In his 20-plus years at Baylor University, president Robert B. Sloan Jr. had never seen or heard of anything like what took place at the Baptist school on the night of April 5. Students circled the campus in their cars honking their horns, screamed with joy and--the old Baptist judge R.E.B. Baylor must have been rolling in his grave--danced in the streets. There were even reports of streakers tearing across the school's well-groomed lawns. "In terms of pure emotional outburst, there has been nothing to compare it to," says Sloan with a smile.
The reason for this revelry: The women's basketball team had just routed Michigan State 84--62 for the NCAA title at the RCA Dome in Indianapolis. In Waco people still talk about the Bears' 1974 upset of Texas--the so-called Miracle on the Brazos--which led to their first Southwest Conference football title in 50 years. But the Lady Bears had done more than give Baylor, and the town of 116,000, just another precious sports memory. Eleven months after the tennis team won Baylor's first-ever national team championship, the women basketball players signaled that this was indeed a season of new beginnings at a school that had come close to despair.
In the summer of 2003, Baylor made headlines for all the wrong reasons. Men's basketball player Patrick Dennehy was found shot to death; his teammate Carlton Dotson was charged with the murder. Coach Dave Bliss and athletic director Tom Stanton resigned, and secretly recorded tapes later revealed Bliss had tried to portray Dennehy as a drug dealer to cover up potential NCAA violations.
That case is not yet closed--Dotson's trial is set to begin on June 13--but the Lady Bears' triumph "has helped clear out whatever emotions were left over from those tragedies," says Sloan. "It has had a tremendous transforming effect on the morale of the city." Moreover, he adds, "It changes your top-of-mind association. If you hear the name Baylor now, the first thing you think of is the Lady Bears."
Coach Kim Mulkey-Robertson says the throngs who congratulated her last week also expressed their gratitude. "People keep telling me, 'Thank you for what you've done for the school, thank you for what you've done for the town,'" she says. "People really needed this championship."
The Lady Bears were an inspiring story in their own right. In 1999--2000, the season before Mulkey-Robertson, 42, arrived from Louisiana Tech, where she won national championships as a player and as an assistant, the team was 7--20. She recruited Texans such as senior center Steffanie Blackmon and junior forward Chameka Scott as well as under-the-radar foreigners Abiola Wabara, a sophomore forward from Parma, Italy, and Sophia Young, a junior All-America forward from St. Vincent in the Grenadines who only played two years of high school ball before arriving in Waco. The Lady Bears have had nothing but winning seasons since.
They might have gone all the way last year if in the Sweet 16 round a controversial foul call as time ran out hadn't given Tennessee a pair of game-winning free throws. Bonded tighter by that disappointment, this year's team had a chemistry that seemed contagious. As the Lady Bears marched toward their first Big 12 regular-season and tournament titles, fans piled on the bandwagon. The day after Baylor came back from a 15-point deficit to beat No. 1 LSU in the national semifinals, a chartered plane with 140 fans flew to Indianapolis, while another 150 students crowded onto three buses and, eschewing showers and sleep, drove 1,000 miles in 19 hours to reach the RCA Dome. Back in Waco, businesspeople and schoolkids wore green and gold, and 4,500 gathered at the Ferrell Center to watch the title game on a big-screen TV. Nearly twice as many showed up there the next afternoon to greet the Lady Bears when they returned with the NCAA trophy. Mulkey-Robertson challenged other Baylor athletes in the audience. "This program had seven wins," she said. "Don't tell me you guys can't win a national championship too."
Men's basketball coach Scott Drew was recruiting on Wednesday and missed the speech, but he appreciates the message. Two years after taking over a program that had been devastated by tragedy and defections, Drew is in the midst of a much bigger rebuilding project than the one Mulkey-Robertson faced. "Our players have looked at the success the women have had, and it gives them confidence. It motivates them to want to partake in that kind of success," says Drew, whose team was 9--19 last season. "Also, this has given us a new goal. Remember how Connecticut won both the men's and women's titles last year? That's what we're aiming for now."