The Baylor administration has tried very hard to get away from having a lingering hangover of all the off-season issues that the Pepper Hamilton Report revealed and started a wave of wide-sweeping change in the university administration and the athletic department. Gone are President and Chancellor Ken Starr, athletic director Ian McCaw, and head football coach Art Briles.
Baylor is in the midst of re-organizing its infrastructure with Title IX to handle complaints and serious criminal activity against students differently and in a more effective manner. However, sometimes it is hard to get out of their own way. With a road game at Rice last week, former head coach Art Briles attracted attention by watching the game from the seats in Rice Stadium. Briles had recently done an interview with ESPN for GameDay. Then after the game, former defensive end and the most recent former player arrested on a charge of sexual assault, Shawn Oakman, was seen on the field and outside the locker room after the game and then reportedly in the locker room with his former teammates.
"I don't know who Shawn Oakman is," acting head coach Jim Grobe said. To be fair, Grobe did not ever coach Oakman, but a 6-9, 275-pound former defensive end might be fairly easily recognized. "If he walked in here right now I wouldn't know it," Grobe added.
While Grobe was playing down the Oakman sighting, Baylor was quick to say that Oakman is banned from its facilities and would not be allowed on the Baylor sidelines or in the locker room at road games. Quarterback Seth Russell was asked about Oakman being at the game and in the locker room after the win over Rice and was much more congenial about it.
"That's more of a personal deal, what happens in the locker room stays in the locker room-type of deal," started Russell to The Dallas Morning News. "He's a great guy, just in a bad situation. We're not going to hold anything against him. He was a part of the team and he's still a part of Baylor. We're going to love him just as much as anybody else."
Baylor play-by-play voice John Morris has always been a stand-up guy. Morris is a Baylor lifer who came from Kentucky to go to school there and is as recognized or associated with Baylor as anybody. He is extremely regretful for what has happened and you can tell he hurts over the damage to Baylor's image and reputation, but he has been steadfast in acknowledging fault on Baylor's part and a commitment to correct all of the issues. It hurts that Baylor, whether at fault or no fault, can't escape the lingering effects.
"That is the world that we are in right now and, to be honest, we put ourselves in that position, for the most part," Morris explained. "There is also the feeding frenzy of the media and it is something we can't avoid when these things come up. I keep waiting for a flag for piling on but we aren't at that point yet."
Back to the Baylor quarterback in Russell, and I said that one of the most noticeable changes in Baylor football is the mercy and sportsmanship shown by Grobe in his role as acting head coach. Baylor had a huge lead at halftime in the opener with Northwestern State and Grobe had the starters out of the game at halftime. Against Rice, up 38-10 in the fourth quarter, the Baylor offense helped run out the clock late and did not press to score more points. With Art Briles, starters regularly played deep into the fourth quarter in blowout wins and scored as many points as possible.
Is it a new day in Waco in some regards. Russell talked about the culture within the team under Grobe.
"Culture's really vague. I know who we have on the team. It's a lot of great guys, a lot of guys who want to do the right thing," Russell expressed. "The no-tolerance policy we have right now, they're really cracking down on guys that are doing the wrong thing. ... For the most part, I feel like the guys are really all in for it. The culture is pretty good right now, I feel like."
Now on Saturday against Oklahoma State, Russell will have back one of his top targets going into the season in receiver Ishmael Zamora, who returns following a three-game suspension for a video showing Zamora beating his dog violently with a strap or belt.
There is talk that a petition with some 178,000 signatures exists and will be presented demanding that Zamora not play again for Baylor. Again, Russell got trapped by The Dallas Morning News showing sympathy for a not so sympathetic act and person in Zamora.
"He's been bombarded by a lot of things. I feel for the guy," Russell commented. "He's shown me some things people have said to him. It's mind-blowing. To act like nobody's ever done anything wrong in their entire life and for them to say something like that to him, it doesn't make sense to me. Look at yourself first before you say anything to somebody else. For the most part, he's had great emotions. He's been really, really positive. He's helped the scout team out a lot. He's worked with the scout team the last three weeks. He's out there making catches, five feet above everybody else. It's really encouraging to myself to see he's still working. ... He's sorry for it. He's ready to play some football."
Baylor is ready to play football, but the question remains, how long will they do it with a cloud, certainly a media cloud, hanging over them?