At the stomach-churning conclusion, with all hell breaking loose around him—assistant coaches leaping deliriously into the air, players screaming their heads off, fans from both teams trying to wrap their minds around what they’d just seen—Baylor head coach Dave Aranda simply stood on the sideline, his arms folded and his focus on the field in front of him.
No fist in the air. No smile. No acknowledgement whatsoever that this was one of the most joyous moments in Baylor football history. At the end of an 11–2 season in which his humility and stoicism became central to the Baylor brand, this was the most Dave Aranda moment of all.
Plays like the one Baylor safety Jairon McVea made Saturday against Oklahoma State can define careers and programs. The Big 12 championship game—and a Sugar Bowl date with Ole Miss—had come down to one play in the final chaotic seconds, and a tough, resilient, and confident Baylor team executed it. McVea took what looked like certain defeat and stopped it cold by outrunning Cowboys running back Dezmon Jackson across the field and forcing him out of bounds, just inches short of the goal line and before Jackson could score a game-winning touchdown.
Baylor had seen its eighteen-point lead dwindle to five, and then had stuffed Oklahoma State on three consecutive plays near the goal line. Finally, on fourth down from the one-yard line, Jackson took a handoff and veered toward the sideline, searching for an opportunity to lunge into the end zone and deliver Oklahoma State the Big 12 title. McVea made sure he had no opening.
Instead of suffering a gut-wrenching defeat, Baylor had won 21–16 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington. Only it wasn’t quite over, and maybe that’s where Aranda’s mind was. Twenty-four seconds remained on the clock when Baylor got the ball back inside its one-yard line. Oklahoma State had no time-outs, and all Bears quarterback Blake Shapen had to do was take the snap and dive forward.
When he did just that, all the months of work that had defined Aranda’s second season at Baylor—and with it the erasure of any lingering doubts that this quiet, introverted man, one of the hottest names on the coaching carousel, could lead a major college football program—vanished.
Know this about Dave Aranda: he’s so far from what we’ve come to think a college football head coach is supposed to be that it’s stunning he ever got the chance to be one. For that, Baylor fans can be forever grateful to their athletic director, Mack Rhoades. “One of our players stood up in the locker room after a game this season and thanked Dave for being a ‘servant leader,’ ” Rhoades told me. “I’ve never heard a student athlete use that term to describe his head coach. I think that fits Dave.”
Nor had Rhoades ever heard a head coach say his “quirkiness” was part of what made him a perfect fit at Baylor, or that the same quality led the coach to decline numerous inquiries from other programs about his interest in other head coaching opportunities over the last month. “[I’m] being as open and honest as I can with the team,” Aranda said in a recent interview with Fox Sports. “I love it here, and this is, this is where I want to be. . . . The fit at Baylor is so strong.”
Imagine that: a coach appreciating what he has instead of what he might have elsewhere. Rhoades made sure Aranda wouldn’t be leaving for better pay, so why not remain at Baylor? Men’s basketball coach Scott Drew has shown that Baylor can compete for recruits, build facilities, and win games with the best of ’em.
To appreciate the 45-year-old coach’s unique career path, the old notebooks at Redlands High School in Southern California are a good place to start. That’s where, according to the Los Angeles Times, Aranda was voted football team captain in the early nineties despite earning the nickname “Fencepost” because he spoke so little. In 2004, as Aranda prepared to become the defensive coordinator at Cal Lutheran, where he’d obtained a philosophy degree, he returned to Redlands to copy those notebooks, which he used to assemble a binder filled with his coaching philosophies.
Seventeen years later, the notebooks offer insight into Aranda’s approach:
“True battle in athletics has less to do with external events than with internal battles against losing enthusiasm, courage, fearlessness, and compassion.”
“The goal as coach is to protect, not destroy, the athlete’s spirit and sense of self.”
“Avoid special treatments. Don’t allow relationships with better players to compromise you. If we have a double standard for stars and backups, we will have a team that will be torn apart.”
“Personal credibility—do what you say you will do. Stay consistent regardless of outside pressure.”
“Undisciplined players are coached by undisciplined coaches.”
“Coaching takes a special mind,” Redlands police commander Stephen Crane, a longtime friend of Aranda’s, told the Times. “These guys that are very successful coaching are like geniuses. And he’s one of those guys. He has that mind that can retain all that information. It’s a chess match out there, and he will take on the challenge and beat you at it.”
Aranda almost didn’t have a career in coaching. A high school shoulder injury had gotten him dropped off the college football recruiting radar, so after graduation, he worked the graveyard shift as a truck-stop security guard and considered joining the Navy. That’s when his coaches at Redlands asked him to tutor their junior varsity defense. Once his shoulder healed, he worked his way onto the football team—and into the classrooms—at Cal Lutheran.
Aranda once tackled an opposing player so hard the would-be coach split his own helmet. But it was here that he found his calling. After he was sidelined by injuries, he began tutoring fellow linebackers, the Times reported, and by his senior year he was in charge of the entire group. “I’m like, ‘The guy’s one of the best coaches I got,’ ” said Scott Squires, Aranda’s coach at the school.
Aranda buried himself in the work, spending hour after hour watching video footage, calling recruits, and immersing himself in strategy. “That process began when he was 19, 20 years old,” Ben McEnroe, then an assistant coach at Cal Lutheran, told the Times. “As a young guy, he taught me a lot about professional development. He was always on the phone with guys. I remember walking in the office and he was laughing. He said, ‘Hey Mac, I just hung up with Lee Corso.’ He called everybody in the country it seemed like, not to network but to learn the game of football and how to be a coach.”
Aranda continued to fill binders with notes, and eventually became Cal Lutheran’s defensive coordinator. His big break came in 2010, when he got the same position at Hawaii. He would go on to run defenses at Utah State, Wisconsin, and LSU, where he was making $2.5 million a year during the Tigers’ 2019 national championship season.
Aranda’s philosophy is simple: one day at a time. He turned heads earlier this year when he said Baylor’s goal wasn’t to win the Big 12, but instead to string together productive days. Doing that, he said, brings the other pieces together. “Who you are as a person drives your day-to-day process,” Aranda told the Athletic in April. “Waking up in the morning, being prepared, being on time, being conscientious, being respectful. Being great at the process is what drives results. Character, process, results. Those are things I’ve always believed but I’ve whispered if at all. I’ve never talked about that. I was so busy doing football.”
Yes, Aranda’s a different kind of coach. But his reputation at building great defenses was such that he was a natural fit on Rhoades’s list when Matt Rhule left Baylor for the Carolina Panthers after the 2019 season. Rhoades’s first telephone conversation with Aranda lasted an hour, and the athletic director came away thinking he might have found Baylor’s new coach.
“I’d heard from others who had interacted with him the type of person he is, and it really intrigued me,” Rhoades told Texas Monthly. “His authenticity. His intellect. His humility. I walked away from that conversation thinking, this is going to be somebody that is always evolving, always getting better. He’s different, and I think that’s what makes him special. He’s a natural introvert who finds different ways of connecting with players and coaches.”
To understand this year’s 11–2 season—Baylor was picked to finish eighth in the ten-team Big 12—the Bears’ 2–7 campaign in 2020 is a good place to start. When the last season ended, Aranda did something coaches almost never do. He admitted that he was part of the problem. He said that being a career assistant coach had not properly prepared him for all the duties of a head coach. He needed to be more assertive in the decision-making process and more of a CEO than a coach. Can you imagine other coaches being so up-front about their own shortcomings?
“That didn’t surprise me because of his humility,” Rhoades said. “When you have humility, you can be very self-reflective. He’s saying, ‘I don’t have all the answers. I’m not as good as I need to be in this area. I’m going to get better.’ He’s a wonderful role model.”
Aranda made changes to his coaching staff, most notably in hiring former BYU offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes to upgrade what had been a lackluster Baylor offense last season. Under Grimes, Baylor went from the bottom of the Big 12 in rushing and ninth in scoring to first in rushing and fourth in scoring.
Aranda also reassigned assistant coach Shawn Bell, himself a former Baylor quarterback, from tight ends to quarterbacks. In his new role, Bell helped junior quarterback Gerry Bohanon develop into one of the Big 12’s best signal callers. When Bohanon was injured, Bell had redshirt freshman Blake Shapen ready to step in.
Shapen closed out a victory over Kansas State, went the distance in a 27–24 victory over Texas Tech, and completed his first seventeen passes against Oklahoma State on Saturday.
Meanwhile, as the season progressed, Aranda became a hot commodity on the coaching market. On October 17, when LSU announced that head coach Ed Orgeron would not be returning in 2022, Rhoades met with Aranda, who had spent four seasons at LSU before being hired by Baylor, and who seemed an obvious choice for the gig in Baton Rouge (which eventually went to departing Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly.)
“We sat down and I told him there were going to be articles written about him and that he was going to be the focus of attention,” Rhoades said. “How do we manage that? He does not like being the focus of attention.”
Aranda was blunt with Rhoades. “This is where I want to be,” the coach said. “This is where I feel I belong.” He repeated the same message multiple times for his players and then said it again for reporters. Given the landscape of college football in 2021, words like that often ring hollow. “I’m not gonna sit here and lie and say there was never any moments of angst about whether or not he’d be here,” Rhoades said. “But I trust him. I was always at peace despite all the noise.”
Bits and pieces of Aranda’s style have become evident throughout the season. Bears linebacker Terrel Bernard told the Athletic that during his first meeting with the coach in 2020, Aranda focused on Bernard and the team instead of his own expectations. “He is the most genuine, kind-hearted person you’d ever meet,” Bernard said. “You don’t get that a lot out of football coaches. He means everything that he says, and he does what he says he’s going to do. . . . He’s the same person every single day. Just seeing how he goes about his business every day and the type of person that he is, it’s something that I aspire to be.”
In a scene that was both touching and hilarious, Aranda was surrounded by his players as he walked off the field after the win over Oklahoma State. Among the most unusual chants in the history of team sports was this one: “I know you don’t like attention! I know you don’t like attention!”
Later, as social media lit up with video of Aranda showing exactly zero emotion after McVea’s big play, a reporter asked if he’d “cut loose” inside the locker room.
“I did not,” he said.
No need. Thousands of happy Baylor alums did that for him.