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Players from Baylor's yesterday marvel at today's Bears

Lanny O'Steen and Guy Tomcheck took their seats at the Winspear Opera House in downtown Dallas, for the Texas Ballet Theater's production of "Dracula."

It was opening night, but O'Steen and Tomcheck, former teammates at Baylor and close friends, had more interest in another debut performance of style and grace. Just miles away at Ford Stadium, Baylor was kicking off its season against SMU.

As Count Dracula whisked across the stage alongside his 18 brides, O'Steen and Tomcheck did what men dragged to the ballet by their wives on college football's opening weekend are wont to do. They pulled out their smartphones and tracked the game.

They weren't worried about the outcome -- Baylor entered as a 36-point favorite. They just didn't want to miss the fireworks. The Bears obliged with a 56-point performance.

"We're loving it, rewinding it. Watch this, watch this," O'Steen said.

"I can't believe Baylor is where they are," Tomcheck added. "From where we were to now, you pause to appreciate that."

Few can appreciate Baylor's transformation, especially on offense, more than O'Steen, Tomcheck and others who played during a fairly recent yet seemingly distant era at Baylor. These days, the ex-Bears marvel at an Art Briles-engineered offense on pace to lead the FBS in both scoring (50.8 PPG) and yards per game (616 YPG) for the third straight season. Baylor is the only team to produce a top-four offense in each of the past four years. It has scored 30 or more points in 50 of its past 56 games and reached the 50-point mark 26 times since 2011, most in the FBS.

"This Baylor's not the same Baylor when I played," former quarterback Greg Cicero said.

Just 15 years ago, Baylor went 2-9, which wasn't uncommon (the Bears won three games or fewer every season between 1997 and 2004). But the 2000 team was the true antithesis of the current squad.

It averaged 12.6 points per game, which ranked 113th out of 116 FBS teams. The Bears bottomed out midseason, when they were shut out in three consecutive games. Between Sept. 30 and Nov. 4 of that year, they scored a total of 38 points. They were outscored 397-139 for the season.

Tomcheck, a freshman quarterback thrust into action because of injuries, led Baylor in passing with 602 yards. O'Steen was the team's second-leading receiver with 279 yards. Darrell Bush led Baylor in rushing with 517 yards. He also tied for the team lead in rushing touchdowns.

Two.

"Our fans would celebrate and cheer a first down and then just go bonkers when we actually got into the end zone," said John Morris, Baylor's broadcaster since 1987. "We were the dregs. We were the bottom of the Big 12 by a long shot.

"To put it mildly, things are different now."

'That freaking October'

Baylor went 1-10 in 1999 and averaged just 12.5 points per game, better than only three FBS teams. But there was a reason for hope entering 2000: Cicero, a junior-college transfer who had started his career at Texas, was eligible.

Cicero passed for 213 yards in a season-opening win against North Texas. But he broke his collarbone the following week against Minnesota. While the current Baylor team continued to score after losing top quarterback Seth Russell to a neck injury, the 2000 season was over as soon as Cicero went down, and everyone knew it

After Cicero's injury, O'Steen remembers an assistant coach imploring the defense to step up. "He had tears running down his face."

Baylor beat South Florida in its first game without Cicero. The following week, Bush had a 1-yard touchdown run early in the fourth quarter of a 31-17 loss to Iowa State.

The Bears would not score again for 28 days.

"October, man," O'Steen said. "That freaking October."

It began with a 28-0 loss at Texas Tech. O'Steen nearly had a breakaway touchdown, but a Tech defender got just enough of his foot, and he tripped on the old, sticky turf at Jones Stadium.

A 24-0 home loss to Texas A&M followed. Baylor threw four interceptions and failed to reach A&M territory on its final 11 drives. But the worst was yet to come.

Baylor visited No. 1 Nebraska on Oct. 21. The Huskers scored 38 points in the first quarter, a team record, outgaining Baylor 189-1 in the period. Nebraska scored on its first nine possessions. It was 52-0 at halftime.

"[Baylor coach] Kevin Steele had been on the staff at Nebraska, so the coaches there, they literally called off the dogs in the second quarter," Morris said. "They just piled up so many points so early. Out of respect for him, it was only 59-0, but it easily could have been 150-0.

"Nebraska was pretty kind to us that day."

Tomcheck wasn't aware of the scoreless streak until he broke it with an 18-yard touchdown pass against Texas in the first quarter of a 48-14 loss. After the game, Tomcheck was out in Austin, Texas, when SportsCenter showed the play.

"I was excited that they were showing it, but underneath it said something to the effect of: First touchdown Baylor has scored in however many quarters," Tomcheck said. "My excitement was immediately dulled."

These days, Briles' exciting offense defines Baylor football. But when O'Steen and fellow receiver Bobby Darnell played, Baylor cycled through three offensive systems and three coordinators -- not to mention 10 different quarterbacks.

There were no Corey Colemans or RG IIIs back then, but most Baylor players came in from successful high school programs. They were used to winning, scoring and competing.

"It was a tough time, it really was," Cicero said. "The guys who played there grew stronger because of the strife that you go through. I look at a program like Kansas right now, or some other programs that are struggling, and know that [feeling]."

'A second-class program'

A record-setting offense isn't the only glitzy thing about Baylor's program today. Alternate uniforms and chrome helmets are more requirements than novelties in college football, and Baylor has gone all in with an array of game-day getups. The Bears are the closest thing to Oregon Southwest.

Fifteen years ago, no one wanted to look like them or play like them.

"We were just a second-class program, everything from our clothing contract, facilities, the weight room, the locker room, the stadium obviously was awful," O'Steen said. "We were with a second-tier contract with Reebok. I just remember friends who played [Texas] and they were laughing at us, the shoes we would be wearing.

"It's just little stuff like that makes a difference."

Players would buy their own cleats rather than use the ones they were given. Obtaining extra gear, Tomcheck said, was "like pulling teeth." They had no swag or swagger.

"Good ol' Reebok," Darnell recalled. "White or gold pants and green or white jerseys, that was it. If we went all white, that was as crazy as it got. We didn't even go all green.

"It was very much, I guess you would say, boring."

Baylor's entire football operation was off campus at gloomy Floyd Casey Stadium, and players remember 5 a.m. drives through flashing traffic lights for practices. Now they marvel at McLane Stadium, Baylor's $260 million palace along the banks of the Brazos River.

Rather than travel several miles, players can walk across the street to manicured practice fields and other top-notch facilities. "Their experience," Darnell said, "is a lot different."

"There's like a pre-Briles and post-Briles era," Tomcheck said.

Briles didn't just bring a new offense to Baylor. He brought a new philosophy, an edge. Confidence isn't in short supply with the Bears -- opponents would say there's a surplus. But they enter any game, in any location, looking to dominate.

The thought that Baylor would face Texas as a three-touchdown favorite -- the line for Saturday's game in Waco, Texas -- is unfathomable considering where the program was in 2000.

"That's a decisive difference," O'Steen said. "There's this expectation to win. There was no illusion for us that we were going to go in and beat a UT or an OU back in the day. I'm not being negative; I'm being a realist. It was, we're gonna get our ass kicked."

Connecting past and present

Several years ago, O'Steen went to Baylor to gather evidence of his career as a Bear. He asked about the game program from 1999 that showed him on the cover leaping above an Iowa State defender for a pass. The response: We don't have any '99s.

He asked about the 2000 season. Same answer.

"I'm sure if I wanted to get some film to show my kids, they'd be like, 'Hmm, no, we threw that away,'" O'Steen said. "It's like erased from memory."

Well, not completely.

In 2013, ESPN's College GameDay aired a story about Baylor's transformation. Tomcheck excitedly gathered his wife and two sons around the television. They watched highlights of Baylor scoring, fans celebrating and running back Lache Seastrunk saying the Bears could score 100 points in a game.

Then the piece pivoted to how Baylor got here. Tomcheck appeared on screen flailing and fumbling against Minnesota, and throwing an interception against Texas.

"I literally didn't know what to say," Tomcheck said. "I was like, 'Are you kidding me?' I guess I sum up that era of Baylor football. I can laugh at myself pretty good. It was just the first moment you saw it, you're like, 'Man, that's me.'"

Tomcheck, the director of partnerships for the Texas Rangers, watches every Baylor game and attends when he can. He remains in contact with several former teammates and Morris, but most of the people he knew are gone.

Although he'd like to be around more often, he finds himself hesitating.

"I would love to check out the facilities and all that stuff, but I almost feel like, 'I don't want to go bother those guys. I'm a guy from another era,'" Tomcheck said. "I'm sure they would be open to it. It's not like an intentional thing, [athletic director] Ian McCaw or Art Briles saying, 'Our tradition starts now.' It's just something that naturally happens when a program has a complete rebrand, refresh. It's almost a different history."

When O'Steen sees ex-players from the 1970s and 1980s, they tell him that few players from his era attend major gatherings. But some from Baylor's past feel a link.

Cicero has had long talks with McCaw at games. As offensive coordinator for Ridge Point High School near Houston, Darnell visits Baylor's coaches every spring to pick their brains about offense and watch practice.

"They understand you may not have had a lot of success here, but it doesn't really matter in the grand scheme," Cicero said. "They do their best to make you feel welcome and make you feel a part of the success they're having today."

Morris loves seeing players from the 2000 team enjoying the current product. "They were a part of it during a lean time," he said, "but they were still lettermen here, and I'm glad they feel that pride."

The offense is the biggest unifier.

"It's fun to watch the tempo, it's fun to watch them airing it out, the talent that they have at every position," Cicero said. "It's just so much different, the belief that they're going to be good and they're going to score a lot of points.

"As a person who's experienced the flip side of that, it's good to see."

The former players recognize the program's incredible transformation, but they also enjoy being around those who don't carry the same scars. O'Steen's son started following Baylor in 2010, when the team recorded its first winning season since 1995. Tomcheck's young sons have only known Baylor to produce points, wins and championships.

Although Cicero lives in California, his son plays flag football for a team called the Baylor Bears. Cicero wants his kids to see Baylor football as what it is now, not what it was when their father played there.

"When you go to games and you see everybody, it doesn't feel like it was long ago," Darnell said. "But when you see where it came from, a 1-10 season to back-to-back Big 12 champs and in the conversation for New Year's Six bowls, it's almost like an eternity away."