Before Art Briles coached his first game at Baylor, he was asked why he took a job that no one else wanted.
"I like to walk down paths nobody else wants to walk down," Briles said before the 2008 season. "I want pioneers. I want people that are not afraid to step out there and go. It's easy to walk down a path that's clear and pristine and you know it's just perfect. Our path's not that way."
The No. 6 Bears' improbable path from Big 12 cellar dwellers to champions culminates with their first BCS bowl game, against No. 15 Central Florida in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl on New Year's Day.
After inheriting a program that had endured 12 consecutive losing seasons, Briles guided the Bears to a remarkable 11-1 record in his sixth year at the Texas school. After going 4-8 in each of his first two seasons, the Bears have been to four straight bowl games, going 29-9 the past three seasons.
"I've been coaching a long time," Briles said. "It's my first opportunity to play in a BCS game. These guys have never had that opportunity. Baylor has never been in that situation before. It is all new. Who knows when the next opportunity is going to come? When you have the opportunity to do something, you take full advantage of it."
How bad were the Bears before Briles left the University of Houston for Baylor in November 2007? Consider these numbers:
• Baylor was a graveyard for coaches. Briles' predecessor, Guy Morriss, went 7-33 in Big 12 play. Morriss' predecessor, Kevin Steele, went 1-31. Steele's predecessor, Dave Roberts, went 2-14. The Bears also fired Chuck Reedy after legendary coach Grant Teaff retired following the 1992 season.
• In the 11 seasons before Briles was hired, the Bears had won three games or fewer nine times. They hadn't had a winning season since finishing 7-4 under Reedy in 1995.
• When Briles was hired, the Bears had lost 85 of 96 Big 12 games. He inherited a 12-game losing streak against conference foes.
• After the Big 12 was formed in 1996, the Bears went winless against Big 12 competition in four seasons and finished in the basement of the Big 12 South in 11 seasons. In their first dozen seasons in the Big 12, the Bears lost conference games by an average margin of 24 points and won more than two league games in a season only once, going 3-5 in 2006.
• The Bears were the only Big 12 team without a bowl appearance in the first 12 years after the league's inception. At the time, only two teams from BCS conferences had gone longer without playing in a bowl game: Indiana and Vanderbilt.
Now Baylor is the hottest program in Texas, leading Football Bowl Subdivision teams in total offense (624.5 yards per game) and scoring (53.3 points) while using Briles' fast-paced spread offense. The Bears started the season 9-0 before losing at then-No. 10 Oklahoma State 49-17 on Nov. 23. They beat then-No. 25 Texas 30-10 in their Dec. 7 regular-season finale to win their first Big 12 title with an 8-1 record against league opponents. (They needed 10 seasons to win their first eight league games after they joined the Big 12.)
Earlier this season, Texas Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury called Briles' rebuilding job one of the "greatest feats in college football history."
"I still don't think he gets the credit he deserves for the job he's done at Baylor," Kingsbury said. "I don't think people nationally understand how down the program was when he took the job."
Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III, who won the 2011 Heisman Trophy while playing at Baylor, said his alma mater still doesn't get enough credit.
"It's amazing," Griffin said. "The biggest thing is Baylor has never gotten the respect it deserved over the last couple of years with the teams we've beaten. If we win the conference, it's because the league is down. The guys have a chip on their shoulders."
Bears quarterback Bryce Petty said Briles instilled the right mindset at Baylor from the start. Instead of looking at its woebegone past, Briles urged the Bears to start looking ahead.
"I told my mom and dad about Baylor being a 'but' team," Petty said. "People like to say, 'Baylor's good, but...' or 'Baylor can score, but ...' Why not Baylor? It's so true. When you talk about past years and what's going on now, why not Baylor? Why not a Big 12 championship? We have the talent, and we're one of the hardest-working teams around."
The challenge for Briles now is maintaining his program's unlikely momentum. After Griffin left for the NFL draft, the Bears dipped from 10-3 in 2011 to 8-5 in 2012. Petty has already announced he'll return for his senior season in 2014, but a dozen starters on offense and defense are seniors and will have to be replaced. Junior tailback Lache Seastrunk, who rushed for 1,060 yards with 11 touchdowns this season, also has to decide whether he'll return for his senior season or enter the NFL draft.
At least the Bears are optimistic that Briles won't be going anywhere. Last month, he agreed to a 10-year contract extension that will pay him more than $4 million annually. The deal might keep him at Baylor through the 2023 season. Next season, Baylor will play in a new $260 million on-campus stadium that sits on the banks of the Brazos River in Waco.
"Now that we've established ourselves as Big 12 champions, it's not like we reached the mountaintop," Briles said. "There are a lot of things out in front of us we're shooting for, doing everything right in all situations across the board. There are other team goals we want to achieve. We've gotten to a good point with our program. Now the drive and duty is to maintain that."