In the wacky Big 12, where truth trumps fiction on the believability scale more often than any other Power 5 conference, we may soon conclude the most public pursuit of expansion candidates during college athletics’ realignment era by adding no new league members. Or there could be four newcomers taking part in the 2017 spring meetings.
But regardless of what league presidents do in the name of “stability” for this dysfunctional group, know this: You have not seen anything more bizarre in the Big 12 than the scene that could unfold in December if an interim football coach wins a league title with players he did not recruit while leaning on assistant coaches he inherited from his predecessor.
For good measure, he’d do so while dealing with the public backlash from fans and an awkward relationship with school administrators created by his school’s handling of a sexual assault scandal within the football program that created the vacancy he filled in May.
We’re looking at you, Baylor coach Jim Grobe. At this point, Grobe oversees the highest-ranked Big 12 team in this week’s Associated Press poll. If the 11th-ranked Bears (5-0, 2-0 in Big 12) prevail Saturday in Waco against Kansas (1-4, 0-2), Baylor would be halfway home in efforts to post a 12-0 record that would secure a league title and consideration as a College Football Playoff participant.
Truthfully, the Bears have shown nothing through five games to suggest a perfect season is unfolding in Waco. And more internal strife surfaced Monday surrounding a disagreement between Grobe and Baylor administrators about actions taken regarding defensive lineman Jeremy Faulk , who was removed from the team in June and eventually taken off scholarship after being accused of sexual assault.
But in a league filled with middling teams that seem destined for lots of 8-4 records, this much is true: You cannot rule out Baylor as the eventual Big 12 champion, no matter how much you might hate former football coach Art Briles, former school president Kenneth Starr or anyone else involved in creating the mess Grobe inherited.
That makes it fascinating, from a football perspective, to ponder what the reaction would be — locally and nationally — if Baylor wins a league title under Grobe despite losing 16 players from the spring roster after Briles was dismissed in May. Grobe should be a midseason national coach of the year candidate if we’re judging strictly by wins, losses and distractions avoided while posting bottom-line results.
“What he’s done there is really off-the-charts,” said Gil Brandt, former Dallas Cowboys’ vice-president of player personnel and senior analyst for NFL.com. “Because those guys are really playing with about 65 players. I marvel at what the guy has done. You can have all the coaching traits. But if you don’t have guys who are paying attention, you still have hard times. He’s got the focus of that team the right way. That’s why they’re playing like they are.”
Lest anyone forget, Brandt is the same person who predicted in July that the Bears “may not win very many” games because of off-field distractions overwhelming players and coaches. But the team is 5-0 despite all indicators suggesting Grobe and his inherited staffers will be looking for other jobs at the end of this season. That’s no small achievement.
“It’s very hard to gain the confidence of these assistant coaches,” Brandt said. “A lot of guys, instead of coaching, they’re calling. They already think they’re fired and they’re looking for a new job. It looks to me like he’s held all those guys together and they’re all headed in the right direction. I think that surprises 99 percent of your readers.”
No doubt. But in the Big 12, the 1 percent chance seems to mushroom into reality more than it does in other leagues. Through the years, that’s held true for membership squabbles, expansion plans and tiebreaker controversies. Why not a football champion? Would anyone really be shocked if multiple teams, including Baylor, share the league title with 7-2 or 6-3 league records when the conference race ends Dec. 3?
Grobe said this team, which has yet to surrender a fourth-quarter point, has persevered because of its energy and closeness. He cited “as good of a relationship between offense and defense” as any team he’s coached. Grobe said he leaves the game plans to his coordinators, who know Big 12 foes better than he does, while he focuses on big-picture issues.
“There’s no finger pointing. There is a lot of unity,” Grobe said.
But there’s probably no future for Grobe, 64, after this season at Baylor even if he wins a championship. In a recent discussion about recruiting strategy, Grobe said: “I hope they’ll let us show what we can do and maybe, with the new coach coming in, show Baylor is a great place to be.”
Brandt, for one, suggested school officials might want to add Grobe to the list of permanent replacement candidates if the second half of the Bears’ season looks anything like the first half.
“I think it would be hard to find anyone any better than him,” Brandt said. “He’s a guy that’s kind of like Tom Landry. He’s an unflappable guy who has a vast knowledge of football, both offense and defense.”
For now, Grobe also has a share of first place in the Big 12 standings. He also has a chance to trigger the most awkward trophy presentation ceremony in Big 12 history if the Bears remain in that spot in Dec. 3.