Shawn Oakman rose from his chair and gasped at the crowd forming to his right. Reporters were lining up to speak with Baylor quarterback Bryce Petty in startling numbers.
The most popular player in the room was obvious.
But the microphone mob symbolized more. It was also a sign of how far Baylor has come in a few short years under Art Briles. Five years ago, the Bears were the ignored team at these events. On Monday, they were the toast of Big 12 football media days.
Oakman should have seen it coming, what with Baylor winning a conference championship last season and returning a bona fide Heisman Trophy contender at quarterback. Still, the junior defensive end had to see it before settling in for his interview session.
“It’s a blessing to see where we came from to where we are now,” Petty said. “We are going into the season knowing that we have a target on our back. That is a big step in the right direction for Baylor.”
The Bears took that step with a breakthrough 2013 season. They won 11 games, claimed their first Big 12 championship and played in the Fiesta Bowl — while averaging 618.8 yards and 52.3 points.
Now they are picked to finish second in the conference’s preseason poll behind Oklahoma with a new, on-campus stadium that seats 45,140 is nearing completion at a price of $260 million.
For the first time since joining the Big 12, outsiders are expecting the Bears to win big. Like it or not, those expectations create a different mindset.
“I can hardly explain how different things are around Waco,” receiver Antwan Goodley said. “When I first came here, the fan base wasn’t behind us the way they are now. We have sold out our season tickets already. Back then there weren’t many people even coming to the games.
“Everything is different, but we are still going to play with a chip on our shoulders. We are still going to be hunter.”
Is it really that easy, though?
For years, Briles and Baylor have built an identity around proving others wrong. Robert Griffin III wasn’t expected to win the Heisman Trophy entering his final season, and the Bears were considered nothing more than a darkhorse in the Big 12 last year.
Can they work and play with the same passion fans have grown accustomed to now that they have something to defend?
“I appreciate that perception,” Briles said. “That’s something that we’re working on, because we certainly don’t perceive ourselves that way. We still see ourselves, me, personally, our team, we see ourselves as the guy fighting hard, scratching hard to try to get some recognition and some respect.
“We have to learn how to prepare as the hunted as opposed to the hunter. We’ve always been the hunter. And I don’t want to lose that edge and that attitude and that’s something that we’re working hard to maintain.”
For the most part, the Bears think they can maintain their old swagger with moderate changes.
Petty predicted Baylor’s offense will be even more explosive, and Goodley said the Bears could win another conference title with some small tweaks. They also said motivation won’t be a factor. A 52-42 loss to Central Florida in the Fiesta Bowl drove them throughout the spring.
“I can’t wait to get the taste of that bowl game out of my mouth,” Petty said.
On Monday, reporters also grilled Briles on Baylor’s weak nonconference schedule. They wanted to know when the Bears planned on upgrading from this year’s slate of SMU, Northwestern State and Buffalo.
Briles bristled at the question, saying that those games were scheduled years ago and that he had no desire to shake up a system that works.
Expectations are new at Baylor. But winning isn’t.
“I don’t think it’s hard to play like that at all,” Petty said. “I would much rather be the No. 1 team in the nation instead of the No. 51 team in the nation, just so we can say we’re hunting. The No. 1 team in the nation can still hunt. Lions have to eat, so we are going to eat, too.”