The Berenstain Bears, Nicolas Cage and the fascinating mind of Baylor’s Dave Arandaon August 21, 2022 at 12:04 pm

Last October, in a room underneath McLane Stadium, Baylor football coach Dave Aranda took to the podium after a 31-24 win over Texas.

While a win over the Longhorns is always cause for celebration among the green and gold faithful, Aranda didn’t exult. He might not have even cracked a smile. That’s not the Aranda way.

What is, however, is the type of answer that he gave to the most innocuous of questions. How, a reporter asked, have the Bears been so good at preventing big plays on defense?

“We call that, like, the Berenstain Bears search,” Aranda said without a hint of irony. “There’s a Berenstain Bears book, ‘Old Hat, New Hat,’ where he wants a new hat, Papa Berenstain Bear. And he’s trying all these hats on. It’s like, too tight, too loose, too colorful. Right? Too shiny. And he finally puts on his old hat. So that’s what that was.”

Naturally.

The reporters laughed, of course, because nobody in the wide, wide world of sports would’ve ever seen a Berenstain Bears analogy coming in a postgame news conference from a Texas college football coach. But Aranda plows right on ahead, the professor making his point. This was not a performance, akin to the answers by one of Aranda’s old bosses, Mike Leach. It wasn’t intended to entertain, but rather to make a point, a mantra for the soft-spoken coach and all of his coaches and players.

It’s always best to simply be who you are. Even if you’re a bit startled by the response, like when you compare your coaching philosophy to illustrated bears.

“I knew, but I didn’t know, how different I was,” Aranda said. “You live up in your head. So when you do talk, and you let it be known where you’re at, what you’re thinking and you have that kind of disconnection, that can be quite scary.”

That’s why Aranda is here in his office in Waco, and not at LSU or any of the other openings where he drew interest this offseason after a 12-2 season, a Big 12 championship, Baylor’s first Sugar Bowl victory since 1957 and a No. 5 ranking in the final poll. It’s why he signed a contract extension through 2029 to remain in Waco.

Because, he says, a place like Baylor is where Dave Aranda can be exactly who he is.

IN JANUARY 2020, while serving as defensive coordinator, Aranda helped Ed Orgeron, Joe Burrow and LSU win a national championship. That week, Baylor athletic director Mack Rhoades called Aranda to gauge his interest in the Bears’ head-coaching vacancy following the departure of Matt Rhule for the Carolina Panthers.

Rhoades was on vacation in New Mexico and called Aranda from a closet in the Sierra Blanca airport near Ruidoso. As he made the short flight back to Waco, he couldn’t stop thinking about the conversation.

“I just remember getting off the phone with him going, ‘Wow, I like him a lot more than what I anticipated,'” Rhoades said. “Why did I like him more than what I thought I was going to? And why did I connect with him? I think it was his authenticity, but it was also his viewpoint of Baylor through his lens and how he saw himself as a great fit. That was somewhat unique in terms of the way he explained that and laid that out. What it made me realize is that he understood not every place was for him.”

Aranda could afford to be choosy. He was the nation’s highest-paid assistant coach, making $2.5 million a year, and coming off a national championship. But the noise around the program during his time at LSU, from Les Miles’ firing to Ed Orgeron’s bravado, along with the pressure to win, had forced Aranda into a bunker mentality.

“I felt when I was (at LSU) that I was like a machine,” Aranda said, adding he purposefully kept a dark office with big screens to break down tape, so he could just stay in his world. “I didn’t really talk, and it got to the point where I was there long enough to where people kind of understood that and they would protect me or shield me from talking and then it just became worse. I would remove myself a lot. I just wouldn’t engage, more than anything.”

Despite LSU’s record breaking offense being the story of the national championship season, Dave Aranda’s played a huge part in the Tigers claiming the programs fourth title. Photo by Dan Sanger/Icon Sportswire

The rub, of course, is that to be a head coach, you have to talk. Aranda said that’s what propelled him to seek out the Baylor job. It wasn’t for the power. Or the money. It was to force himself to change, he said, for the sake of his children.

“My oldest girl, Jaelyn, and my youngest, my son Ronin, they have whatever I have,” Aranda said, speaking about his introverted nature. “I could see them becoming me, becoming a scientist. You know, ‘Hey, give it to Dave to figure it out, put him in the corner.’ I just didn’t want that for them. I could see them becoming me, so that made me mad that I was modeling that for them. That was a big reason for wanting to try to move.”

This is the essence of the Aranda experience, according to those around him. He’s a seeker, a learner, and always trying to expand his mind.

“I loved who Dave was and what he stood for,” said former Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen, who hired Aranda at Utah State and took him to Madison. “He was always searching for just one more way to find an advantage. One thing I’ll never forget about him … never in my life have I called a coach [who played the upcoming opponent] from their game the week before. He would always call. Dave didn’t care if somebody said ‘no’ or ‘I don’t want to talk to you or whatever.’ It was amazing the information that he would come back with.”

He felt comfortable talking football with other coaches. But being the face of a program, a university, dealing with boosters, reporters and an entire staff of employees? That seemed out of character, even to his own daughter. When he told Jaelyn that he was going to interview at Baylor, she said, “Papa, are you sure you want to do that?”

“She said ‘No, don’t do it!,’ Aranda said, laughing. “She was scared for me. And I was kind of scared too.”

That wouldn’t come as a surprise to one of Aranda’s earliest and most trusted mentors, Dr. Jerry Lynch, an acclaimed sports psychologist who has written 13 books on coaching and leadership and whose teachings have heavily influenced Phil Jackson and Steve Kerr, among many others.

Lynch, like Rhoades, found himself drawn to Aranda, despite him being a young, unknown coach at a small school.

Aranda grew up in Redlands, California, the son of Paul and Marguerite, Mexican immigrants from Guadalajara, and did not play college football after suffering multiple injuries in high school while playing linebacker — including fracturing his shoulder in a game against powerhouse Mater Dei and playing the remainder of the game with his arm pinned to his side.

His love and loss of football set him adrift. He tried to join the Navy, but the lingering shoulder issues caused him to fail a physical. He was working the night shift as a security guard at a truck stop and coaching the junior varsity defense at his former high school when he decided to visit a friend at Cal Lutheran, a Division III school about 100 miles west of Redlands and about 40 miles north up the coast from Los Angeles. Cal Lu had a reputation as a place for gym rats, though it did not offer scholarships. He decided to try and rekindle his playing days, but his shoulder wouldn’t cooperate.

He was, however, given a chance to become a student assistant, and Aranda relished the opportunity to focus on ball, as he says, where he felt most comfortable. He began seeking out coaches to talk shop. Anyone, anywhere. He became enamored with Lynch’s book, “Thinking Body, Dancing Mind,” and cold-called Lynch in 2001 to ask if he could make the 300-mile journey from Southern California to Santa Cruz to meet with him.

Lynch said he doesn’t typically do a lot of 1-on-1 meetings, because his consultancy often includes work with entire teams. Lynch said in the past 30 years, through his company, Way of Champions, he has worked with teams that have made 54 Final Fours and won 36 national championships in college and the pros.

“There was something about Dave when he contacted me,” Lynch said. “I felt, through his words, a sense of being genuine, authentic and vulnerable. Those are the three keys that attract me to people. It’s almost like, OK, I don’t want to let this opportunity go by so I saw it as an opportunity for me to learn about this young man.”

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The two spent three days walking on the beach, talking about their shared interest in Eastern thought, Tao and Zen lessons. Now, more than 20 years later, the two have a shared kinship. Aranda is a rising star in the coaching profession and just wrote the foreword to Lynch’s newest book, “Everyday Champion Wisdom.” Lynch compared Aranda to two of his most accomplished collaborators.

“So many football coaches, they get into the arena and they get their opportunity and they feel they’ve got to scream, yell, walk up and down the sideline, do all these things to motivate,” Lynch said. “You don’t motivate people. The motivation comes from inside. Dave knows that. He knows it comes from inside. What he does is he creates the environment which allows that motivation inside to come out where people are not afraid. They’re not afraid to fail. Steve Kerr creates the environment. Phil Jackson creates the environment. These are safe environments where people can be who they need to be in order to perform at the highest levels. That’s it in a nutshell.”

Baylor middle linebacker Dillon Doyle has his own theory about why Aranda has been successful.

“I think if anybody asked a group of people who wants to be a head coach, I’m not sure Dave Aranda would raise his hand,” Doyle said. “It’s like Plato’s ‘Republic.’ Sometimes the best ruler for a kingdom is the one that doesn’t want to be a ruler.”

THE HEAD COACH is quoting the Berenstain Bears and the middle linebacker is citing classical Greek philosophers.

“Hey, welcome to Baylor,” Bears defensive line coach Dennis Johnson said, laughing.

This is Johnson’s seventh year working alongside Aranda, beginning at LSU, then making the leap to Waco, and enduring a brutal 2020 season in which the Bears’ season opener was canceled three times due to COVID before they limped to a 2-7 record.

He knew Aranda would turn it around, though, because he said he always has a bigger picture in mind. Johnson recalled sitting next to Aranda in New Orleans right after they won that national championship at LSU, and still marveling at his coach’s reaction.

“Right after the game, everybody’s excited, I walk in and he’s sitting in his locker,” Johnson said. “And he was like, ‘That’s it?’ I mean, we just won a national championship. To him, it had to be more. There’s more to be gained. I believe it’s what led him to Baylor.”

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