A warm and personal account of the humor, pathos, tears and joy that led to the Bears’ 1974 SWC championship.
It was about 3:00 p.m. on December 23 when Jack [Patterson] called me; I was in my office with an athlete I was trying to recruit. He asked me to charter a plane and fly to Waco that night because Baylor now would offer me the job [as head football coach].
He met Donell and me at the airport and drove us to his home where we could talk comfortably. Things started on a bad note, however.
Jack, of course, was anxious and I guess a little nervous to get things worked out. I was excited about the possibility and wanted to hear what was to be said. When he pulled his car in the driveway, I got out on the right side. [My wife] Donell was in the back seat so I opened her door and stepped back on the grass to let her out. We went in the house and visited in the den awhile. Then Jack suggested he and I move into the living room and talk business. We were sitting on a couch talking earnestly, but I kept smelling this horrible odor. My first thought was that a mouse had crawled under the couch and died. I could hardly listen to Jack for smelling it.
Then it occurred to me that he could smell the same thing and he might be wondering if I had a dead rat in my pocket. We exchanged glances and just then I crossed my legs. On my left heel I saw a huge piece of dog manure that I had stepped in on the grass. I looked down and saw that I had tracked it all the way through the den and living room. Jack and I laughed about it but I’ve never been so embarrassed in my life.
So we interrupted our discussion and cleaned up the manure and deodorized the house. We knew we had to hurry because Herb Reynolds, the provost and executive vice president, and two members of the faculty committee were coming by to meet me. Just as we finished spraying the house they rang the door bell.
An announcement was prepared concerning the Baylor job and I talked to Dave Campbell, sports editor of the Waco paper. He quickly gave the story to the wire services and it was announced on the ten o’clock news that I was the new head coach. On Christmas Eve morning the story was in the papers and I’m sure there were plenty of puzzled expressions across Texas. A lot of people didn’t even know I was being considered although there had been a few blurbs in the paper about me. Certainly the major papers in the state, particularly in Houston and Dallas, were not too familiar with Angelo State’s program, or McMurry’s either. Across the state the general reaction was, “How in the world do you pronounce that name? Grant who? From where?”
Of course, I knew this would be the reaction and it did not bother me at all. But I was concerned about our daughters’ reaction to my taking the Baylor job. We called San Angelo to tell them the news. Their reactions were mixed.
Tammy didn’t want to leave San Angelo. She was quite upset. She was a cheerleader in junior high school and had all the involvements of a typical teenager.
Tracy, who’s always been adventuresome, said, “Let’s go and teach them to be winners!”
And Layne, who is a tremendous competitor and the sorriest loser in the world, said, “Daddy, I want to ask one question. How many football games did Baylor win last season?”
“They won one game,” I told her.
She was indignant. “I don’t see how you could even consider going to a place that won only one game,” she said.
“Honey,” I told her, “that’s one of the reasons we need to go.”
The only way I could hope to unify the Baylor people and change our public image was through personal diplomacy. I threw myself into it night and day.
In the first 120 days after taking the job I traveled 20,000 miles and faced 26,000 people eyeball to eyeball. I enjoyed a lot of it but the one thing I quickly grew tired of was repeatedly hearing people who really love Baylor telling those cruel jokes about the school and its reputation as a loser. And, if the people close to the school felt this way, you can imagine the attitude of the general public. The negative attitude horrified me.
There was a lot of lingering resentment over John Bridgers leaving Baylor three years before, although, typical of the division among Baylor people, there also was a camp which was all for it. But the handling of the Bridgers case had left a bad opinion with others. After he was fired and Bill Beall came in and did so miserably, I heard hundreds of high school coaches say, “Well, Baylor is getting exactly what it deserves.” This was a big barrier to recruiting.
Now here I came, a fresh name with a different approach, and people seemed glad to see me and listen. Still, I was concerned about the negativism in their minds and knew this must be changed.
The media at every turn was wide open, receptive, and positive. One question I immediately heard concerned Coach Beall and his paint brush. He wanted to paint everything and give it a different look when he came to Baylor. He intended it as a positive campaign but it had a negative effect. At a news conference in Dallas in late ’71 I was asked if I planned to paint everything at Baylor. I didn’t know the full situation then but I gave an answer everyone seemed to like.
“Paint is only superficial,” I said. “The root of our problem is much deeper. We must go to the heart of the matter—attitude, finances, the whole gamut.” But I never said anything derogatory about Coach Beall and his program. I don’t believe you build anything by tear-ing something else down.
I kept seeing this same skinny kid, sort of tall and dark-haired and about 160 pounds. I thought he was one of the managers. Every time I’d come close to him he’d duck his head and turn away. Finally I cornered him, stuck out my hand and said, “I’m Coach Teaff. What’s your name?” He shook my hand real firm but nothing came out when he opened his mouth. I asked him, “Didn’t you understand me? I’m Coach Teaff. What’s your name?” I could tell he was trying to say something but nothing came out.
A coach who had been on the staff previously saw what was happening and nudged me. I walked to the side with him and he said, “That’s Neal Jeffrey. He has a speech impediment. He was third-team quarterback for the freshmen last fall and not really that great an athlete but he has family ties at Baylor and wants to play here. (Neal’s father, James Jeffrey, played halfback for Baylor in the late ’40s.) I know he’s real excited and upset about your coming up to him. Why don’t you try to catch him later?”
I knew that eventually I would have the players visit with me individually to talk about their goals and I thought Neal might feel more comfortable then. He came to my office, sat down in front of me and it happened again. I would talk to him and he would stammer and stutter, the words seemingly caught in his throat. He kept trying, though, and after an hour and a half I finally got his goals out of him.
His number one goal was to be the starting quarterback the next fall when we opened the season. He was third-team quarterback on a sorry freshman team and he was sitting there stammering and stuttering that he wanted to be our starting quarterback as a sophomore. Talk about unrealistic goals!
But Neal wasn’t finished. The last goal he got out really touched me. He said, “Coach, I’d like to be able to use my athletic talent so that I could some day stand and speak and tell what God has meant to me.”
I thought about all of this a minute, then told him, “Neal, you know you must work to achieve these goals so get busy this spring.” He nodded and left my office.
I’ve never seen anybody work like Neal. Cotton Davidson did a fantastic job teaching him quarterbacking techniques but you never saw a more willing pupil than Neal. When we opened the season against Georgia that skinny-legged, stuttering son-of-a-gun was our starting quarterback. He completed 18 of 30 passes against Georgia, the best game by a sophomore quarterback in Baylor history. It was the start of a brilliant career for Neal, both as a quarterback and as a person.
We closed the  season by beating Rice 28-14. That gave us a 3-4 record and a fourth-place tie in the conference race. We had led the nation in pass defense, had the first sellout crowd in Baylor history, led the nation in increased home attendance with a jump of 130 percent and produced the school’s first consensus all-America player since ’63 in Roger Goree.
In less than a year Baylor’s new leader had gone from Grant Who? to the Southwest Conference’s most celebrated football coach. The Texas Sports Writers Association elected him Texas Senior College Coach of the Year for ’72. On the day it was announced Donell wrote this letter:
This is a very happy and very proud day in our life and it’s such a thrill for me to share it with you Logically I should jump up and down and beam un-controllably, for this truly seems a beginning for what we hoped and planned in our life. However, my joy is so controlled and channeled into complete happiness that this new and great honor seems suddenly a very normal addition to an already overflowing cup! My cup truly runneth over with love and excitement and anticipation in my life with you.
You’ve always allowed me to share every emotion in your life—and in our profession there have been many—and in our life together we’ve lived every emotion that a full life can offer. There is so much about you I love—your charisma so many feel, your sensitive spirit and lovingness with our girls, your energy, an adequacy for a “job to be done” that I’ve never witnessed in any other man, your gentleness, your true and obvious love for each athlete, whether a Goree or a redshirt, and, most of all, your God-centered life. I am very proud.
Thanks for sharing so much with me, and in these years just passed there have been so many proud moments. The only reason this day is different is that every one in the whole world knows I’m proud today.
I love you!
Most people remembered Baylor’s surprising first season under Grant Teaff with a smile, then sat back and waited for more of the same in ’73. The off-season was a delight. Recruiting improved remarkably. A fine crop of high school stars headed by Alcy Jackson signed with the Bears. Tall and fast, Jackson was a wide receiver sought by colleges throughout the coun-try. Players like Tim Black, Flynn Bucy, Mike Ebow, Cleveland Franklin, Gary Gregory and Rell Tipton also added glow to the Green and Gold. Baylor fans, in-spired by the turnaround under Teaff, set a school rec-ord when they bought 10,000 season tickets. That was 60 percent above the previous best sale, 6,300 in ’63 when John Bridgers was the coach. All summer the Baylor people kept wishing the season would hurry up and start.
Then the season started and they wished it hadn’t.
Most of the TCU game was as discouraging as anything the Bears had suffered through all season. With a little more than eleven minutes left in the fourth quarter TCU led 34-7. But then the Baylor offense staged an incredible revival. The Bears scored three touchdowns and with two minutes left it was 34-28 and Baylor was driving again. When they made a first down on the TCU 15-yard line Grant Teaff began to think that something finally was turning out right.
This was our Homecoming game and I felt so strongly about what it means to the Baylor people that I had promised the crowd at Pigskin Review the night before that we would beat TCU. I reminded them that I had made only one other promise since coming to Baylor and I had made good on that when we beat A&M at Homecoming the year before.
As sorry as we had played against TCU most of the afternoon the team wouldn’t give up. Then when those touchdowns came bang-bang-bang in the fourth quarter it was wonderful to see how it electrified the entire team and everyone in the stands. Now we had to get it across one more time to score one of the greatest come-backs in Southwest Conference history.
Neal Jeffrey, who had been performing beautifully, tossed a screen pass and our tailback, Gary Lacy, gained nine yards with it. Now it was second down and one yard to go from the TCU 6. I just knew we were going to win it. The next play lost four yards back to the 10 but I still felt good. We used our last timeout to stop the clock. With 43 seconds left it was third-and-five and Neal came to the sideline to talk to me.
I told him to call “96 Slant,” a pass play we’d scored on many times. In fact, Charlie Dancer had just scored one of our three touchdowns on the same play. It was a great play in which both Charlie, our split end, and the wingback, Brian Kilgore, would cut inside and flood a zone in the secondary. Neal would step back and drill the ball to one of them.
The noise in our stadium was tremendous as Neal and I stood together. All around us our players and coaches were yelling and waving their fists. We had been starving for a moment like this.
I wanted to be sure Neal realized we had to make the most of the remaining time if we didn’t score on this play. “If they’re covered,” I told him, “throw it over that thing down there,” meaning the scoreboard. “But,” I added, “your tailback may be open.” As an after-thought, as Neal ran back on the field, I yelled, “That’s all of our timeouts!”
Neal went back to throw “96 Slant” but both receivers were covered. Instead of throwing the ball out of the end zone he dumped it to the tailback flaring out to the left. Gary Lacy had scored in this same situation a few minutes earlier when he grabbed the ball and cut in-side. If he’d cut outside this time he’d have walked into the end zone but he cut inside again. He was hit for a 3-yard loss.
Now it was fourth-and-8 on the 13 and we had to hit a pass either for a first down or a score. But Neal somehow thought it was third down and he was think-ing only of stopping the clock. I saw it coming, from the time he ran to the line of scrimmage and hurried the team to line up. I was horrified.
“Neal! Neal!” I screamed. He already was taking the snap from center, wheeling to his right and raising his arm. I wanted desperately to run out on the field and grab it. Then he threw the football. “It’s fourth down!” I screamed, as if my words could bring the ball back.
The ball fell harmlessly near the stands. Our players looked dumbfounded and so did TCU’s. Then the terrible reality of that moment struck Neal. He was in tears when he reached the sideline. “I thought it was third down,” he sobbed. I tried to mutter something but I was in a state of shock. I couldn’t believe we had lost our chance to win by throwing the ball out of bounds.
In our dressing room you could have cut the gloom with a butcher knife. I stood in the middle of the room and looked at the players slumped on the benches around me. I saw Neal sitting there, his face down in his hands. He was crying so hard his shoulders shook. I realized that no matter how hard this loss was for us to accept it was nothing compared to the defeat Neal was feeling.
I hurt so bad I could hardly talk but I knew I must.
“I want all of you to know that I believe Neal did a fabulous job for us,” I said. Neal still had his head down. I took a step toward him. I was trembling and tears were streaming down my face. “Neal! Neal! Get your head up!” I said. “Look at me!”
Slowly his head came up and his eyes met mine. “Neal, I want to say I think you did a fantastic, unbelieveable job. That’s what I want to say.”
In the background I heard players saying, “We love you, Neal!”
He looked at me and nodded. He was crushed. He felt the burden of the whole thing on his shoulders. It was so wrong because throughout the season he had been one of our greatest performers. I couldn’t stand to see him broken by one nightmarish play.
It seemed so cruel that of all the quarterbacks in college football he should be the one to suffer this. He had worked so hard and overcome so much.
When I dismissed the squad in the locker room after the TCU game Neal and I talked privately. I had had a lot of people questioning me about his ability to win, just the type of thing you get from people who know more about your business than you do. It hurt, because Neal’s play had been one of our strong points. He was all-conference material. I didn’t want him to lose every-thing he had gained because of that one crazy play.
I said, “Neal, I want to ask you a question. Do you believe you’re a winner?”
Neal looked straight at me. “Coach,” he said, “do you believe I’m a winner?”
I told him I did, that I had complete confidence in him and that I believed he could win for Baylor. “That’s all I needed to hear,” Neal said.
We went to Houston to finish the year against Rice. I guess that was the only football game in my coaching career I’ve ever been ashamed of.
Rice had done pretty well in November and had some zip. They had a good defense and that day even our offense couldn’t create a few sparks of life. They held us scoreless and won 27-0, the first shutout of my career. That really hurt but by then there was a long string of hurts.
It had been a miserable season. Baylor lost the last seven in a row, all in conference play, and finished with a 2-9 record. We finished in the conference cellar and last in defense, both in yardage and points allowed.
We were thoroughly embarrassed in that Rice game. In the dressing room afterward one of our top freshmen, Mike Ebow, said something that really impressed me. “I don’t want to talk about what we’re going to do next year,” Mike said. “I just want us to do it.”
I had told those freshmen when we recruited them and again on the opening day of fall practice that I believed they were the beginning of an historic era, that they were going to win a championship while they were at Baylor. Six freshmen started for us in ’73. They were good, quality young men who never gave up. There was my big hope for the future.
But at the moment there were so many negative feelings pulling me down. We had to move right into recruiting and I was totally exhausted. I stood beside our bus outside the dressing room and my coaches came by and tried to express their feelings to me. I could hardly hold my head up. I told them I had nothing to say then but we’d get together as quickly as possible after we got back. This was the Saturday after Thanksgiving and I had told the players they could leave with their families after the game if they wished. Most of them did, so there were only three or four players with me and my family for the four-hour ride from Houston to Waco. My heart felt as empty as that bus.
I sat beside Donell and I was in total anguish. I began to cry. I felt so miserable.
“We’ve said all along that we really felt Baylor was where God wanted us to be,” I told her. “But is this really the right place for us? Is coaching football worth what I’ve gone through night and day for two years, taking time away from my family and enduring all the physical and emotional strain? For this? Losing seven games in a row? Being humiliated?”
“I saw tears and I saw more pain in those four hours than I’ve seen in his whole life,” Donell said. “But there was some relief, too, because the season was finally over.
“And I saw something beautiful happen before we got home that night. The tears were dried and he said, ‘I know God brought me to Baylor. I’ve seen his hand in too many things the last two years. I know this is where he wants me. I know there is a job that I must do and perhaps the pain and the hurt and even the humiliation we have felt this season will help us as we begin again to build. We won’t quit now.
” ‘If I let down now,’ Grant told me, I’ll be letting down the team that came to Baylor because of me and because I had a dream of what could be done. And I believe that it still can be done.’ “
We went home and spent most of the rest of the night talking. Together we asked God to give us the strength to do that job and the knowledge to know how to do it. We committed ourselves to whatever God had in store for us at Baylor.
By morning I had my head screwed on straight, my ears back, and my face in the wind. I was ready to get after it. I once told Neal Jeffrey, “Get your head up!” and he did. Now it was my turn.
A slick, well-written magazine published in Austin and dedicated to telling its readers what’s wrong as well as right about the state, Texas Monthly devoted its September  cover story to telling why Southwest Conference football was dying. The state schools in the league would continue to grow stronger while the church-related and private schools grew even weaker, the article emphasized, noting that the University of Texas’ six straight trips to the Cotton Bowl Classic illustrated the terrible imbalance which already existed.
At the end of a refreshing summer Grant Teaff read it and his eyes narrowed.
I’ve never been as irritated as I was by that story. It was so contrary to anything positive. It didn’t discuss how you can solve problems. It simply said the problems were there and you should just give up. The most absurd thing to me was the thought that anybody should get out of the Southwest Conference. Anybody who wants to can be competitive in this league.
That writer aimed his prongs at the church-related schools. There I was putting my life’s blood on the line to prove we can be competitive and that private institutions have a place and he was writing that we were dying and taking the conference with us.
It was so ironic that the year he proclaimed that, Baylor won its first football championship in fifty years. When we were in Dallas in late December preparing for the Cotton Bowl game, we were dining in the Venetian Room at the Fairmont Hotel when that writer sent word to me that I’d messed up his whole year. I wanted to see him personally but he got out before I could catch him. I noticed when Texas Monthly cited different people of distinction across the state at the end of ’74 they gave him the Bum Steer of the Year award.
[November, 1974] It was funny how everything had changed in a year. Baylor had ended the ’73 season in humiliation at Houston when Rice beat us 27-0 and I cried all the way home on the bus, asking myself if I were in the wrong job. Now the band was playing “That Good Ol’ Baylor Line” and thousands of our fans were standing and holding their right hands up like bear claws and singing. It made me tingle, and not because a cold wind was whipping in my face.
It was a great feeling to know we were Southwest Conference champions. We had brought something to people who wanted it and deserved it for so many years. We walked off the field and into the tunnel and found the entire ramp leading to our dressing room was covered with cotton bolls. It felt marvelous. And it was such a long way from walking off that field at Rice a year before.
In the predawn darkness of December 1, the morning after Baylor won the ’74 Southwest Conference cha-pionship, Grant was jolted awake by a ringing telephone. He groped for it awhile and when he finally got the receiver to his ear, he heard a man yelling, “WE WON! WE WON! WE WON!”
“Yes, sir, I know we won,” Grant replied, “but do you know it is 3:30 in the morning?”
Sleepy as he was, he still had to appreciate that fan’s excitement. When a school wins its first championship in fifty years you can’t expect folks just to applaud a minute and then sit down.
We went to Dallas with every intention of enjoying the honor of representing the Southwest Conference in the Cotton Bowl and to participate fully in the week’s activities. That’s exactly what we did. Naturally, since Baylor is a Baptist-supported University, we made our own special plans for attending church the Sunday before the game. At the invitation of Dr. W. A. Criswell, I spoke at the First Baptist Church. Meanwhile, the team attended services at Park Cities Baptist. The day before we had attended a Fellowship of Christian Athletes breakfast which drew an overflow crowd of 1,000 to Texas Stadium Restaurant and since some people were suggesting Baylor hoped to pray its way past Penn State I used that opportunity to make clear my feelings about that.
I told the crowd, “I firmly believe that God will answer your prayer, although he may not always answer it exactly the way you want him to.”
Then I told about a friend of mine, a wealthy young man who wanted just one thing in this world: a grizzly bear for the trophy room of his mansion.
Finally he found one place in the country where he could get one. He flew there and then went after that bear by himself. The bear was at the top of a mountain—the ideal place for a bear to be, incidentally—and this young man went up a narrow trail in search of him. Finally he saw this great beast and raised his rifle. He slipped on a rock, though, and almost fell off the mountain. Miraculously, he grabbed the edge of the trail and scrambled back up as his gun fell out of sight.
As he got up that bear was coming right at him. He started running but the bear was with him step by step, hot breath on the back of his neck. Finally he lost his footing and started tumbling down the side of the mountain. The bear was right behind him. He rolled head over heels for some time and finally came to rest on his knees.
Well, this young man, besides being rich, articulate, and astute, also was a fine Christian. He felt in this position, on his knees with the bear right on top of him, this was the appropriate time for prayer.
He bowed his head and prayed as fervently as he’d ever prayed in his life. “Oh, God,” he said, “just make this a Christian bear.”
When he opened his eyes he could still feel the bear’s presence right on him. He turned and looked to his right and there beside him was this hulk of an animal, but on his knees. The bear’s eyes were closed and his head was bowed, massive paws beside his face. He was mouthing this phrase, “Father, bless this food to the nourishment of my body.”
So it’s like I told that crowd: You’ve got to be careful what you pray about.
I think we went back out ready to play [in the Cotton Bowl game] but Penn State’s offense just came at us with more than we could handle, particularly after we lost Ken Quesenberry from our secondary.
Kenny played a marvelous game at safety until he went out with a knee injury in the third quarter. He already had made twelve tackles, seven of them un-assisted, to give our front-line defense great support against Penn State’s strong running attack and he was playing solid pass defense. Although he missed about a third of the game the media voted him the Outstanding Defensive Player, edging out Mike Hartenstine, Penn State’s all-America defensive tackle. Joe Paterno said he really couldn’t understand how that happened until he watched the game film and saw how much Kenny did for us that day. Then Joe agreed he deserved the award.
We were ahead when they helped him off the field but then very shortly we were behind. I think losing Kenny had a lot to do with it. He had experience back there and had been able to shut down some things they got away with later.
There were so many wonderful experiences during the months after I was elected Coach of the Year. I was on the move constantly, speaking at clinics and large banquets across the nation. So many people went out of their way to make me feel special. I wouldn’t be truthful if I didn’t say I enjoyed seeing myself in the papers and on television often and hearing my name wherever I went. I know this is not what life is all about but still it was very nice.
Then one afternoon during spring training at Baylor I was walking under the stadium, going back to my office to make a phone call. I was wearing my coaching clothes and I had on a gold jacket and a hat with BU on it. A young man walked up to me and asked, “Are you Don Oliver?”
“No, I’m not,” I told him, “but I’ll take you to his office.”
He started walking with me but showed no sign of recognizing me. I thought he must be strange to all this. “Why do you want to see Mr. Oliver?” I asked him.
“It’s about a sports story,” he said. “I’m a sports writer for The Lariat.”
Well, I told myself, if he works on the campus paper he must have just transferred here from the University of Alaska. “Are you new at Baylor?” I asked him.
“Oh, no,” he said. “I’ve been here three years.”
I took him to Don’s office and then left without saying a word. I made my phone call and then walked back out on the field. I stood there and watched the players in their drills, my feet very firmly on the ground.
Selected excerpts from the book I Believe, by Grant Teaff with Sam Blair, WORD Books, publisher, Waco, Tex. Used by permission.