The Long and Winding Path to "Elite"

The word “elite” is thrown out a lot. It is not an easy thing to achieve, and usually when you think you are there, you are not. Where are the Bears in their journey to the magical land of “elite” and will they ever get there?

Most fans always expect not only incremental improvement, but usually exponential improvement each game and each year with their program. It is an impossible goal for any program to achieve year in and year out. This was year seven of the massive Baylor rebuilding job that Art Briles has taken head on. Here is a quick history lesson, to remind you where the Bears have come from:

In 7 years prior to Art Briles arrival, the Bears won 8 conference games combined. They won 8 in both 2013 and 2014.

To say this was a massive rebuilding job is completely accurate, but we are not here to talk about the work that HAS been done, rather the work that still needs to be done. To do so, we will need to look at other rebuilding jobs of this magnitude, or non-elite programs that have risen to the top of the College Football world, and not just for a year or two. Who are the program that have done this successfully?

Oregon Ducks

Yes, the team that finds itself a touchdown favorite to win its first national championship is not a historical blue-blood. They don’t have multiple national championships. Before the late 80s, the Ducks had been to 6 bowl games in more than 60 years. They were a scuffling West coast team with no success to speak of. Then, in stepped Rich Brooks. Success, however was not immediate. It took Brooks 13 years to reach his first bowl game. He finished with just 2 wins in four of his first 6 seasons in Eugene. That sounds like someone who would get fired before they even had a chance in the present environment.

However, in 1989, Brooks and his Ducks broke through. They won 8 games in 1989 and and another 9 in 1990, going to back to back bowls in their program’s history. After three years of middling success, Brooks had his best team in Eugene, a 1994 Rose Bowl team that went 9-4. With the NFL calling his name, in stepped Mike Bellotti to take over the reins.

The program would start to truly make a name for itself here, with 7 bowl games in a row, including 10 or more wins in 2000, 2001, 2005, and 2008. With Bellotti retiring from coaching, in came his little known offensive coordinator; Chip Kelley. With the innovative offensive coach taking the lead, the Ducks would go on a 4-year stretch that they had never before seen.

In 2009, the Ducks would advance to the Rose Bowl after a 10-win season, where they lost to Ohio State. In 2010, they would finish the regular season undefeated and advance to the National Championship game where they would lose to Auburn and Cam Newton. With back-to-back big game losses (sound familiar), the Ducks finally broke through in 2011 with a Rose Bowl win and their second consecutive 12-win season. They would also win the Fiesta Bowl in 2012 under Kelly.

With Chip Kelly moving on to the NFL, Mark Helfrich would take control of the Ducks program, leading them to an 11-2 season in 2013 and a victory in the Alamo Bowl. 2014 though has been the true break out year, with Marcus Mariota winning the Heisman trophy and the Ducks earning a spot in the National Championship game against Ohio State after a dominant win over defending champion Florida State in the Rose Bowl.

Overall, that is a 25 year build to hopefully their first national championship, and second appearance in the championship game. It took them 21 years to reach the national championship for the first time, on their 3rd coach since the rebuild truly began under Rich Brooks.

The Ducks were 1-3 in their first four New Year’s Day or later Bowl games, with losses in 1994, 2009, and 2010 and their win in 2001 in the Fiesta Bowl. This was the definition of a slow-build for the Oregon Ducks, and one that has turned them into a blue-blood of the sport.

Florida Gators

From 1904 to 1951, the Gators would never advance to a bowl game. That doesn’t sound like College Football royalty to me? Starting in the 1960s, the Gators started to have some good teams, advancing to 5 bowl games in the decade. In the 1970s and 1980s, they were a nice program, but only won 9 games four times in 20 years, and never had a 10-win season. They were a solid to good program, except during a three year stretch from 1983 to 1985 that saw them finish in the Top-6 all three season.

However, with the arrival of the “Ole Ball Coach”, Steve Spurrier, The Gators would start to move into the College Football Elite. Spurrier’s Gators would win 9 games in his first year in 1990, starting a run of 12 seasons where they would win at least 9 games. Those 12 years also happened to coincide with Spurrier’s entire tenure in Gainesville.

The apex of his tenure was in 1995 and 1996, where they would advance to the national championship game in both season, losing the first to Nebraska, but beating rival Florida State for the Gator’s first national championship. Spurrier would never again have a team in the national championship game, and would leave Gainesville in 2001 to the NFL. Ron Zook came into replace Spurrier, but that proved to be a 3-year failure for Florida. The next coach, however, would bring the Gators back to the top.

Urban Meyer arrived in Florida by way of Bowling Green and Utah. It would take him 2 years to stamp his name on a national championship and 2 more years to get his second one. The Gators had arrived as a national power. On their way, a journey that started in the late 1980’s with Galen Hall, Florida would go through four coaches, with two of them responsible for at least 1 national championship. Steve Spurrier lost three of his first four BCS bowl games (losses in 1991, 1994, and 1995, with the win in 1996) and would finish just 1-4 overall in BCS Bowl games.

Kansas State Wildcats

While still looking to truly hit the college football elite and break through fully, the Wildcats are the one example here that can truly taste the bottom of the barrel “close the football program down” futility that the Bears faced in the 2000s. The Wildcats won 3 games total in the four years before Bill Snyder came to Manhattan in 1989. Kansas State had just one bowl game in the 80 years of football before Snyder arrived. The most wins in program history were set in the first year of existence (1912) where they won 8 games. They would win 7 games two times in 80 years. That is true awfulness.

Bill Snyder would take three season to turn the Wildcats around, going 1-10 in his first season, but winning 5 games in year two and 7 games in year three. They would advance to their first bowl game in 1993 after a 9-2-1 season. That would start a stretch of 11 consecutive years with a bowl game, with all but one of those teams winning at least 9 games. Snyder would win the 1997 Fiesta Bowl to finish 11-1 and ranked 8th in the final poll. That would be one of 5 Top-10 finishes in 8 seasons.

A two-year dip in the program would lead to Snyder’s retirement as Ron Prince took the program over. After a disastrous 3 year run that saw them fall to 5 wins in the last two years, the Wizard of Manhattan would be brought back out of retirement in 2009 to rebuild the program again.

After a 6-win campaign to start the job, Snyder would take his Wildcats to five straight bowls, including the 2012 Fiesta Bowl in an 11-win season. While the Wildcats have yet to advance to a national championship game, or even finish in the Top-5 in the final poll, they have won two Big-12 titles (2003 and 2012) and advanced to three other Big-12 championship games.

Baylor Bears

We should all know the history of the Bears and where they have come from. A 15-year bowl-less streak that saw them become one of the laughingstocks of college football. With Art Briles hired in 2008, he would start with two 4-8 season before breaking through with a 7 win team in 2010. That would start a current streak of 5-straight bowl games, for a program that had never gone to more than 2 in a row. The Bears have won 10 or more games in three of the last four seasons, and are coming off of back-to-back Big 12 titles.

That is the quick version of their story, but by no means has the turnaround been swift. Look at the three teams above. It took Oregon 12 years to have back to back 10+ win seasons, and almost 20 years to do it three years in four. It took them 6 years to win their first Pac-10 championship in 1994. They would win a share of their second one in 2000, before winning it outright again in 2001.

Florida would win their first conference championship in 1990, in Spurrier’s first year, and then again in 1991 after a decade of being a solid team with 7 bowl games in the 1980s. This was a program that was not coming from the doldrums of football, but one that was a Top-40 program, just looking to make a leap.

Kansas State has still yet to find the level of success that Baylor is currently enjoying. Their two conference championships in 17 years match what the Bears have done in the last two. The Wildcats did win 11 games four years in a row, and enjoyed a lot of success, but they could never win the big one to put them truly in the conversation for a championship. The closest they came was probably 2012, where a late season loss to the Bears knocked them out of first place in the BCS standings and out of the national title hunt.

The Bears are still a few steps away from being considered a true power program. They have not finished higher than 13th to finish out a year, though this season will probably end in a Top-10 run for the first time since 1951. A win in the Cotton Bowl would have put the Bears in the Top-5 for the first time in their history, and given them momentum for 2015. Now, the same questions will be asked of the Bears, which were asked of Oregon and Florida. Can they win the big one? Both of those schools eventually did prove that they could win a big game (though Oregon still has yet to win a national championship). Will the Bears prove to be able to take that next step up like the Ducks and Gators or will they stay just a step below?

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