WACO, Tex. — Sammy Citrano sat at a table in the “Baylor Room” of his restaurant, scrolling through photographs on his iPhone.
There he was on the Baylor University sideline, his arm around football coach Art Briles. His thumb kept moving, stopping at the video of Robert Griffin III, the Bears quarterback who would go on to win the Heisman Trophy in 2011, warming up before a game. There’s one of Citrano and his son, bundled up last November in Fort Worth as Texas Christian and seventh-ranked Baylor battled in double overtime.
“Good times,” the 60-year-old restaurateur and prominent Bears booster said, and a part of him can’t help but wonder whether the football program’s best times are now behind it.
Supporting Baylor has become much more complicated in recent weeks. Late last month, an investigation commissioned by the private Baptist university outlined a “fundamental failure” by Baylor, its athletic department and football team to respond appropriately to a series of sexual assault allegations against football players. Some victims, the report said, were discouraged by administrators from reporting instances of assault to police; the investigating law firm, Pepper Hamilton, found that for years the athletic department oversaw a “failure to identify and respond to a pattern of sexual violence.”
Briles, who led the football team to unprecedented success, was fired. Two of his assistants have reportedly been let go, and athletic director Ian McCaw resigned this past week. University president and chancellor Kenneth Starr, the former federal judge famous for investigating President Bill Clinton’s relationship in the 1990s with Monica Lewinsky, was demoted before stepping down a few days later.
“We were horrified by the extent of these acts of sexual violence on our campus,” Richard Willis, the chair of Baylor’s board of regents, said in a statement.
All around town, whose own growth is directly tied to Baylor’s reputation and success, supporters tried to make sense of their feelings toward a university and team that, for a long time, seemed to value continued football success over a safe environment for its students. Somehow, the three individuals who orchestrated an impressive rise — Briles, McCaw and Starr — are the same men who oversaw the football program’s fall.
“Nice people do horrible things sometimes,” said Stefanie Mundhenk, a recent Baylor graduate who has written extensively about her own on-campus sexual assault. “They do them thinking they’re being nice, thinking they’re giving guys a second chance, thinking they’re not really that bad.”
This most recent episode has also reopened old wounds in Waco, casting a new shadow on the city and, not for the first time, onto Baylor itself. In 1993, the siege on the Branch Davidian compound outside of town made national headlines; a decade later, a Baylor basketball player murdered one of his teammates, and then-coach Dave Bliss’s attempt to cover up his own knowledge of problems inside his program led to severe NCAA sanctions. Last year, a shootout involving a biker club left nine dead, 18 wounded and a police department under scrutiny for administrative errors — reigniting a perception that the 25th-largest city in Texas is perhaps its most unstable.
“To be tagged with that,” McLennan County Judge Scott M. Felton said, “that’s the part that really burns me up.”
The football team had, since Briles was hired in late 2007, been a reason for optimism and a stimulant of local growth. Its 50 wins the past five seasons showed a model of consistency, a reason for national acclaim, a chance to move on for a city and residents still self-conscious of their many visible scars.
Now this. Again.
“We already saw the bad,” Citrano said, clicking off the photos on his phone. “I didn’t think there would be any more bad again.”
Backhoes move dirt and debris on a warm Tuesday afternoon, turning over what’s left of Floyd Casey Stadium and all it once contained.
Most of what it saw, before demolition began in January, was forgettable: 22 winning seasons in its first 60 years and zero bowl victories from 1993 to 2010.
Citrano, who purchased George’s Restaurant in 1993, stopped naming sandwiches after Baylor football coaches because it seemed like not long after he’d introduce the Dave Roberts or the Kevin Steele, the men were fired and Citrano had to rewrite his menu.
About the time Bears fans were getting excited about the men’s basketball team, with Bliss reaching the NIT in 2001 and beginning to show promise, forward Carlton Dotson shot and killed teammate Patrick Dennehy. In interviews with investigators, Bliss attempted to minimize his knowledge of problems within his program, but a secret recording by an assistant coach contradicted that position. Bliss and AD Tom Stanton were forced to resign, and the NCAA later sanctioned the program so severely it didn’t have a winning season for five years.
Baylor installed McCaw as athletic director, and he steadied the basketball program, and in 2007 hired Briles, a former high school coach and Texas native who had rarely left the state in his life. Nearly three years later, Starr was named president and chancellor.
Briles was a regular in Citrano’s restaurant and sometimes closed the deal with recruits in the banquet area the restaurateur nicknamed the Baylor Room.
One of the recruits Briles enchanted was a quarterback named Robert Griffin III, a smart and athletic passer from nearby Copperas Cove. In the 2011 season, “RGIII” put the program on the map, first by besting No. 5 Oklahoma on a game-winning touchdown pass to Terrance Williams, then by claiming Baylor’s first Heisman Trophy.
“From that point forward, everything changed,” said Steve Smith, a retired employee of Waco’s chamber of commerce.
Griffin’s Heisman win was estimated in 2012 to have been worth $250 million in publicity for Baylor, but it was the first flutter of a butterfly effect that would also reshape Waco. Energized by RGIII mania, city officials fast-tracked talk of a new riverfront stadium; university officials approved the project after private donors pledged upward of $120 million. McLane Stadium opened in 2014 on the banks of the Brazos River, a gleaming $266 million symbol of Waco and Baylor along Interstate 35.
Briles, McCaw and Starr saw Waco and Baylor as united forces; one could benefit from the improvement of the other. After construction began on the new stadium, downtown buildings that had long stood vacant had new tenants, and hotels and shopping centers began eyeing Waco as a place to expand. Condos and lofts went up, and corporations considered relocating to tax-friendly Texas and a city now shedding a reputation for drama.
“If you work in the downtown area like I do, they’re almost like two different cities,” Felton, the county judge, said of the difference between Waco in 2011 and 2016.
With no more need for Floyd Casey Stadium or a modest past Baylor seemed to have outgrown, charges were attached to the building’s foundation last month. They detonated, and an unsteady structure with a blemished history caved in on itself.
Now looking back, some locals can’t help but notice the symbolism.
The wins piled up so quickly, the city invigorated so dramatically, it was easy for some residents to ignore the fissures.
Briles had, in June 2013, taken on Sam Ukwuachu, a powerful defensive end who had been dismissed at Boise State for what was publicly labeled a violation of team policy. Ukwuachu was on campus only a few months when he raped a then-Bears soccer player. He was convicted of sexual assault in August 2015 and sentenced to six months in jail; the victim would reach a settlement agreement with the school this past January. At the trial, Ukwuachu’s former girlfriend at Boise State testified that he had choked her and punched her in the head several times, though she had never told police nor Boise State officials about the abuse.
Briles insisted he had no idea why Ukwuachu had been kicked out of Boise State; former Broncos coach Chris Petersen, though, said he had “thoroughly apprised” the Baylor coach of the details during a phone call.
Baylor commissioned Pepper Hamilton to investigate, and last September two Bears football players were suspended. Another was dismissed from the football program. Yet another was expelled from school. A Baylor men’s tennis player was suspected in another assault.
A trend seemed to be forming. That old perception was returning.
“Every time they came back and did something else, in my opinion, it just made the whole thing start all over again,” said De Ann Smith, a lifelong Waco resident who spent 30 years working for or with Baylor’s athletic department.
In all, six women accused Baylor players of assaulting them. Briles emphatically denied knowing about any of it. In the eyes of many supporters, that was enough.
“I just can’t perceive of Art Briles,” Citrano said, “being the mastermind of a thing like this.”
A few weren’t so forgiving.
“Art, because he’s good at football, has this undeniable credibility that can’t be tainted,” Baylor graduate Mundhenk said. “But the facts are out.”
Briles was let go first following the release of the Pepper Hamilton report, replaced on an interim basis by former Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe. Starr was stripped of the presidency, and a few days later resigned as chancellor; he will remain on staff as a law professor. McCaw resigned Monday.
“Those men,” Smith said, “took the sword for the actions of kids.”
Several Baylor players tweeted messages of support for Briles: Defensive tackle Andrew Morris called the decision an “injustice”; linebacker Taylor Young suggested he wouldn’t play for the Bears until the coach was reinstated.
Briles released a statement Thursday morning, suggesting that Pepper Hamilton was not an independent investigating body and that the full findings had not yet been disclosed to him nor the public at large. “Keep in mind,” the statement read, “the complete scope of what happened here has not been disclosed. . . .”
Some outside Waco think the Pepper Hamilton report — the full findings of which have not yet been released to the public — shows that harsher punishment is needed. Some have compared the Baylor mess to that of Penn State, and a victim of a rape at Oregon State in the 1990s urged Baylor to shut down the football program for a year. An Associated Press columnist called for the “death penalty” of Baylor’s entire athletic department.
Citrano drove toward McLane Stadium this past week, mounting the curb to look at the gleaming field and to stop his SUV at the nearly two-year-old statue of Griffin.
He weaved through the parking lot, pointing at things that didn’t exist until recently. Some of them, a decade or two ago, could barely be imagined.
Citrano pulled onto South M.L.K. Jr. Boulevard, accelerating toward a fenced-in tailgate area. A few years ago, before Floyd Casey Stadium came down, Citrano bought the end-zone turf in which Griffin found Williams for that program- and region-altering touchdown, refusing to let it be simply thrown away. He had it installed across from the new stadium, a way to market his restaurant and to preserve and share what he saw as a green-and-gold historical marker.
On this day, he approached the turf and stopped his vehicle. He shook his head. Tall weeds now lined the end zone, one symbol of Baylor’s brightest days falling back into a state of disrepair.
“We’ve worked too hard,” he said, “to sit here and allow this to be torn down.”
As for the alleged assaults, Citrano said he doesn’t know all the facts. He issues blame on the former players rather than on the coaches and administrators, including those who are no longer employed by the school. Others are disappointed, and some are angry. A few were whipsawed by the conflicting feelings of support for men they thought were well-meaning and the facts they read in the Pepper Hamilton summary.
Citrano eased the vehicle back onto the boulevard, where up ahead he saw a man trimming weeds. He was eager to restart the beautification process, ready for his end zone — like the university and city themselves — to look like he prefers to see it.
“It’s just so sad,” he said as he drove. “I just know where we’re at now and where we’re going to head.”