WACO, Texas – These are heady times at Baylor.
A few months ago, quarterback Robert Griffin III became Baylor’s first Heisman Trophy winner. In March, the men’s basketball team advanced to the NCAA round of 16 for the second time in three years. Together, those two teams won 40 games and lost 11 over this year.
Fundraising efforts are going gangbusters and applications to enroll are up.
And then there are the Lady Bears, Kim Mulkey’s women’s basketball team that just went 40-0 to win the program’s second NCAA championship. Player of the Year Brittany Griner led the way to an 80-61 rout Tuesday night against Notre Dame.
And all five starters are expected back next season.
Some 2,000 people turned out Wednesday at the Ferrell Center – Baylor’s home arena, where the Lady Bears won 19 games this season and have gone 184-19 during Mulkey’s 12 years at the school – to welcome the team back to Waco after its championship game win in Denver.
“You do not win championships with one player, two players,” Mulkey told the crowd. “You need five, six, seven, eight people heading the same direction. I told them in the locker room after the game, many hours after the game when we were still there: ‘Any one of you can go to another university and play 40 minutes a game and average double figures, but you would not have gotten this trophy right here.’
“And I tell you what: You better get your tickets to New Orleans. See you next year.”
Mulkey and her team made it clear from the start of the season that a national championship was their goal, and they seem to be saying the same thing for next season as well.
“I can’t even think about next year, but we’re going to be good,” she said in a news conference after the public celebration. “The expectations are there. Had we not won the national championship this year, the expectations would be there. And we’re going to embrace it. We’re going to do that very humbly, not arrogantly. We’re going to do it with a sense of appreciation for what we did this year. We like the way it feels. We want to do it again.”
Mulkey and Griner led the way to this year’s title. Griner, though she’s the star of the Baylor squad and the face of women’s college basketball right now, was quick to acknowledge that it was not a one-woman show.
“It definitely takes more than me to win a national championship. You can’t do this by yourself,” she said.
Baylor president Ken Starr called the past several months “epic,” ending with Tuesday’s win.
“You combine that with men’s basketball and 30 wins. And go back to football with the Heisman. Now we have the Wade Trophy, the Heisman of women’s basketball. Are we thankful? Are we grateful?” he said.
As Mulkey stepped to the podium, she was rushed by several members of the Noze Brothers, an underground fraternity at Baylor. They made Mulkey, and all the members of the basketball team, honorary Noze Brothers and even asked Mulkey to autograph a football.
“She has very nice penmanship,” one Noze brother told the crowd.
All of Baylor’s sports teams, men and women, have qualified for the postseason so far this academic year, and the 400-plus athletes on campus had a combined 3.16 GPA last fall. And before Griner grabbed the spotlight, it was Griffin on the gridiron last fall.
Griffin, who got his political science degree in three years, set or tied 54 school records in 41 games and led the Bears to only the second 10-win season in their 112 years of football. They had never even had a winning record in the Big 12 before RG3 arrived with coach Art Briles, who was at Wednesday’s celebration; Griffin was in Denver to cheer on the Lady Bears in person.
School officials have noted there were more than 40,000 applications for the upcoming fall semester for only about 3,000 freshman spots. That’s up from 15,458 applicants for the Fall 2005 class, right after the Lady Bears won their first national title. More than $250 million in new athletic and academic facilities have been added in the past decade, and another $120 million in capital improvements are under way.
The Bear Foundation, the primary fundraising arm supporting the school’s 19 athletic programs, contributed nearly $7.7 million for scholarship support during the 2010-11 academic year. It was the seventh consecutive year with a record total.
There are also plans for a new campus football stadium for the school of 15,000. The family of former Houston Astros owner Drayton McLane Jr., a 1958 Baylor grad and former regents chairman, recently gave the school the largest capital gift – more than $20 million – for the stadium the school hopes to have for the 2014 season.
For now, Mulkey can celebrate and recover from her recent diagnosis of Bell’s palsy, which can cause a partial facial paralysis. And she can take comfort in knowing she will have a strong team coming back. She recalled last year’s loss to eventual national champion Texas A&M in the NCAA tournament.
“Last year, on that ride home from Dallas, Brittney Griner texted me, from the back of the bus to the front of the bus, ‘Coach, we won’t ever let you down again,’ ” she said.
And they haven’t.