- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 15, 2012

WACO, Texas — Robert Griffin III and his Baylor teammates transformed Floyd Casey Stadium into a house of highlights last fall. The off-campus intersection of Clay Avenue and Williams Landing Road, about 2 1/2 miles south of Waco’s modest downtown, became a top destination on the college football circuit with Griffin’s athleticism fueling a dynamic offense that earned 10 wins for the team and the Heisman Trophy for its leader.

All that gloss was gone, though, as The Case sat idle, bathing in the Texas sunshine one gorgeous afternoon last month. Postcard conditions could not mask the toll 62 years have taken on her.

A weed sprouted from a seam in the steel walkway that circles the seating bowl. Three rusted folding chairs lay in one section of bleachers near the 30-yard line. Green seats near midfield appeared bleached by the relentless sun. Back inside the concourse, operating a broken door handle allowed passage to a large concrete restroom, the floor of which was partly under an inch of stagnant water.

It’s no wonder, then, that plans are underway for a new Baylor football stadium. Artists’ renderings of a 45,000-seat, on-campus facility on the bank of the Brazos River make it seem real enough to sense what it will feel like when Baylor’s next Heisman candidate makes it his stage. And after 15 years of discussing the project, donations are beginning to stream in with hopes of completing construction in 2014.

There are many measures of how Griffin and coach Art Briles helped revive Baylor’s football program since they arrived together more than four years ago, but none is as resounding the stadium project’s nascent progress. As the Washington Redskins target Griffin with the second pick in next week’s draft, it symbolizes the quarterback’s potential to turn around a woebegone franchise that hasn’t won a division championship since 1999.

“For us to watch it grow since we’ve been here, we can’t put that into words,” Griffin said at Baylor’s pro day last month. “New facilities, new jerseys every couple of years. It’s been amazing to go out and win 10 games, get a Heisman, win a bowl game.

“When I got here, the fans expected us to win, and we had two seasons that weren’t conducive to doing that. But we turned it around, and I was proud of that. When I go to the next level, obviously we want to do it a lot faster.”

Lean times before Griffin

Nick Jean-Baptiste walked on to the Baylor football team in the year 1 B.RG3. Those were dark times.

The Bears were a doormat of the mighty Big 12 Conference until as recently as two seasons ago. They won only 14 conference games from Big 12’s inception in 1996 through 2009.

“It was just awful back in the day five years ago,” said Jean-Baptiste, a second-team all-conference defensive tackle. “People [on campus] were wearing A&M stuff, Texas stuff. They didn’t care because nobody really cared about Baylor.”

The scorn stung Griffin upon his arrival in the spring of 2008.

“It’s not an experience that everybody wants to go through, when you walk into class and teachers are making fun of you,” he said at the scouting combine in February.

Griffin embraced the challenge, though, and, as it turns out, was perfectly suited to conquer it. He first committed to the University of Houston, where Briles was head coach, but he followed when Briles left to take the vacant Baylor job late in 2007.

“He and I both shared the same vision,” Briles said. “When I first got here, I wanted people that were mavericks, people who were willing to go down a different path and believed in themselves and wanted to do things that other people didn’t think could be done. That’s what motivates competitors. That’s what I am, and that’s what Robert is.”

There were good reasons for people to believe Baylor’s program was beyond repair. In addition to a talent deficit in comparison to conference and national powerhouses Oklahoma and Texas, Baylor’s facilities lagged behind its competition.

But since Briles and Griffin arrived, Baylor has opened a new academic and training center for athletes and an indoor football practice facility. The athletic center brought the football coaches’ offices back on campus for the first time in 65 years, and the sparkling practice facility would make Redskins coaches jealous.

Those improvements, though, were only part of a foundation for the turnaround. Success on the field remained elusive in Briles and Griffin’s first two seasons. Inexperienced players such as Griffin and top NFL receiver prospect Kendall Wright were thrust into the lineup to mature in game situations, and that reflected in back-to-back 4-8 records. Making matters worse, Griffin lost all but three games in 2009 to a torn ACL in his right knee.

Two seasons and 17 wins later, representatives from 25 NFL teams and 140 media members attended Baylor’s pro day last month. The workout was televised live by two networks. Players and coaches basked in the attention. It validated their progress as much as any building or game result could.

“They had to be pioneers about what was fixin’ to happen,” Bears offensive coordinator Philip Montgomery said. “They had to see past what was just right there in front of their face. Baylor when we got here was not good. It was bad. They had to come here and understand what we were trying to build and buy into it and then say, ‘Hey, we’re going to get this done.’”

Thriving under pressure

Redskins fans’ expectations for Griffin boiled over long before the team even can draft him April 26. Some waited 2 1/2 hours for his autograph at a memorabilia show in Chantilly last month. Others already have purchased customized No. 10 Redskins jerseys with “Griffin III” on the back. They are, understandably, desperate for a savior.

Griffin already is comfortable with this pressure because he has lived, even thrived, in it. The T-shirt he wore at pro day read “No Pressure, No Diamonds.”

Montgomery remembers taking the field before Baylor’s 2008 season opener against Wake Forest, Griffin’s first game. He wasn’t even the starter at that point.

“When we go out to warm up quarterback-wise, they’re chanting ‘RG3!’ in the stands, and he hasn’t taken a snap,” Montgomery said. “He was a main attraction the first day he came onto campus.”

Griffin is cool to it all. His personality, work ethic and demeanor are the remedies for adversity, those who know him well say. Whether he was rehabilitating his knee or analyzing video of a loss, he established himself as a leader and earned coaches’ and teammates’ respect with his actions.

Robert is such a hard worker, and he’s not pointing blame on anybody,” Montgomery said. “He is more determined in situations like that because he has always won.

“Those first couple years when we had some lumps and went through some pretty tough games, it was rough on him and it was rough on us as a team. But we took the approach that we’re going to dig our heels in. He dug his heels in, and we went to work every day trying to find things to get better at.”

Something else about Griffin makes him a fine catalyst for a turnaround. Oh yeah, that 4.4 speed and rocket arm of his. They certainly didn’t hurt Baylor’s fight for respectability.

“If you’re athletic and you’re confident and you’re intelligent, then you have a chance to be dynamic,” Briles said. “He’s got the tools that allow him to be a difference-maker. You can think the right way and feel the right way, but if you can’t do anything, then nobody is going to follow you. People follow people that bring results to the table. He’s a results person.”

Griffin’s accomplishments at Baylor support that. His completion percentage improved in each of his four seasons, peaking at a stellar 72.4 percent in 2011. Baylor won four, seven and then 10 games, successively, in each of his three full seasons.

The impact around the program was as clear as the shirts on students’ backs. Jean-Baptiste noticed Baylor green eventually replaced A&M maroon and Texas burnt orange. Home attendance increased in each of Griffin’s four seasons, rising from 34,124 per game in 2008 to 41,368 last fall.

Griffin’s professors even changed their tone.

“My junior year … all they want to do is talk about the football game and how great we are,” Griffin said. “It shows you how quickly things can change and just how much work we had to put in to get it that way.”

Briles believes Griffin would have the same impact on the Redskins.

“If they end being able to draft him, it’ll be the best thing that’s ever happened to their organization because, as we know here at Baylor, Robert is extremely special,” he said. “He’s a dynamic player the city will just gravitate to.”

Still part of Baylor community

Griffin remains omnipresent on the Baylor campus months after his career with the Bears ended.

Some shuttle buses dashing through this university of 15,000 students sport his picture on the side. Inside the campus bookstore on 5th Street, No. 10 green jerseys hang from a rack on the wall. Another rack on the floor displays T-shirts that read “Heisman winner QB #10,” unable to use his name for proprietary reasons. Across the room, a picture of Griffin posing with the Heisman Trophy graces the cover of a Texas football magazine for sale.

Walk out of the bookstore, turn left and walk two blocks, and you’ll see a massive billboard hovering over Interstate 35, which connects Waco north to Dallas and south to Austin. Griffin’s smiling face helps proclaim Baylor is “Building Leaders … and Heisman Trophy winners.”

From that billboard you can see the site of the proposed football stadium. Griffin’s presence is there, too.

“There’s a good chance we could look back in the future and consider it “The House That Robert Built,” Baylor athletic director Ian McCaw said. “Leading us to a great season and winning the Heisman have really energized our fan base and our donor base. He’s had a huge role in creating the momentum for the project to move ahead.”

People involved with the football program and the stadium project emphasize the importance of Briles‘ ongoing contributions and Griffin’s talented supporting cast in creating a winning product and, by extension, increasing fan and donor support. Perhaps Wright, Griffin’s top receiver, said it best, though: “We don’t mind being the ‘Robettes.’”

When the bill for the new stadium comes due — Texas media have reported it could cost up to $250 million — Griffin’s combination of physical ability and personality will help pay it.

Drayton McLane, a Baylor graduate and former CEO of the Houston Astros, is one of Griffin’s biggest fans. He and his family last month contributed the largest capital gift in school history to help fund the project. The amount was undisclosed, but the previous largest gift was $20 million.

“I think Robert is going to be the person that certainly — Baylor is [167] years old — is the most acclaimed athlete Baylor has ever had, not only as a player but also academically, as a leader and just a good human being,” McLane said. “Those are the things that are going to be remembered.”

The Redskins covet those qualities for the new face of their franchise, a player who must shift their building effort into a higher gear after winning only 11 games in the past two seasons.

In Griffin, they would acquire a player who already has turned around one program and has a plan to do it again.

“I won’t just try to be flamboyant and act like I’m the man, I’m the leader,” Griffin said. “You have to earn that respect from your players, so I’ll do it from the inside of the organization out to the fans. All the players will get the recognition for what we do, not just myself. I’m looking forward to going out there and having fun … and my definition of fun is winning.”

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