March 2, 2006

Morriss has Baylor bearing down on Big 12

WACO, Texas - The victory still makes Baylor football coach Guy Morriss' steel blue eyes dance.

Talk about upsets.

But Morriss isn't recalling last season's 23-13 win at Iowa State, which stands as Baylor's only road victory in 10 years of Big 12 Conference play.

Nor is it the 35-34 overtime triumph against Texas A&M, a win which firmly established him as a thorn in the Aggies' sides.

Neither is it a jaw-dropping 42-30 victory over Colorado in 2003, nor any other win he enjoyed while playing in the NFL or coaching.

No, the victory that means so much came in Kentucky. Morriss was part of the team at Ronald McDonald House, a charity that aids ill children and their families.

"There was a little boy that had a rare brain cancer. There were only like five cases of it in the world," Morriss said in a gravelly voice that steadily grew louder as his sentence progressed. "And he beat it."

Morriss doesn't reveal the boy's name or age, but says he's doing fine.

"That will change how you look at things," says Morriss, who has five daughters and three grandsons. "You see 5- or 6-year-old kids fighting for their lives, and we're worried about a game."

Maybe that's why the reclamation project that is Baylor football doesn't seem like such an overwhelming and impossible task for Morriss. When you've watched a small child beat brain cancer, how intimidating is the Big 12 Conference?

As far as football goes, it is pretty intimidating.

From 1998 through 2002, Baylor - the conference's only private school - managed two victories and endured a 30-game losing streak.

Leaving Kentucky, where Morriss' team had just gone 7-5, for Baylor seemed like boarding the Titanic after it hit the iceberg.

Why leave a program that was clearly making progress for one that detractors felt should be ousted from the Big 12?

Morriss said Kentucky Athletic Director Mitch Barnhart, who did not hire him, desired a bigger name to coach the Wildcats.
Barnhart was not available for comment.

Former NFL coach Rich Brooks replaced Morriss at Kentucky, which has won nine games over three seasons.

But Kentucky is no longer Morriss' problem. Baylor is. The Bears job came with the problems expected of a program that has not posted a winning record since 1995.

"You better have a lot of resolve," Morriss said from his office in the north end zone of Floyd Casey Stadium. "And a certain degree of hard-headedness. It's like beating a stump."

Morriss, who said he had to change the mind-set of everyone associated with Baylor football, beat that stump for three years and then started beating opponents.

There were a few chuckles last summer when Morriss revealed Baylor's goal was to reach a bowl game. The Bears just missed that goal with a 5-6 record. Of those losses, the defeat to national champion Texas was the only blowout.

Baylor took A&M into overtime at Kyle Field and Oklahoma into double overtime in Norman before losing.

Baylor is no longer irrelevant. The Bears might not win a division championship, but can influence who does. Iowa State would have won the North last season had it not lost to Baylor.

But that's not enough for Morriss, who felt little consolation in those near-misses.

"I felt disappointed because we were so close (to bowl eligibility)," he said. "We didn't get that accomplished."

Sometimes a struggling program will rise up for a year or two, but then crash again when key players leave.

Morriss is confident the 2006 Bears will be significantly improved. He'll open spring football on Monday returning eight starters on offense, including quarterback Shawn Bell.

The Bears will run a new offense similar to Texas Tech's wide-open scheme, but also designed to capitalize on the skills of running back Paul Mosley.

Morriss said three years of selling Baylor's Big 12-leading graduation rates, personal academic instruction and the chance to play immediately are starting to pay dividends.

"We think our players that are filling in can be just as good or better than the ones leaving, but they will have to grow up fast," said Morriss, who coaches the offensive linemen. "I feel good about our talent level here."

Bears fans apparently do, too.

Last year Baylor sold a record 11,000 season tickets, and Athletic Director Ian McCaw is hoping for a 20-percent increase this year. Those are modest numbers, especially compared to Texas, Oklahoma and Texas A&M, but progress is progress.

"Every positive indicator we're looking for we're seeing," McCaw says. "Season tickets are at an all-time high. Attendance is up. Last year we had the most TV games we've ever had and our most wins in the Big 12. Everything is pointing in the right direction."

Well, not everything.

Morriss is a straight-forward guy, and he has made it clear the alumni must reach into their pockets for Baylor to move forward.

The Baylor campus is about two miles away and across Interstate 35 from Floyd Casey Stadium, where the Bears' weight, meeting and video rooms are located.

Pointing out not all student athletes have cars, Morriss is asking for an on-campus practice facility so players can walk to work out or study.

"When a mother asks me how her son is going to get to practice I really don't have an answer for her," he says.

Complicating that is the vast construction going on around the Big 12. Texas, already boasting perhaps the premier facilities in the country, has announced plans to expand its stadium. A&M is raising funds for an enormous indoor practice facility. Billionaire alumnus T. Boone Pickens donated $165 million toward construction of a $700 million athletic village at Oklahoma State.

Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska and Texas Tech have spent millions upgrading their athletic facilities and enhancing the "wow" factor that has become so vital in recruiting.

"I'm not sure our people understand the impact facilities have on recruits," Morriss said. "Hey, personality and B.S. will take you only so far with a recruit. Facilities are the name of the game."

McCaw said more than $7 million has been raised toward a $14.4 million project that would include a football practice complex on the banks of the Brazos River - alongside the baseball stadium and basketball arena.

"We're in the arms race," McCaw says. "We'll have a beautiful facility on the Brazos."
But will they get it soon enough?

If the Bears keep improving and attain bowl eligibility, there are bound to be athletic directors across the country noticing how far Baylor has come under Morriss. They'll likely begin to wonder how far their programs could go.

Overcoming the odds to win at Kentucky and Baylor would make for a pretty amazing résumé.

Not as amazing as a child beating a hideous disease, but still pretty impressive.




 

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