big ups to Castellaw!)
But even these lists of accomplishments do not really capture the essence of Griffin. If I had to summarize it, I would do so thusly: Robert Griffin III made Baylor football matter. People across the college football landscape are actually talking about the Bears in a positive light. As a result, Baylor Nation finally has a reason to be proud of its football team (as my follow alumnus of Baylor’s Film and Digital Media program Derek Haas recently wrote on Grantland.com).
Just about anybody who is vaguely aware of Baylor’s football history in the Big 12 can probably understand why Baylor fans are so ecstatic about how the 2011 season has played out. Personally, my freshman year at Baylor began in the fall of 1996, which coincided with the launch of the Big 12 as a conference. So I have been acutely aware of Baylor’s athletic struggles over the past 15 years, each new sports season hoping against hope that there would finally be a reason to cheer for my alma mater. I was usually disappointed. But even that disappointment could not have prepared Baylor Nation for the terrible things that happened in the summer of 2003. That is when we learned that Patrick Dennehy, a member of Baylor’s basketball team, had been shot and killed by his teammate, Carlton Dotson. As the investigation into this crime took place, it was also revealed that Baylor’s basketball coach at the time, Dave Bliss, had been paying the tuition of some of his players, including Dennehy, due to running out of scholarships. This is a violation of NCAA rules, so to cover up his infractions Bliss attempted to paint a picture that Patrick Dennehy had been dealing drugs. The truth was eventually revealed and Bliss was relieved of his job, as was athletic director Tom Stanton. It was at this point that I realized that I would never be able to cheer for my school the way that I saw so many other people cheer for theirs.
But then in August of 2003, Baylor hired a new athletic director by the name of Ian McCaw. There was no fanfare to celebrate this hire; AD hires rarely generate excitement regardless of the circumstances, and that was especially true in the wake of the tragedy that had happened. In retrospect however, McCaw being placed in charge of Baylor athletics may go down as one of the most pivotal moments in Baylor history.
Three years before McCaw moved to Waco, Baylor had hired Kim Mulkey to coach the Lady Bears basketball team. While she had done an incredible job in transforming the basketball team into one that was consistently ranked in the top 25 of the major polls, it was under McCaw that Mulkey was finally able to reach the pinnacle when, in 2005, the Lady Bears brought home Baylor’s first ever national championship in any of the three revenue-generating collegiate sports (football, men’s basketball and women’s basketball). That success helped set the stage for Scott Drew, the men’s basketball coach who had been hired around the same time as McCaw, who quickly became known as one of the best (and most aggressive) recruiters in the game. His dedication was rewarded when Baylor made the Elite Eight for the first time in 2010.
And then…there is football. As anyone who has spent more than five minutes in Texas (or has read or seen Friday Night Lights) knows, football is king in Texas. By a wiiiiiiide margin. The success that Baylor was experiencing on the hardwood was nice but few people in the state were taking the athletic program seriously because of the continued ineptitude of the football program. To make matters worse, Baylor was really the only school that was falling short of expectations. Since the beginning of the Big 12, the people of the Lone Star state had watched Vince Young lead the University of Texas to a BCS title, and his successor, Colt McCoy led the Longhorns back to the title game. Texas A&M won the Big 12 conference in 1998. Texas Tech was enjoying its most productive stretch of football ever by posting winning seasons every year of the Big 12’s existence. Even TCU, which had been left for dead when it wasn’t accepted into the Big 12 (and for some reason continues to blame Baylor for this) had become one of the darlings of college football by creating an exceptional program that ultimately culminated in an undefeated 2010 season and Rose Bowl win. Baylor was the exact inverse of all this success. The Bears hadn’t had a winning season at any point during the Big 12’s existence. To fix this, late in 2007 Ian McCaw hired a man by the name of Art Briles to coach the football team. And Briles brought with him a precocious 17-year old by the name of Robert Lee Griffin III.
By now, RG3’s accomplishments as both a student and an athlete are well-documented. And they are all noteworthy. But his most important contribution is that he made people pay attention to Baylor athletics again. When you listen to him speak, you quickly realize that accomplishment is one that causes him a great deal of pride. He truly loves his teammates, the fans of his team and Baylor Nation at large. And we all love him back because we know that he appreciates it.
During his freshman year, Robert Griffin III was often compared to Vince Young. That was a comparison I was reluctant to embrace for a two reasons. One, I felt that the comparisons were being made for the most superficial of reasons: they’re both Black, dual-threat quarterbacks. Two, the season that Young had in 2005 was one of the most incredible that I have ever seen and—to me—it became the measuring stick by which all dual-threat quarterbacks should be measured. Placing that kind of expectation on a freshman quarterback (at Baylor) seemed unfair. I have come around on that line of thinking. Once again, I have a couple of different reasons. The first is that in the time between the 2005 season and today, another quarterback by the name of Cam Newton had a season that at least equals (and possibly surpasses) what Young did that year. The fact that more than one player has had that kind of output makes it somewhat easier to use them as target goals. The other reason is much less abstract: Griffin accepted the challenge. Just as Young did in 2005, and Newton did in 2010, Griffin put his team on his back and said that he wanted to carry them as far as he possibly could. He has done so, with extraordinary results. And he did so at Baylor.
On Saturday, December 10th, 2011 the 76th Heisman Award winner is due to receive his trophy. Most people expect it to be Robert Griffin III of Baylor University. The trophy is made of cast bronze and weighs 25 pounds. But if RG3 does win, he should have no problem picking it up. He’s already lifted much more.