Saving the Baylor brand name

WACO, Texas -- Looking out his window, athletic director Ian McCaw has been watching workers tear up the turf in Baylor University's football stadium one more time.

The environment is brutal in there, and not just because the Bears play Texas, Oklahoma, Nebraska and other Big 12 powers. Central Texas offers searing heat and then its share of ice. Since 1950, Baylor has tried grass, various brands of fake grass, real grass again and now Prestige System artificial turf.

"We're committed to making changes," said McCaw, a young sports management professional who arrived in the midst of Baylor's recent siege of scandals and woe. "We're moving forward. We think this is going to work out fine."

McCaw was talking about the grass, but he could have been defending his own turf. The environment has been brutal for months, with the world's largest Baptist school facing a searing media spotlight and the cold reality that when many fans hear "Baylor" they now think of death, drugs and dirty dollars, not dedication to Christian principles.

Surely the grass was greener at the University of Massachusetts, where McCaw had done his graduate studies and returned to direct a 23-sport athletic program. But after one successful year, and two weeks before moving his wife and four children into a newly constructed home, he answered the call to help resurrect Baylor's reputation.

"From a branding, marketing standpoint, we know what we have to do," he said. "We have to position ourselves to the whole Baptist and Protestant community as the flagship, much as Notre Dame always has been for Catholics. ... To compete at the highest level, we're going to have to have that kind of brand.

"We certainly can't try to hide what Baylor is, or what Baylor is supposed to be."

But that brand name also raises questions in an era when schools with small markets and high academic standards face brutal pressures to cut corners. Meanwhile, this is a boom time for Christian colleges and universities, along with their athletic programs. Many are now asking: What does it mean to have "Christian" athletics?

It doesn't mean all of the school's athletes have to be Christians, said Grant Teaff, a Baylor coaching legend and, for the past decade, executive director of the American Football Coaches Association. But dedicated Christian coaches are a must.

"You can't say, 'Find me the best Christian defensive back you can and go sign him.' You can't compete like that," he said. "But that doesn't mean that, if one of the top defensive backs in the country is a strong Christian kid, you can't look him in the eye and tell him Baylor is where he would feel right at home."

It's also time for these coaches to admit that larger schools will sign almost all the top blue-chip recruits. However, Teaff noted that most of these phenoms -- in basketball and perhaps soon in football -- linger only one or two years in college. At some point, teams led by experienced, loyal juniors and seniors may start winning more games against the freshmen and sophomore superstars.

"The world says to these young men, 'Get as much as you can as soon as you can. Get your hand out -- right now,' " said Teaff. "Schools like Baylor can't compete in that game. ... But a school like this has other strengths and it can't be afraid to use them."

Schools that emphasize academics and spiritual values will also need stronger ties to national networks of ministries, home-school families and Christian high schools that stress athletics, noted McCaw. The evidence is strong that schools emphasizing faith are especially attractive to top female athletes.

Another trend may help. As Third World churches grow in power, global recruiting efforts will increasingly affect sports such as soccer, track, baseball and basketball. Missionaries often packed sports equipment with their Bibles.

But earning the trust of parents remains the key.

"There is a growing percentage of parents that want their children to go to a Christian college, yet they also want to see their children compete in Division I athletics. If you want a quality, Christian education and you want to compete at the highest level in athletics, how many options do you have? Where are you going to go?"