WACO — From his Friday vantage point at the Baylor Stadium construction site, athletic director Ian McCaw could peer out on the Brazos River and see the future of the Bears’ football program.It includes … well, piers. They will support the 960-foot pedestrian bridge connecting the $260 million stadium to the Baylor campus, located on the opposite side of the Brazos.It includes “sailgating,” a phrase McCaw worked into the conversation on multiple occasions as he discussed future flotillas of football fans zipping up and down the Brazos when the facility opens for the 2014 season.Imagine that. A genuine Baylor Navy, complete with Admiral Art Briles and his band of Bears forcing future groups of Longhorns, Sooners and Horned Frogs to walk the plank when they wander into Waco.And doing it all at a state-of-the-art stadium located within 50 yards of a large lagoon — destined to be dubbed Lake Seastrunk, you would think — where fans will be able to dock their boats while watching their Bears. Other boat slips, McCaw said, are expected to be added along the Brazos, with exact numbers to be determined.“It’s going to be hugely popular,” McCaw said of the Baylor Navy. “It’s great for the fans on game day, those who are boaters. We’ve also had a number of people say, ‘I’m not a boater but I’m going to buy a boat because I want to do it.’ It’s just a real unique feature, and that’s one of the things that separates this stadium from every other stadium.”Because the 45,000-seat facility is located along the banks of the Brazos where the river flows beneath the I-35 overpass, it will be one of the most visible structures in Waco. Its presence is expected to trigger construction of nearby shops, restaurants and hotels, all with river-related access. For Waco residents, it marks a major piece in efforts to revitalize an area that could morph into a trendy entertainment destination.But all boats will not rise — literally or metaphorically — unless the home team continues to match or exceed the level of success that has marked the past three seasons.During that stretch, Briles has led a once-moribund football program to three bowl berths, won two bowl games and celebrated a Heisman Trophy winner (quarterback Robert Griffin III in 2011). Baylor returns lots of proven playmakers from an 8-5 team that defeated UCLA 49-26 in last year’s Holiday Bowl.And those playmakers embrace the need to continue the heavy lifting that began with RG3 and his peers. As players monitor the ongoing construction across the river from the team’s on-campus practice field, quarterback Bryce Petty said the Bears do not see a finish line or a reward for a job well-done.They see a starting point for a newer, bolder, better era of Baylor football. Because the facilities are being taken to a higher level, Petty said the Bears’ level of success must rise to match their new digs.“Exactly. Definitely,” said Petty, who talked openly of a Big 12 championship and a school-record win total (11 or higher) this season. “Everything’s changing. We’re always improving, always wanting to get better. It just makes us more hungry to get more and more things.”Running back Lache Seastunk, a 1,000-yard rusher last season and self-described front-runner in the 2013 Heisman Trophy race, said the Bears’ goal is to honor predecessors who “laid the foundation” by earning championship banners to display at the new stadium.“It has to be,” Seastrunk said. “If they didn’t put the work down, that stadium wouldn’t be getting built now.”But it’s 30 percent complete, based on Friday’s estimate by senior project manager Jim Heley. More new steel is being added daily, with the frame expected to be finished by September. Finish-outs will include a 5,000-square-foot videoboard in the south end zone, ribbon boards around the stadium and Wi-Fi access for all ticket buyers.Briles said the Bears’ swanky new home is “not just changing Baylor. It’s changing Waco and Central Texas. It shows movement. It shows that people are on the rise. It shows there’s a proactiveness going on, and it’s all positive.”As things stand, Heley said everything is on schedule for the initial flotilla by the Baylor Navy on Aug. 30, 2014, when Baylor meets SMU. Until then, the edifice under construction will remain a motivational tool for members of the 2013 team, who were left out of the preseason coaches poll and probably will not surface in The Associated Press’ Top 25 when it is unveiled Saturday.But the Bears did check in at No. 17 this week in Sports Illustrated, the team’s highest perch in any preseason ranking.“A lot of people are sleeping on us,” receiver Antwan Goodley said. “But that’s great. That’s what we want. That’s what we like, to prove a lot of people wrong.”With minimal improvement by the defense, Baylor has enough offensive weapons to prove lots of prognosticators wrong this season.Don’t rule out the possibility that the maiden voyage of the Baylor Navy in 2014 could be to a stadium where a Big 12 championship banner will be raised from the previous season.
Jimmy Burch, 817-390-7760 Twitter: @Jimmy_Burch