WACO, Texas — Along with thousands of his closest friends, Baylor's only Heisman winner was praying Sunday. He requested a good game, and safety for the players and the fans, and then Robert Griffin III went with a big finish:
"We love you, Father God," he said. "And once again, we say WOW! This is amazing!"
A few minutes later, at the coin toss, Griffin bumped fists with George W. Bush. And then Baylor opened McLane Stadium with a Texas-styled fusion of faith and football, including a 45-0 victory against SMU. It was a spectacular celebration of the rise of a football program along the Brazos River.
The stadium is really nice, too.
"Nobody can match it anywhere," Baylor coach Art Briles said. "It's special."
Call it the House that RG3 Built. Or Art Briles. Or Drayton McLane, the businessman and former Houston Astros owner whose name graces the stadium after making the largest financial gift in Baylor history. The $266 million, 45,000-seat facility comes with all the latest technological whirs and beeps. There's a protected lagoon for "sail-gating" (on Sunday, the new tradition included several dozen boats). Students crossed the river, en masse, over a new footbridge.
Baylor athletic director Ian McCaw summed everything up as "creating game day pageantry." Everything was brand new, and it's only fitting. To fully understand what Sunday meant, it's important to recall where the Bears have been.
After winning the Big 12 a season ago, 10th-ranked Baylor is gunning for more. But in their first 12 seasons in the Big 12, the Bears won 11 conference games. Their home games at aging Floyd Casey Stadium, a municipal facility few miles south of campus, were sparsely attended – except when Texas or Oklahoma came to town and the visitors showed up by the thousands, sometimes outnumbering the home crowd.
When Briles arrived for the 2008 season, Baylor was in the midst of a 15-year bowl drought. And when conference realignment twice threatened to break apart the Big 12, Baylor was not part of the expansion plan. The Bears were irrelevant.
But even as the chaos threatened to break loose for a second time in September 2011, something was brewing. Briles was building a winner; after consecutive 4-8 seasons, the Bears went 7-6 in 2010. And on a warm Friday evening at Floyd Casey, Griffin unleashed a torrent of highlights on TCU in the next year's season opener.
A dozen weeks later, he accepted the Heisman Trophy. A few weeks after that, the Bears hung 67 points on Washington in the Alamo Bowl for their 10th win.
"That was really the catalyst for us for this project," McCaw said.
He meant the stadium. But the program was rising, too. The Bears have staked a claim on Texas football. Last year's Big 12 football title was their first, and it included blowouts of Texas and Oklahoma along the way.
"It's one of the greatest transformations of a college football program in recent history, if not ever," McCaw said.
The biggest win might have come last winter, when Briles was an option at Texas to replace Mack Brown. What happened depends on who's talking – and it's probably something else, entirely – but if things had gone differently, Briles might have been coaching Texas. Instead, he's still at Baylor, with a big new contract, a big new stadium and ambitions that keep growing.
Briles said when he got his first tour of the stadium, he realized, "Shoot, I don't dream big enough. I don't think big enough and I don't foresee big enough, because it was just unbelievable."
But it's hard to know which is the bigger accomplishment: Building the stadium or the football program.
"They go hand in hand," McCaw said. "You can't separate 'em."
What's possible? What's not?
"The sky is the limit for this team, this program and this university," Griffin said. "It's only gonna get better. … I hope you guys are ready for the run."
The Bears and their fans seem to be. Three hours before kickoff Sunday afternoon, several thousand fans crowded into a plaza between the stadium and the river for the unveiling of a statue of Griffin. The 24-year-old, now an NFL starter with Washington, said he wouldn't have missed the opportunity to return for the occasion. Wearing a green velour sportscoat over a T-shirt, black jeans and unlaced high-tops, Griffin partook in all sorts of revelry, official and unofficial. At halftime, he even conducted the band. The crowd – officially, 45,733 – roared at every point along the way.
"This is maybe the greatest day of celebration in the history of Baylor University," McCaw said. "People are euphoric."
That included Griffin, who proclaimed Baylor "a powerhouse in Texas now."
"I don't know if anyone wants to admit that," he said. "Baylor has owned Texas for a while now."
Briles, who talks openly of winning a national championship, wouldn't disagree. He points to the school's location in central Texas, its academics – and now, its facilities – and suggests the Bears are trying to build "over the long haul."
"We're trying to be a consistently respected team," he said, "that really tries to dominate."
If that seems ambitious, who ever expected to see this?
"It's awesome," said Griffin of the new stadium. "It's what we dreamed of. It's what we had as a vision. It's just amazing to see it finally here."
But that's only one step in the plan.
"This is a huge building block in the process," McCaw said, "but we're still building."