WACO, Texas — Chris Salazar sits at one of the tall tables in the pizza place a few blocks from the Baylor campus where he is the general manager, looking forward like so many others in the community to kickoff for the 23rd-ranked Bears after what was “definitely not the typical offseason.”
The new season comes three months after the swift removal of head coach Art Briles following the release of a report alleging that the university mishandled complaints of sexual assault, including some against football players.
So Baylor will have to move forward without the coach who in eight seasons transformed the Bears from perennial last-place finishers to back-to-back Big 12 Conference champs in 2013 and 2014, and took them to being on the verge of the first College Football Playoff and a possible national title chance just two seasons ago.
“I think it’s probably a little bit more measured because of what’s happened this offseason,” Salazar said at Shorty’s Pizza Shack, where the Baylor memorabilia on display includes a football signed by Briles. “But I think there’s a lot of excitement, just because we know we still have a lot of good players returning.”
Much of the external investigation summarized in the May report focused on allegations surrounding the football team, which has won 50 games the past five seasons. That also led to athletic director Ian McCaw and school President Ken Starr leaving the private Baptist university.
“We all went through the shock. Everybody was disappointed,” said Sammy Citrano, owner of George’s Restaurant, which has a history in Waco spanning more than eight decades and often caters meals for Baylor athletic teams. “Now we’ve had a little time to heal.”
With acting head coach Jim Grobe and all of the assistants back from Briles’ staff, the Bears open their season Sept. 2 against Northwestern State in their $266 million, 45,140-seat campus stadium on the banks of the Brazos River. A near-capacity crowd is expected even though the opener under Friday night lights conflicts with Texas high school football games.
“Once the season starts and that first kickoff happens, everything will start to feel a lot more normal,” Salazar said.
“It’s going to be good therapy for everybody in our community,” Citrano said. “It’s football time and these guys are ready to prove to the world we’re a good school and good team, and good people.”
This will be the third season for McLane Stadium, the Bears’ gleaming state-of-the-art home on busy Interstate 35 about halfway between Dallas-Fort Worth and Austin, the state capitol and home to Big 12 rival Texas.
Ashleigh Richardson is a 2004 Baylor graduate and season-ticket holder who routinely makes the trip with her husband, also an alumnus, from their Louisiana home in the Shreveport-Bossier City area to Waco for football and basketball games. They aren’t pulling any of their financial support from their alma mater.
“We bleed green and gold. We’re not going to be any less excited than we were last year, or the first year that McLane Stadium was open, because it’s a family tradition honestly in our house,” Richardson said. “It was very upsetting when it happened. … As a fan, and as alumni, all I can do is support the new coach and the kids on the team.”
Richardson, a Christian, still looks forward to her two young daughters one day attending the school like she did. She said the mistakes of some won’t change the foundation of what Baylor is and what it represents as a family of faith.
“My whole experience there was just wonderful,” Richardson said. “This has not tainted any of that at all, nor will it taint me wanting to send my girls there.”
Baylor sold out its season ticket allotment for this season, a record of more than 28,800 with a 98 percent renewal rate by those who had them in 2015. Those renewals were due before the release of the Pepper Hamilton report in May.
School officials said about 50 to 75 people called that day wanting to immediately cancel their season tickets, but that only 15 to 20 actually went through with those cancellations after being asked to take a week or so before making a final decision.
Jay Netherton, a graduate student at Baylor who also works for First Baptist Church of Waco, said it will be difficult watching television broadcasts of Bears games this season “knowing that every announcer every time is going to be rehashing the story over and over, or we’re going to hear the 2-3 minute bit on everything.”
Not to mention possible references to the federal siege and 51-day standoff at the Branch Davidian compound outside the city limits in 1993; the 2003 murder of Baylor basketball player Patrick Dennehy by a teammate and the ensuing investigation that uncovered NCAA violations by former coach Dave Bliss; or a biker gang shootout just last year that left nine people dead.
“Baylor and Waco together will come out of this better,” said Larry Holze, a lifelong resident who is the city’s director of municipal information. “We’ve watched and worked together for the good of the community and for the good of Baylor University, and we’re all confident it’s going to be good again.”