The changing state of Texas football

WACO, Texas -- Imagine the incredulous looks you would have drawn a decade ago had you been brazen enough to forecast the current football landscape in the state of Texas.

Instead of lining up a trip to the next game, your friends would have staged an intervention and lined you up for a trip to the shrink.

Think about it. The 10-year anniversary of Texas' 2005 national championship season is approaching. The Longhorns were on top of the college football world after their unforgettable 41-38 win over USC in the title game. They were in the midst of a glorious nine-year stampede under Mack Brown that saw them win 10 or more games every year and five straight bowl games, including three BCS bowls.

Not only did the state capital reside in Austin, so did the state's football capital.

Meanwhile, finding Baylor on a football map at that time would have been more difficult than wolfing down a Gut Pack at Waco's famed Vitek's BBQ restaurant, then going out and running a 10K.

The small Baptist university about 100 miles up the road via Interstate 35 might as well have been a gnat in Bevo's path. The Bears managed just 14 Big 12 wins in the first 14 years of the league (from 1996-2009), suffered through 14 consecutive losing seasons and were playing their home games at Floyd Casey Stadium, an antiquated, off-campus venue perhaps best known for the green tarp draped across the south end zone to hide the empty seats.

So how in the name of J.R. Ewing did we get to the current state of affairs in Texas?

Leave it to that folksy football philosopher Art Briles to put it all in perspective.

"What is ain't," Baylor coach Briles deadpanned in his vintage Texas twang. "Just because something has been a certain way doesn't mean it's going to stay that way. That to me is the thing that's most inspiring about what we've done here. You don't have to go with the good ol' boy theory that that's the way it's always going to be."

But even for Briles, who is never shy about speaking his mind, the football upheaval that has taken place in the state he's called home his entire life is at least worth a double take. Just don't make the mistake of suggesting, in Briles' presence anyway, Baylor can't possibly sustain its spot at the top of the heap.

"Look over the last five years. We've won (as many or) more football games than anybody in this state. We've won more championships and done more than any university in this state," said Briles, who has guided the Bears to back-to-back Big 12 titles. "It's a different day. That's the part that makes this so much fun. Older people like me are the ones who are cynical. We have the doubters, that something is just the way it is and the way it's supposed to be. I'm never going to allow myself to be that way."

The Bears' Big 12 championships the last two seasons are their first conference titles of any kind since winning the old Southwest Conference crown back in 1980. Briles was an assistant high school coach in Sweetwater, Texas, at the time.

Even more telling is that Baylor shared the Big 12 title last season with TCU, which a decade ago had just transitioned from Conference USA to the Mountain West. Heading into the 2015 season, Baylor and TCU are top-10 fixtures in the preseason polls.

And while nobody thinks Texas is going to stay down forever, second-year coach Charlie Strong is realistic about where the Longhorns are in the pecking order. They are just 36-28 over the last five seasons.

"You have to give credit to those other programs," Strong said. "They've done a great job and are having a lot of success. But at the University of Texas, we should still be successful. There's no reason not to. In recruiting, you're going to always have your foot in the door. It's just a matter of closing out those recruits. The overall success within the state has been amazing, but we've got to get back to that championship level and go compete at that level, and that's what we haven't done for a while."

Making the dynamic within the state even more intriguing is that Texas A&M has gone off and done its own thing. The Aggies bolted for the SEC following the 2011 season, and fourth-year coach Kevin Sumlin, by his own admission, is more concerned with navigating the SEC West than changing the landscape in Texas.

But when it comes to recruiting within the state's borders, that's a battle raging as fiercely as it ever has. The Aggies have something to sell the others don't, which is staying home and playing your college football in the SEC.

"We've hit that pretty hard, and look at our scheduling," said Sumlin, who has signed the No. 1 player in the state each of the last two years. "We're playing Arizona State this year, then home and home with UCLA, and home and home with Colorado. So we're keeping our brand coast to coast."

The only brand Briles is concerned with is the state of Texas, and his 20 years as a Hall of Fame high school coach here have paid dividends for the Bears. Of the 95 players on Baylor's spring roster, 81 played high school football in the state.

"It ain't all bad right here, and I know the climate and that's important, especially in our business," Briles said. "The players are all right here in Texas. You've just got to give them a reason to come, and we've done that."

Briles' high-flying spread offense is a huge draw, particularly to local recruits who run similar offenses in high school. Briles quips that no quarterbacks are under center anymore in Texas high school football "if they're winning."

And here's the other thing: The Bears are continually looking for ways to be more creative.

"The rules are out there. You abide by them, but you don't have to concretely live by them in a football world, down-and-distance situations," said Briles, whose Baylor offense led FBS teams last season with averages of 48.2 points per game and 581.5 yards per game. "We'll continue to look for ways to stretch that defense as far as we can. You can say whatever you want, but they're mimicking what we've done. It makes us have to keep looking for different ways to do things, because everybody's more or less trying to do the same thing; so we have to be different again, and we will be."

One of the real game-changers for the Bears was the construction of state-of-the-art McLane Stadium on the banks of the Brazos River. There was a time when Baylor coaches would wait until the final hour of the recruiting trip to take a prospect to Floyd Casey Stadium. But now, it's the first place they take recruits, and the Bears set attendance records last year in their first season in McLane.

"If you're going to be a football program that does what it takes to play on a national scene, you can't sit back. You've got to be proactive," Briles said. "You've got to win on the field, always. That's the bottom line. Nothing happens without winning."

The Baylor players have taken on their coach's personality. They hear the whispers that this success is only fleeting until Texas or Oklahoma gets it rolling again. Junior receiver Corey Coleman, who led the team in receiving last season, scoffs at the notion.

"You mean 'big brother'?" Coleman huffed when asked about the Longhorns. "We don't look at it that way. Our job is to go out there against whoever we line up against and beat them. We're trying to be the best in the nation; not just in this state, but the nation."

It's just that kind of hunger that has Briles convinced the best is still ahead for a program that had been left for dead when he arrived in 2008.

"That's the great thing about it," Briles said. "For what we've done, we don't feel like we've done anything. That, to me, is the key ingredient.

"We're still the guy lying on the beach and somebody's kicking sand in our face."