The Berenstain Bears, Nicolas Cage and the fascinating mind of Baylor’s Dave Aranda
6: 45 AM ET
Dave WilsonESPN Staff Writer
- Dave Wilson is an editor for ESPN.com since 2010. He previously worked at The Dallas Morning News, San Diego Union-Tribune and Las Vegas Sun.
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.”
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.
#Baylor HC Dave Aranda was asked a question about their approach to defend big plays.
The media room then got a lesson on the Berenstain Bears. pic.twitter.com/CuAADi60ht
— Darby Brown (@darbyjobrown) October 30, 2021
“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.”
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.”
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.”
It’s always deeper with Aranda. He’s certainly the only coach who was asked for his book recommendations during his time at the podium at this year’s Big 12 media days.
“There’s a book by Shawn Ginwright that’s called ‘The Four Pivots,'” he said. “It’s about social change. It’s really good. I think there’s some points in there where he talks about going from transactional to transformational, and he talks about going from a lens to a mirror, where we’re all kind of trained to critique and label and look out, but the hardest look is looking in the mirror. As they say, the mirror doesn’t lie. So that’s a really good one. There’s a bunch of books by Richard Rohr that I love. Brené Brown is another author that I love.”
But the most important book in Aranda’s toolbox is another one you’d never expect to hear, the “Velveteen Rabbit,” a 1922 children’s book about toys who hope to become real. For Aranda, it’s the perfect metaphor for how football can help you transcend into becoming a better person.
Aranda offered, in his mind, a simple explanation of why these metaphors are such effective teaching tools, delivered in his soothing cadence that sounds more suited for a meditation app than for football two-a-days.
We’ll just let him roll, so hold on:
“There’s something about books or movies for younger audiences. In a lot of those, there’s a hero’s journey behind it, or underneath it right at the surface. There’s a personal transcendence, there’s some moral, there’s some quest. There’s some transformation in those stories. So, the “Velveteen Rabbit” would be another one of like, becoming real. The Skin Horse gives the advice on what it takes to be real. Some people break too easily. Some people are too sharp around the edges. They never become real. Once you’re real, you’re tattered and you’re torn. But that doesn’t really matter to other people that are real. Real recognizes real.
“There’s a scene we used prior to the start of the season from the movie “Pig.” Nicolas Cage is in it and there was a scene in there where he’s looking for his pig. It’s a truffle pig. He was a famous chef. He was disillusioned. People would go to his restaurant just to say they went to the restaurant. He knew every person that came into the restaurant, he knew what they liked, he remembered everything about him. And they didn’t know anything about the food. They just wanted to take a picture that they were at the restaurant and so he just became disillusioned, went into the wilderness, lived there with his pig in Oregon, in Portland. His pig gets stolen and he comes into town trying to find his pig. He’s sitting at a restaurant. The owner of the restaurant comes in to meet him and he’s disheveled. He has blood caked on, dirt, looks like a hobo. He just looks rough. I think he’s the Velveteen Rabbit, you know?
So the chef is asking, finally recognizes him. It’s a really fancy place. And so Nicolas Cage’s character goes, ‘What did you say you wanted to cook when you were younger?’ He kind of bashfully says, I wanted like a beer and burger place or something. So he asks, ‘Why aren’t you doing it?’ He says, ‘Because no one would eat it. This is what people want, all this fancy stuff.’ That Nicolas Cage character finally says, ‘You need to stop trying to be other things for the people. No one can see. You don’t see. These people don’t care about you. You need to be you, you know?’
So, like, that was a big scene. That was a big part of going into the season of just the pressure of all that becomes both coaches and players. Like this is about us transcending and this is not about us saying, ‘Eff this, or eff you,’ Right? I saw that scene. He was the Velveteen Rabbit. I just think there’s morals in those elementary stories that speak to that. And I think it’s like, it’s always good to go back to those because I think those are kind of almost universal.”
So that’s how the 2021 Baylor Bears, the Big 12 champions, were inspired by a truffle-hunting pig and a chef who may or may not have been the Velveteen Rabbit.
Like Doyle quoting philosophers, this is another Aranda hallmark that seems to have become contagious.
“My executive team will tell you, half the stuff I now tell them, I’ve got analogies or metaphors for,” Rhoades said. “I never did that. But it’s because of Dave that I do.”
Johnson spent five minutes explaining how he loved “Batman Begins” and “The Dark Knight Rises,” but had a whole new view of them after Aranda explained how they’re really about making a decision to do something hard, failing at it, then getting yourself back up and out of the cave, like Batman.
“He can see meanings in things that you might just view as entertainment,” Johnson said. “It’s wild. It’s wild that he sees it like that.”
THE WORD MOST often used to describe Aranda is “unique.” It’s a polite way of saying what others aren’t afraid to.
“I knew he was smart,” said Houston coach Dana Holgorsen, who coached alongside Aranda as an assistant at Texas Tech from 2000-2002. “We all thought he was weird, but we knew he was smart.”
Aranda doesn’t take offense. He laughs when he recalls seeing Holgorsen at a Houston Touchdown Club event last season, when Holgorsen said the same thing to him directly.
“Dana sees me and he comes out of the corner, shakes my hand and says, ‘Dave, we always thought you were weird and honest, but now that’s a commodity. Congratulations.”
Holgorsen is right. In the transfer portal and NIL era, players are picking schools based on a variety of factors. Aranda knows there are players who would rather be challenged intellectually than processed through a football factory. Baylor has been the latter in the past. Now, it can offer an alternative.
“The one thing about him is he knows who he is,” said new Texas Tech coach Joey McGuire, who was retained as Baylor’s associate head coach by Aranda when he took over for Rhule. “Everybody’s got a shiny helmet. Everybody’s got a big stadium. So how are you going to separate all that? He’s comfortable in his own skin to a point that you can almost use that to separate yourself from the norm of what college football is.”
But how does the Velveteen Rabbit speech play in the living room of recruits? Aranda said that three out of every 10 qualified recruits might be a fit for his type of program. Even then, he wants his staff to drill down and study those prospects, because he constantly preaches “people over player.”
“We start there, and then they have their conversations with me. It becomes kind of a really tight pool,” Aranda said. “We don’t want to move fast. We don’t want to be haphazard. I’m trying to talk to some of the teachers about like, how does this particular dude treat people that are maybe beneath him, people that can do nothing for him?”
Trey Novosad is a believer. He and his wife Nicki are Texas A&M alums whose son, Austin, is an Elite 11 quarterback recruit from Dripping Springs, Texas, in the class of 2023 who committed to Baylor last December. They went through the recruiting process and were struck by the conversations with Aranda, especially once Austin’s stock started skyrocketing and other big schools started calling, including A&M.
Trey said Austin grew up a maroon-blooded Aggie fan and has attended Jimbo Fisher’s coach’s night events since he’s been at A&M. Every year, he said, Austin would get a photo with Fisher and tell him he’s going to be his quarterback in the class of 2023. But A&M didn’t offer right away while Baylor did. Austin eventually developed a strong relationship with Aranda due to their similar low-key personalities, according to Trey, and decided to pull the trigger.
“If Coach Aranda is not there, we’d never go to Baylor,” Trey said. “I mean, that’s how important Coach Aranda was. Everybody tells you don’t pick the college because the coach because they always move around. But he told us, ‘I’ve been to LSU, I’ve been to the crazy places. I don’t fit there. I fit here. They let me do my weird stuff. I can be me and I’m not going anywhere. I like it here.'”
Earlier this month, Texas A&M, Notre Dame and Ohio State all put the hard press on Austin, who was curious about exploring the offers, particularly because he’d always dreamt of playing for the Aggies. He was nervous about looking into them and called Aranda to talk it out, Trey said.
“He said, ‘Look, Austin, I’m not going to be mad at all,” Trey said. “You can go. That’s perfectly fine. I know your personality. I know you’re gonna like it better here. So go check it out, I’m confident you’ll be back because I know you well enough.’ He was always calm about it, and he was confident.”
On Aug. 2, Austin announced he was sticking with Baylor, earning Aranda one of the Bears’ biggest recruiting wins in school history.
That’s why Johnson said Aranda is the closer on the staff.
“He’s the lead in recruiting, because he’s so honest about who he is and what the program is, because it’s about fit.”
The challenge now for Baylor is to maintain its status in a new-look Big 12 starting next year when BYU, Cincinnati, Houston and UCF all arrive. With a self-imposed smaller recruiting pool and a coach that could be in demand during coaching carousel season, the Bears will have to work to keep it all on track.
“At some point in time, he’ll decide that it’s time to move on and impact lives in a different way,” Rhoades said. “But right now he’s in this process of really impacting people and doing it in his really unique way. I always think it will be a work in progress for him because of who he is. But I think he’s found his comfort level in when he has to be the guy because he is the head football coach. I’ve almost visually been able to see that journey since January of 2020 when we hired him.”
Baylor defensive coordinator Ron Roberts, who has known Aranda for more than 20 years — since Aranda first cold-called him to talk defense when he was the head coach at Delta State in Cleveland, Mississippi in 2000, before he later hired Aranda there — says he’s seen him morph from a student to a teacher to now being on “the cutting edge of leadership at the Power Five level and how football programs are run.”
“He’s breaking down a lot of barriers from players to coaches and players to each other and how the relationship works,” Roberts said. “That is the reason for our success.”
This season, for the first time in school history, Baylor is the preseason media pick to win the Big 12, and Aranda is leading them there in a way no one has done it before. The man who said he was called “Fencepost” in high school because he didn’t talk, the one who sat in a dark room and said he felt like a machine, has Baylor believing. The Velveteen Rabbit has become real.
The author of 5 books, 3 of which are New York Times bestsellers. I’ve been published in more than 100 newspapers and magazines and am a frequent commentator on NPR.