Every place has its ghosts, and they fall into two categories: those you revere and those you wish would go the hell away. The grizzled river town of Waco, Texas, and its showcase university, Baylor, may have spent decades in the loosest of embraces, but they've long shared an excess of the second kind. Bad history haunts both city and school like a baffling nightmare.
Yet on this Saturday afternoon in January, an amped-up crowd of 10,617 is squeezing into Baylor's Ferrell Center to revel only in today, in the realization that it's never been so good, the notion that Baylor and Waco, together at last, just might have turned a psychic corner. While 11 weeks could never expel the wrenching images of 1993 or 2003—of David Koresh and the Branch Davidians and 84 dead, of Carlton Dotson and Patrick Dennehy and a program hurtling so monstrously off the rails—there's no denying the high created when a school's teams, all at once, lurch into overdrive, and national TV talking heads start caressing the Baylor name on air.
From Nov. 1 until Jan. 16, the Bears' football and men's and women's basketball teams combined to go 40--0. "Unprecedented in the history of college athletics, as far as I know," says athletic director Ian McCaw. In that same time 10 other Baylor teams also sat in the nation's top 25, and the athletic program as a whole finished with its best semester ever in the classroom (3.17 GPA). Oh, and quarterback Robert Griffin III won the 2011 Heisman Trophy, the unbeaten Lady Bears put a hammerlock on the No. 1 basketball ranking and men's hoops edged oh-so-close to the nation's top spot. Sic 'em Bears! indeed.
"Look what's going on: Our women's volleyball team made the playoffs; our women's soccer team made the NCAA tournament; football team's Number 12 in the [BCS rankings]; men's basketball team was Number 3," says Griffin who, despite being projected as a top three NFL draft pick, seriously mulled returning to school for his senior season. "There's great things going on at Baylor, and no one wants to miss out. I still want to experience that."
Who doesn't? Today's nationally featured game against Missouri represents the first top five showdown in the history of the Baylor men's program and the first time tickets sold out in advance. By the time warmups are over, the face-painted, green-and-gold-kitted fans are wound up to a screaming pitch, spurred on—this being the world's largest Baptist university—by the band's wheezy rendition of Livin' on a Prayer. The Bears jog out amid billows of liquid nitrogen. A sweet-faced boy grips a large yellow sign with a message out of Deuteronomy 7:2: SHOW THEM NO MERCY.
It feels, yes, like a big-time college crowd: demanding, obnoxious, delusionally sure that this, now, is the most important event in the world. But the ghosts are beginning to hover. The announcer calls for a moment of silence to mark the 85th anniversary of the death of the Immortal Ten, who were killed in 1927 when a bus carrying Baylor's basketball team was crushed by a speeding train and whose names, during homecoming, are recited aloud to each new freshman class. Fans stare at their toes.
Seconds before tip-off Jerry Hill, who has covered Baylor sports for 29 years, scans the packed house, the astonishing talent in Bears uniforms, the ESPN cameras. He shakes his head and speaks, but the words drown in the din. The ball rises. He repeats himself.
"I never thought it would happen here," Hill says.
Let's assume that the ideal is dead. Because if Reggie Bush's vacated 2005 Heisman Trophy and Miami football's booster scandal and UConn's tainted 2011 NCAA men's basketball title didn't prove that big-time college sports has lost all right to speak of "winning the right way," then Penn State's recent crash should have removed any last glimmer of illusion. Who today doesn't shrug and say the programs are all dirty and lying, or paying players through some back door, or far more dedicated to protecting the brand and collecting cash than shaping young minds?
Yet now into this bog—and dressed for church—steps Baylor. Now comes a medium-sized (12,575 undergrads) private university from a town (pop. 120,805) long known for disaster—natural, man-made and, in the case of Koresh's cult of Branch Davidians, apocalyptically faith-based—suddenly collecting blue-chip players, beating its elephantine public rivals and doing it all, it swears, for the highest of purposes. "Our role," McCaw likes to say, "is to glorify God through our athletic program."