Bears roll, the crowd cheers, but it's not quite the same at Baylor

WACO, Texas — Despite the inconvenient kickoff — especially in Texas, Friday night is not the best option for college football — they gathered to participate in a mixture of traditions old and new. Fans grilled burgers in the parking lots. A few “sailgated” in the manmade harbor off the Brazos River. A very few danced as the Gin Blossoms played a show just outside the stadium.

A short while later, 3,500 freshmen raced onto the field, part of the Baylor Line. And then as a steamy hot afternoon faded into evening, Baylor romped over an outmanned nonconference opponent.

For one of college football’s nouveau riche, it was all a familiar routine.

“It felt like Baylor,” said Seth Russell, the Bears’ senior quarterback. “That’s just the way it was.”

But is it still that way? Baylor’s 55-7 win against Northwestern State, complete with the usual pageantry and a near-capacity crowd of 44,849, didn’t hide the reality. In the wake of a scandal over sexual assault allegations — and the school’s mishandling of them — that ultimately claimed the jobs of the university’s president, its athletic director and — most visibly — its crazy successful head football coach, there’s a new normal at Baylor.

It’s why the outside world paid a little more attention to a season opener against a middling FCS team. How would the Bears play without Art Briles, the architect of the football program’s rapid rise? How would their fans react after all the controversy? The students?

At least on the surface, not much appeared different. The Bears rolled. The fans cheered. And despite some chatter on social media about possible protests, none materialized.

At least on the surface, the scandal hasn’t appeared to dampen enthusiasm. Baylor officials announced season-ticket sales of 28,804, a record-setting figure for the third consecutive year. That number included a 98.2% renewal rate, though the renewal deadline had passed by May 26, when Briles was fired (to be followed later by athletic director Ian McCaw and university president Kenneth Starr).

By Friday morning, 9,130 student tickets had been released, the eighth-largest figure in school history and just shy of home games last season with Oklahoma (a showdown between ranked teams) and Texas (tickets are free for Baylor’s 14,000 undergraduates).

“We always root for this football team,” said Shannon Foy, a junior from Bakersfield, Calif. “We always have their backs. The actions of a couple of them doesn’t determine the whole team, and it doesn’t determine the whole school.”

Foy said the scandal was “hurtful” to the vast majority of Baylor students who weren’t involved, and added: “We’re wanting to put it in our past.”

Several other students echoed her, while others declined comment.

It’s a sensitive topic on campus, said a female student who would not give her name, adding that students recognize that the football program does not define what the school is.

Asked why she was attending, she said that Baylor is and always will be her school.

And after the tumultuous offseason, it appeared her goal, like that of so many others, was a return to routine. On the field, they got it. The Bears piled up yards and points, all at a crazy fast pace. It looked easy.

“We showed the nation the potential we have, what we can do on this football team,” senior cornerback Ryan Reid said.

That remains uncertain. Northwestern State didn’t provide real competition. With key starters such as Russell sitting out the second half, the game felt like nothing so much as an NFL exhibition. The real tests come later, and there’s no way yet to know how the Bears will react. But that’s for later.

“Tonight was huge for our guys,” said Jim Grobe, the Bears’ interim head coach.

Grobe’s presence is a big and weird part of why Friday wasn’t, and why this season won’t be. The former Wake Forest coach was brought out of retirement during the summer to oversee the program this season. He’s working with a staff filled with Briles’ former assistants. And while the Bears play at 2-year-old McLane Stadium, it’s commonly known as the House That Art Built. The only trace of Briles on Friday was the “CAB” (for “Coach Art Briles”) written on offensive coordinator Kendal Briles’ hand.

“I have no problem with that whatsoever,” Grobe said. “If you don’t love your dad, something’s wrong.”

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And if you talk with a half-dozen Baylor fans, most still appear to love their former coach. While all acknowledge the serious nature of the scandal, some wonder why Briles was fired. Others are angry at the media, and still others are frustrated with the school’s board of regents for a lack of transparency in not releasing the contents of the independent investigation by the law firm Pepper Hamilton.

“You may not want to say this, but it’s a cluster, this whole scenario,” said Bob Drury, a 1984 Baylor graduate, adding: “It’s a sad deal all the way around, but life happens. You deal with it and move on. I just don’t want these guys that are left behind to be thought poorly of because of what happened.”

Tom McKay, a fan from Houston and father of two current students, stood on the concourse watching the final moments of the rout.

“Everybody has a different opinion on how things should have been handled,” he said. “I think the university did a good job (getting rid of Briles, Starr and McCaw). To some people, it wasn’t enough. To some, they did way too much.”

And McKay acknowledged the obvious: What looked normal on Friday wasn’t.

“It’s not back to 100 percent, no way,” he said. “There’s always gonna be those underpinnings. But it was good to get back to football.”

Before the game, those freshmen who make up the Baylor Line were led onto the field by Russell and Reid. Russell called it a show of unity.

“It’s unity with the Baylor nation, with the students, to let them know that we’re all in this together,” he said. “It’s not just us against the world, it’s all of Baylor against the world.”

It was the first time football players had participated in the tradition. In recent years, the freshmen were led onto the field by Starr as part of his presidential duties.

“But, uh, things change,” Russell said.

HIGHLIGHTS FROM THE WEEK IN COLLEGE FOOTBALL

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