WACO, Texas -- When they'd applied the last coat of paint and polished the windows one final time and then when they'd turned on the lights and filled every seat with more than 40,000 fans wearing Baylor University gold and screaming their lungs out, they'd succeeded in doing something amazing.
They'd created one of the most beautiful settings in college football, and in doing so, had elevated a program that had already emerged as one of the best in the country. In the end, it's that simple.
McLane Stadium is a work of art in every way, beginning with its location: tucked into a corner of sorts created by the Brazos River and one of its lagoons. With an array of boats in the water for tailgating and general people-watching, and with the campus outlined on the other side of the river, its backdrop rivals almost any in sports. It's one of those times when every last touch seems perfect.
"Nobody can match it anywhere," Baylor coach Art Briles said, "and that's the great thing about it. We've done a great thing at Baylor."
As for the stadium, that, too, is a spectacular success. It's an open three-level horseshoe with a grass berm in the south end zone leading to the huge video board. It has a timeless brick, steel and glass exterior and columns encircling the upper deck.
Baylor previously had played its games in a worn stadium five miles from campus, a sort of disconnect that helped spark this $266-million effort. McLane Stadium is connected to the main campus with a footbridge over the river, a bridge that, like the main campus, was alive with people visiting, eating, drinking and soaking up the atmosphere on Sunday.
It's the way college football ought to be, similar to the Grove in Oxford, or any of the sport's other iconic locations. Inside the stadium, Baylor's freshmen students, noisy and enthusiastic, were seated closest to the playing field. For the perfect finishing touch on this opening night, 10th-ranked Baylor rolled over SMU 45-0 in front of a sellout crowd of 45,733.
"Fantastic, beautiful," said former Baylor great Michael Singletary, one in a long line of people who occupy a special place in the hearts and minds of folks who care about this university.
As impressive as all of that is, it's what McLane Stadium represents that may be just as powerful. It's a shifting of the center of power in college football in Texas, a shift that has been coming for a couple of years.
Baylor is the cool school in Texas. Texas A&M would argue otherwise, so to be completely fair, Baylor and Texas A&M are seen as cooler than the University of Texas, and there are several generations of college football fans in the Lone Star State that couldn't comprehend such a thing happening.
Baylor did it right, step by step. Baylor hired a great coach, Art Briles, in 2008, and he promptly recruited a great player, quarterback Robert Griffin III. Everything begins there. When a school hires a charismatic, innovative, confident coach, someone who coached high school football in Texas and knows the state as well as almost anyone, success will follow. No matter how far down that program was -- and Baylor was about as down as a program could be -- great things can happen.
Briles coaches an exciting style of play that served as a tremendous recruiting tool for other great players. And suddenly, thanks to Briles and Griffin and others, Baylor began to roll. In the 12 years before Briles was hired, Baylor was 11-85 in the Big 12. In the six seasons since, Baylor is 25-26, including 18-9 in the last three.
In 2010, Baylor had its first winning season in 15 years. That was the year Baylor went to its first bowl game in 16 years.
Baylor has now been to four in a row, including the Fiesta Bowl last season. And Griffin, the breathtaking playmaker and instantly likable leader, won the 2011 Heisman Trophy, which represented even more credibility.
This Sunday afternoon began with Griffin returning to Baylor for the unveiling of a statue in front of McLane Stadium. He got a pre-game fist-bump from former President George W. Bush during the pregame coin toss ceremony, and then when a huge ovation for him ended, he did the pre-game prayer over the public-address system.
That prayer spoke for thousands of Baylor fans when it ended with, "We love you, Father God, and once again we say, `Wow!'"
Griffin's captivating play helped created a vibe about Baylor, and Briles kept it going by convincing other gifted young players to give the Bears a look. Baylor, with Bryce Petty now at quarterback, is widely seen as one of a handful of teams good enough to win a national championship. Regardless of that, it's no longer a surprise when Baylor beats Texas or Oklahoma.
Baylor is built to last. Nike helped by stepping in and outfitting the Bears with some of the best-looking uniforms in all of college sports. It didn't happen overnight, but it has been going on long enough to erase thoughts that it could be a fluke.
"It's incredible," Griffin said. "People are excited about football. I don't know if we could have said that many years ago when Coach Briles and myself all those guys got in here. Now we've got a lot of guys in the NFL. We've got a stadium on campus. The future is very bright, but this is only the beginning. There's much more to come."
And Baylor has done it right, leading the Big 12 in graduation rates four of the last eight years, as it's coming off an academic year in which its student athletes had a 3.25 GPA. In the last three seasons, Baylor is a combined 215-51 in football and men's and women's basketball. That's the best in the nation.
"We're committed to excellence in all aspects," Baylor athletics director Ian McCaw said. "Our coaches have a strong commitment to academics. We've just had a remarkable academic year."
Sunday afternoon, McLane Stadium's eponym could have passed for the happiest man on earth. Former Astros owner Drayton McLane Jr. sat in his suite this afternoon as VIPs, including Texas Governor Rick Perry, stopped by to offer their best wishes.
Perry, a Texas A&M graduate, wore black slacks and a black Wounded Warriors shirt and smiled as he told McLane, "I picked the most neutral color I could."
McLane was the driving force behind the stadium construction. He convinced Baylor to hire architect Earl Santee of Populous, the man who'd been the primary designer of Minute Maid Park in Houston. McLane wanted both a unique location and a stadium that would combine the best of modern design with classical architecture. He insisted on wide concourses, similar to the ones he had overseen at Minute Maid Park, and an open view of the playing area.
He also wanted the stadium brightly lit and located just off Interstate-35, the primary north-south route from San Antonio to Dallas. Fans traveling both directions will see "McLane Stadium" and understand that a new day has dawned at Baylor.
"I just remember driving through Austin and seeing that football stadium," McLane said. "To me, that WAS the University of Texas. That's what I wanted for Baylor. When kids see it, it'll be a symbol."
Now Baylor has its own signature structure on display.
"Two things I'm excited about," McLane said. "One is that this is the largest private construction ever in Central Texas -- $266 million. The other thing is that in 1958 Waco had a population of around 120,000. In 2014, it's still around that. We think with that hotels and restaurants, this project will be great for the city of Waco. It's really going to make a difference."
Everyone associated with Baylor and all the people who care about the Bears believe that. On a day when it all finally became a reality, when the place was packed and loud and absolutely electric, it's easy to believe that Baylor has built something that will completely change the way its football team, if not its university, is seen.
"I don't think I've ever coached in a bigger game where I felt like I was so indebted to so many people," Briles said.
He smiled at that thought. He said he couldn't have envisioned a day like this one when he arrived at Baylor. Back then, just winning a couple of Big 12 games would have been a big deal.
Now Baylor is poised to compete with any program in the country, and in Texas, it might just be the gold standard.
"The atmosphere was everything we hoped it would be," Briles said. "We need all to be very thankful and very respectful and very responsible. As a football team, we have a responsibility."