Baylor guard Jared Butler takes a selfie while holding the NCAA championship trophy with head coach Scott Drew, right, during a ceremony Tuesday at Waco Regional Airport to welcome the team back to town.
A mixed-use development is under construction adjacent to the downtown site under consideration for Baylor’s new basketball arena.
A mixed-use development is under construction adjacent to the downtown site under consideration for Baylor’s new basketball arena.
Baylor fans line up at Waco Regional Airport on Tuesday to welcome the men’s basketball team back from its national championship victory.
Coach Scott Drew has led the Baylor University men’s basketball program from the depths of murder and mayhem to the March Madness mountain top, an improbable and inspiring tale fit for the silver screen.
In fact, Drew quipped that Baylor graduate and film director John Lee Hancock, who was in Indianapolis with his old Baylor pals to cheer on his alma mater in the Final Four, would be just the guy to make such a movie.
However, if Hancock does not turn the compelling story of Drew’s 18-year quest to lift Baylor to the pinnacle of college basketball into cinematic reality, Baylor officials can enjoy the other tangible blessings that shower down after a university claims a national sports title.
For Baylor, the hope is that enthusiasm generated by the NCAA title translates into more donations to fast track the design and construction of a new $105 million basketball pavilion, an edge in recruiting students and student-athletes and other positive effects that emanate from such high-profile national exposure.
The 7,000-seat basketball pavilion, announced two years ago with a lead gift of $100 million from an unnamed Baylor family, will include practice and office facilities for both women’s and men’s basketball teams.
Baylor officials said then that the new arena would be built on campus adjacent to the 10,300-seat Ferrell Center at University Parks Drive and La Salle Avenue, with groundbreaking expected during the first quarter of this year.
That was before the pandemic gripped the nation and Baylor and other universities were forced to make deep budget cuts. Baylor President Linda Livingstone announced plans to reduce Baylor’s projected $750 million budget by about $75 million to compensate for pandemic-related costs and lost revenue.
As part of those measures, Baylor deferred construction of the new pavilion. But that was then and this is now, less than a week after Baylor mania gripped the nation as the Bears pummeled top-rated Gonzaga before a huge national TV audience.
Livingstone, Athletics Director Mack Rhoades and Waco Mayor Dillon Meek confirmed Baylor is considering another site closer to downtown for the new pavilion as the campus, which spread across the Brazos River with the construction of McLane Stadium, continues to expand its borders.
While no decision has been made, school officials are giving strong consideration to building the pavilion on land near the Baylor-owned Clifton Robinson Tower on the other side of Interstate 35 from McLane Stadium. That area is near the ongoing Riverfront project on city-owned land along the river. The development will feature shops, office space, apartments and restaurants.
Meek said he can picture walking to a Baylor game after shopping or grabbing a bite to eat at the new development. While he favors that site, he knows Baylor is weighing a number of factors.
“The city is heavily engaged with Baylor in these discussions,” Meek said. “While I respect their process, I know they have many factors that they are weighing at this moment. We believe this could be a generational opportunity to impact and activate our downtown and are excited to continue to work with Baylor in the days ahead. I am thankful for Baylor’s partnership, but I definitely believe that with the Riverfront development, the restaurants and retail spaces that will go there, it would be really monumental for our city.”
Baylor has not announced how much of the $100 million gift will go toward the new pavilion. Part of it already has helped endow 13 academic chairs, Livingstone said.
“We got the lead gift in spring 2019 and we began planning,” Livingstone said. “But as the pandemic hit and we had to rethink our plans and other priorities, it did slow the planning and progress some and has delayed it some. But we do have a plan going forward and a schedule and we don’t see that the national championship has altered that schedule. But we hope it increases new enthusiasm for a new pavilion and helps from a fundraising perspective.”
One person who knows quite a bit about the ripple effects of winning a national championship is Baylor women’s basketball coach Kim Mulkey, who has guided Baylor teams to three NCAA titles in 21 years.
While many are excited about the possibility of the new pavilion being built along the river closer to downtown, Mulkey prefers an on-campus facility.
“Many years ago, the previous administration said that Scott and I deserve a new arena and that it would be built on campus,” Mulkey said. “That is the last I really knew and a new administration has taken over, and I understand that no decision has been made on where the location would be. But I absolutely want it on campus. All the sports are now on campus and there is just something to be said about a campus, college-town feel, and I would love for it to be on campus.
“Everybody knows I am totally opposed to taking it downtown. I am a citizen and I pay taxes and I’m opposed to that location from that standpoint. And I’m a coach who came to Baylor because my office and my facilities are located on campus and that is where I want to remain.”
Rhoades, too, thinks excitement from the national championship will pay off through increased donations to the university. He said Baylor officials will make a recommendation in late spring or early summer about the preferred location of the new pavilion to the Baylor Board of Regents, which will make the final decision.
The location for the proposed downtown site is owned by the city and a group led by developer Rick Sheldon. Sheldon did not return phone messages seeking comment for this story.
Mike Anderson, a spokesperson for Sheldon’s company, said, “We’re very excited about Baylor basketball’s national championship, and any development that arises from that will benefit Waco, the entire town.”
He said Sheldon owns a 6.5-acre tract that “abuts city parkland” adjacent to Clifton Robinson Tower. He declined comment when asked if Sheldon is in negotiations with Baylor and the city.
“We have continued to work on design of the pavilion,” Rhoades said. “Obviously, the pandemic put a delay on capital projects in general, not just on this campus but higher education throughout. I think here in the near future, we will make a decision on a site selection. We have two sites that we are contemplating, and both are terrific sites. We as a university will make the decision that is best for the university in the long term and short term. There won’t be any one individual who makes that decision.”
Drew, whose Bears team was the first Texas team to win a national title since the historic 1966 Texas Western University Miners, said he, too, is eager to play in the new pavilion.
“I went out and tried to start digging yesterday,” Drew said with a laugh. “Hopefully, others will follow soon. Obviously winning a national championship will help with donors making contributions.”
Livingstone said this week that she had not stopped smiling since the final seconds ticked off the clock Monday night. She and her husband, Brad, were both student-athletes at Oklahoma State University but neither came close to competing for a national title.
On the other hand, her father, Doyle Parrack, was on the national championship basketball team at the former Oklahoma A&M in 1945 and was a longtime basketball coach. She grew up playing the sport.
“Athletics is such a key part of who we are at Baylor and part of the Baylor story,” Livingstone said. “We know when we talk to prospective students the things that matter to them is our Christian mission, our excellent academic focus, the fact we are a mid-size university and the fact that we play big-time athletics.
“To win a national championship in one of the most exciting events in all of sports. The Final Four gives us tremendous visibility. It gives us the opportunity to have the Baylor story broadcast to the world. It gives us a broader and brighter platform so the world can see what an excellent university we are,” she said.
Rhoades said 16.9 million viewers watched the NCAA championship game, the most-watched basketball game since the deciding Game 6 of the 2019 NBA finals.
“It really enhances the brand of not just the athletic program but also the university,” Rhoades said. “Just the exposure, the brand recognition for the university is really positive and incredible when you think about that number of viewers.
“In addition, you think about things like ticket sales, and we expect an increase in excitement and desire to purchase season tickets for men’s basketball, the licensing component, the demand for merchandise and people wanting to use our BU mark. Right now, we are having a hard time keeping up with all of the demand and approval process to use our mark. It is obviously a huge sense of pride for our alumni and we would certainly expect an uptick in donations to the Bear Foundation. And then it remains to be seen but does that also translate into more excitement about the pavilion project? We think it will.”
Mulkey and Drew have found the formula for building and maintaining high-caliber programs over the years. Both credit the support of Baylor officials for helping perpetuate winning programs.
“You have to have stability,” Mulkey said. “You have to have stability with your coaching staff. You have to have the support of the administration. I think those are keys. You are looking at myself, I have been at Baylor 21 years. Scott has been here 18 years, and I guess you could say we were the right hires at the right time.
“Baylor has given us the ability and time to build that a lot of schools don’t give and they have given us the resources to build it. We both inherited programs at rock bottom.”
People questioned Drew’s sanity when he signed on as Baylor’s new coach in the wake of the worst of several scandals involving Baylor basketball in the past three decades. Drew took over after the murder of player Patrick Dennehy by teammate Carlton Dotson and a shameful coverup of NCAA violations by former coach Dave Bliss, who, with no corroboration, tried to link Dennehy’s death to drug trafficking.
“I prayed about coming to Baylor before I took the job,” Drew said. “Until God tells me to go somewhere else, I’m staying here as long as Baylor will have me. My family loves it here, and I get to work with so many outstanding people. We’ve been fortunate to have the leadership and vision of President Livingstone and Mack Rhoades. They’ve been a blessing to me.”
Drew said the unprecedented exposure of playing in the championship game will benefit the program for years to come.
“Hopefully the world was able to see what great student-athletes we have at Baylor, and through our play see the mission of our university, which is to help young people spiritually, academically, character-wise and athletically,” Drew said. “Definitely when kids grow up, 8 to 16 years old, they’re watching college basketball and those are their heroes. Winning a national championship like this will impact recruiting for the next 10 years.
“Kids that are 9 years old now could be saying they always wanted to be like Jared Butler, Davion Mitchell, Mark Vital and MaCio Teague. Obviously for attendance, some people who never watch college basketball watched the games, and that will continue to grow the Baylor fan base.”
Mayor Meek attended Baylor’s Elite Eight game against the University of Arkansas in Indianapolis but settled for watching the last two games on TV. A self-styled “double Bear” with a Baylor law degree and undergraduate degree, Meek said it was a joy to see the city rally around the men’s team.
“This team has represented hope and excellence and character and we are so thankful that our community has gotten to see that and cheer this team on,” Meek said. “I think Waco is a city of champions and this city embodies a lot of what this program represents. Sometimes we are down but we come together, and we have rallied and I think our future is bright, just like the Baylor team’s future.”
Whether Hancock, the film director, screenwriter and producer, transforms the dramatic tale of Baylor’s meteoric rise from the ashes into a movie remains to be seen. Hancock is a Longview native who, like the mayor, earned a bachelor’s and a law degree from Baylor. His father and brother played football at Baylor, and he said his niece is a current Baylor student.
Hancock, who lives in California, said in a telephone interview earlier this week that his voice was still affected from screaming during the epic Gonzaga-UCLA semifinal game won by Gonzaga on a half-court buzzer beater. He also yelled for Baylor during the finals, he said.
Hancock said if Disney could make the 2006 movie, “Glory Road” about the Texas Western national championship season, he thinks Drew’s rebuilding saga is equally intriguing film fodder.
Hancock, who directed the sports dramas “The Rookie” in 2002 and “The Blind Side” in 2009, also directed “The Alamo” in 2004 and “The Highwaymen” in 2019.
“(Hancock) said a year ago if you win the national championship, I’ll do the movie. So we called him out on national TV,” Drew said.
Hancock said the idea for the Baylor movie came up when he visited a basketball practice a couple of years ago. He met Drew and the players, and one of them asked Hancock if he would take the team to a movie premiere if they beat Alabama in the Big 12-SEC challenge.
He said “The Highwaymen” was about to come out and he arranged for the team, who won the game, to accompany him to the movie premiere at the Waco Hippodrome.
“Scott said you should do a movie about Baylor when we win a national championship,” Hancock said. “I said, ‘Whoa, let’s not get out over our skis here.’ But Coach Drew is very intentional. He seems to set goals that seem kind of outlandish and then achieves them. So there I was, with egg on my face, happily, at the championship game. Of course, my phone blew up immediately. This an amazing story, no doubt. I love Baylor and it would at least make a great (ESPN) ’30 for 30.'”
PHOTOS — Baylor Bears triumphant with NCAA title win over Gonzaga, 86-70
Tribune-Herald staff writer John Werner contributed to this story.
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