'Year of the Bear' continues at Baylor

It took a trip to Clayton Kershaw's Dallas home six years ago for baseball coach Steve Smith to realize where Baylor University really stood. Smith was trying to recruit the left-handed pitching phenom to Waco, but Texas A&M and Arkansas were hot on Kershaw's trail, too.

At the end of the visit, Smith finally asked, "Clayton, do you have any red flags about coming to Baylor?"

Kershaw replied that he had two.

"The first thing he said was, 'I like football,'" Smith recalled. "The second thing he said was, 'I like playing in front of big crowds.'"

Baylor, to Smith's dismay, didn't have much of either then. And the eventual Cy Young Award winner ultimately committed to
Texas A&M before signing a major league contract with the Los Angles Dodgers out of high school.

"That conversation was so enlightening," Smith said. "You knew if one guy says it, others were thinking the same thing."

Nobody is saying those things about Baylor at the moment. Not after one of the greatest combined athletic seasons in NCAA history.

Already, the Bears have broken the NCAA record for combined wins by a school's football, men's basketball, women's basketball and baseball teams in one academic year.

Individually, Robert Griffin III won the Heisman Trophy after quarterbacking Baylor to its first bowl win in 20 years, and Brittney Griner was named the women's basketball player of the year while propelling the Bears to a national championship.

Collectively, all 19 of Baylor's sports teams advanced to the postseason this year, including the baseball team, which cruised to its first outright conference title in 89 years. The Bears are the No. 4 national seed and host of this weekend's Waco Regional.

"I've been around long enough to remember the [Jim] Romes of the world questioning Baylor's existence in the Big 12," said Smith, who played baseball for Baylor and is in his 18th season coaching the Bears. "I remember when [football coach] Art [Briles] got hired, the question from the media to him was, 'Are you convinced Baylor is ready to make the commitment?' I'm sitting there thinking what kind of commitment do we have to make? We've been losing $10 million a year for a number of years. There hasn't been a problem with commitment; there's been a problem with performance. So it's pretty special to see what's happening right now.

"It's been a lot of fun to be around, and a long time coming."

The fun started in November with Griffin's improbable performance against Oklahoma. With eight seconds left, Griffin found Terrance Williams in the back of the end zone for a 34-yard, game-winning touchdown pass as Baylor knocked off the Sooners for the first time in school history. The Bears went on to take out Texas, too, and finished with their best record in more than three decades.

"When I go speak to different groups in January, February, there's usually not a lot of excitement," Smith said. "This year was different. There were a lot more smiles when I spoke to those same people. That play against Oklahoma was Robert's signature moment, and I think that was the play that pumped a lot of belief into everybody. It was like a snowball. Once it started rolling, the excitement kept building and building."

The momentum generated by the football team rolled right into basketball. The men won a school-record 30 games before losing to eventual national champ Kentucky in the Elite Eight. The unbeaten women posted the sport's first 40-win season and cruised to the national title.

While the basketball teams were making their postseason runs, the baseball program quietly was sweeping series after series. Then came the home date with second-ranked Texas A&M in late April. With all eyes finally on baseball, the Bears swept the Aggies before record crowds to break the Big 12 record with 18 consecutive conference victories.

"Once the other teams started going, it kinda caught fire," said catcher Josh Ludy, the Big 12's player of the year. "There was definitely a different attitude, a lot more people showing up to games. My first couple of years, it wasn't like that at all. But everyone had bought into Baylor athletics."

It's now on the baseball team to put the finishing touches on The Year of the Bear. And considering the Bears won't have to leave Baylor Ballpark -- where they are 29-3 this season -- for a regional and super regional, a trip to the College World Series is well within reach.

"The other sports definitely set the table for us," said leadoff hitter Nathan Orf, the Big 12's newcomer of the year. "I remember when I was in high school, I didn't really know who Baylor was. It's really cool to know our school is getting this kind of exposure. And to be part of this year and the winning, it's been is pretty special."