How The Heck Did We Get Here? The Baylor Faithful Wander Out Of The DesertS

We're running a series of dispatches from fans of unlikely Sweet 16 teams: Ohio, North Carolina State, and Baylor.

I went to Baylor because of Brian Skinner and chicken fried steak. I know this sounds ridiculous; I mean, it is ridiculous. But it's true. When I went to visit the campus as a high school senior, I didn't have any intention of going there. But it was a 90-minute drive from home, and it was convenient enough. When I got there, the cafeteria had chicken fried steak, which was just about my favorite thing in the world, and so it was with a full stomach that I trekked over to the Ferrell Center to watch a Baylor basketball game.

I don't even remember which team they were playing. (I don't even know if I could reconstruct it, but it's moot; when your school's athletic history is as void as Baylor's, investigating old game info is practically impossible. There are websites dedicated to archiving every moment of every game at the University of Texas. For Baylor, for decades, we were lucky if we could forget the games by the morning after they were played.) Whoever it was, it had to have been somebody just as lousy as Baylor was, because Skinner looked like a muscled-up, begoggled Bill Russell out there. That was a guy I wanted to root for.

Suffice it to say that Skinner's Baylor squads never amounted to much. He had a long NBA career, as strong, fairly coordinated 6-foot-9 guys sometimes do, but he played for eight teams in 11 stops over 12 years in the league, and a quick YouTube search leads you to things like, "Kwame Brown Tomahawk Dunk Over Brian Skinner."

As for football, well, there was even less to get excited about. There was one homecoming game against Texas in which Baylor eked out a win and fans tore down the goalpost and carried it back to campus. (In retrospect, this was a win for both teams, as it led more or less directly to Texas firing John Mackovic and bringing in Mack Brown.) There was that transcendent stretch during the 1996 season when slash-back Kalief Muhammad ran up and down the field, seemingly unstoppable, all of Floyd Casey Stadium ringing with his name. Try to imagine it: a crowd of arch-conservative Baptists chanting Ka-lief Mu-ham-mad, Ka-lief Mu-ham-mad in 2006.

Did I mention that Baylor is a deeply Christian, deeply conservative school?

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If you've read any of the high-profile feature pieces on Baylor's emergence as a legitimate sports school—The New York Times and Sports Illustrated have taken notice, and with only the subtlest condescension—you probably knew that already. Both pieces are long, so if you aren't inclined to read them, the story goes something like this: Baylor was really terrible at sports for forever and Baylor people love Jesus and then a basketball player got murdered by his teammate and then the Big 12 almost collapsed and check out this folksy quote about football and Jesus and then Baylor got good at sports and oh by the way Ken Starr is the university president. If those stories weren't definitive enough, ESPN went and formalized Baylor's ascension into the big time by giving its players both the classic "You Think You Know Him, But You Don't" profile and the "This Unassuming Player is Hardworking and Humble" profile.

With Scott Drew's screwball bunch of talent making a run in the tournament just months after Robert Griffin III put up the best season of any quarterback in college football, Baylor has inexplicably established itself as a legitimate sports program. The basketball team, behind semi-star forward Perry Jones III—who has the singular ability to appear as if he's playing on a 9-foot goal, even if he seems only occasionally motivated to be great—trotted out a pair of already-infamous new uniforms for the Big 12 tournament, a highlighter-yellow number that even Oregon football might deem garish and a camouflage look with a black flak-jacket-like chest plate that's an homage either to the 1987 Miami Hurricanes or to 50 Cent. How do you know you've arrived as a sports school? A fuck-you uniform redesign, that's how.

It's all pretty bizarre for an actual Baylor grad, especially one at such a physical remove from the "Baylor Bubble" of Waco. Hell, there have been times in the past 10 years, trying in vain to follow Baylor from Brooklyn, that I wasn't totally sure they were even fielding a team. For the record, they were, except for a spell when they suspended their own basketball squad from non-conference games after the murder of Patrick Dennehy and the subsequent attempted cover-up by the head coach, Davis Bliss. (This, by the way, has its own Wikipedia page.) For the better part of a decade, that was the legacy of the Baylor basketball program.

Listen, I wasn't your prototypical Baylor student—I give that title to the guy in my freshman-year Old Testament class who argued, loudly, that Noah's Ark was real and in fact had been found, as the professor's face worked itself into a knot. I had mixed feelings about the place from freshman year on, and I still do today. But in the years since I left the Lone Star State, I've wanted to love Baylor sports. Palling around in New York with University of Texas grads will have that effect on you, I guess. When you're so far from home, it's comforting to see your alma mater play ball, and occasionally win. But it's frankly odd to have spent so many years at peace with my school's athletic irrelevance and then to have the Bears emerge—as the theologians might say—ex nihilo onto the scene. It's weird to have to take them seriously. There was a time not so long ago when I'd mention Baylor and the person I was talking to would say, "Oh, good med school, right?" to which I'd have to point out that Baylor severed ties with Baylor Medical School in the '60s. Or he'd say, "Aren't they all, like, hardcore Christians?" to which I'd have to say yes.

I guess this is the crux of my discomfort with Baylor. I was never uncomfortable with Christianity itself. Maybe having a Southern Baptist preacher for a father helped with that. But the school's overwhelming culture of evangelical automatization—SI mentions the t-shirts, the highway billboards, the students asking Brittney Griner to let them pray with her right in the middle of campus (this stuff really happens)—left me cold, and seeing the mind-meld between the Republican Party and the Christian Right in real-time turned my stomach. At Baylor, the kids glommed onto faith the way they might become Dead Heads or gutterpunks somewhere else. It was a culture of Christian t-shirts over Gospel values. It was an army of closed-minded white people preaching inclusiveness. It was a culture of taking oneself so very, very seriously. That wasn't a Christianity I wanted anything to do with, but it was inescapable.

Athletic success did something, though. Culture corrupts, and when the sports world—in all its well-meaning thickheadedness—rubbed up against all that religious fervency, an alchemy took place, at least in my mind, whereby Baylor's outward piety was converted into folksy color in magazine pieces. It was B-roll, just another part of the college backdrop, our version of ivy on a brick wall. As it should be.

It's a good thing to have a coach who professes his deep Christianity one moment and then lapses into accidental irreverence when he talks about people "crucifying" him, or when he sets up a literal shrine to Baylor in the Indiana airport in which he interviews for the job (false idols and all that). It may have been patronizing when major news outlets ran har-har lines like "thank you, Lord" after Griffin took a smart knee (that's SI) or "To which all of Baylor Nation said: Amen" (that's how the Times ended its piece—seriously), but then again Baylor's institutional religiosity is nothing if not patronizing, too. Mixing God with decidedly earthbound concerns—like fundraising, or building projects, or women's basketball—trivializes the whole thing. The "Nehemiah-like rebuilding process," the band playing "Livin' on a Prayer," Sonny Vaccaro's mailed-in "they don't know if he's Billy Graham or Jimmy Swaggart" bit about Scott Drew—this is exactly what Baylor is like. Finally we have sports teams good enough for me to laugh about it.

Oh, and the kid in the SI piece with the sign reading "Deuteronomy 7:2: SHOW THEM NO MERCY"? Setting aside the tastelessness of trotting out a Bible chapter synonymous with the bloodlust of the Crusades for the sake of a basketball prop, SI might have gone a little deeper into that passage, seeing as how its latter verses get to the heart of Baylor's years of exile: "If you pay attention to these laws and are careful to follow them … you will be blessed more than any other people." There was a little dime-store theodicy to be had in Baylor's epic mediocrity. Where was God's blessing for all these years? It's glib, sure, but that was the feeling among so many Baylor grads I knew growing up in Fort Worth. It wasn't a down year or a rough patch—outside of a lucky game ot two, there was precisely nothing to cheer about for something like 35 years. RGIII winning the Heisman was the biggest thing to happen in Baylor football since the Miracle on the Brazos in 1974. This isn't hyperbole. The Wikipedia page for Baylor football has no information for the years between 1974 and 2008. For basketball, it goes straight from "Post World War II success" to "2003 Scandal." World War II!

And now, somehow they're good. It's like a miracle.

To which all of Baylor Nation probably says: Ahem.

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I watched the Big 12 tournament quarterfinal game—the one in which Baylor took apart Kansas State—in a bar/restaurant in Manhattan. During the game, some staff member switched the channel to the Syracuse game. You'd think they could spare a screen for us wayward Texans, not least because the menu flaunted things like chicken fried steak and pulled pork. Something like 14 of 16 TVs in the joint were tuned into Syracuse, and my buddy Stu and I were sitting directly in front of the screen we were watching, our heads blocking anybody else's line of sight. We sighed expertly. It's not like we weren't used to it. In the 10 or 15 years since we migrated to New York, on those rare occasions when some national network deigned to air a Baylor game, we would always have to fight to get any place to switch the game on, and such fights would almost always end unhappily—a polite shrug from the bartender as she switched over to some game that people actually cared about.

This time, though, the bartender apologized sweetly and we got our game back on. Maybe she was just being accommodating, but Jesus Christ it felt good.

David Shoemaker, aka The Masked Man, works in publishing and writes our Dead Wrestler of the Week column. He also writes about wrestling for Grantland. Email him at themaskedman01@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter at @AKATheMaskedMan.