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Senior College Football Columnist

Behind Baylor's meteoric athletic success of late, there's Starr

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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- There is a convicted murderer in a Virginia state prison who owes his life to Baylor president Kenneth Starr.

Robin Lovitt was a day away from being executed in 2005 before Virginia's governor commuted his death sentence to life in prison. Starr -- a former federal judge and U.S. solicitor general -- worked the case pro bono to keep Lovitt from being executed.

"Oh yeah, oh my goodness," Starr said smiling. "You're bringing back sweet and poignant memories."

A jury originally concluded Lovitt had fatally stabbed a pool hall manager during a robbery. But the CEO of the world's largest Baptist university knows there are layers to every story -- mitigating factors to ... well, life.

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"When you know his life story, there but for the grace of God go all of us," Starr said. "He [Lovitt] grew up in a terrible, abusive situation. He was the oldest child. If he did what he was supposed to do, his non-biological father of the household would pay him in marijuana."

None of this was disputed, Starr points out, when he lobbied then-governor Mark Warner to commute the sentence. A circuit court clerk had destroyed physical evidence. Lovitt reportedly had his first beer at age 5 and smoked pot at age 7. This was not a contradiction for Starr, a son of a conservative Texas minister and death penalty advocate. He saw legal and moral abuses and acted.

"We did not ask for a pardon," Starr pointed out.

By comparison, his role in keeping Baylor afloat as a BCS-level school has been a snap. Starr has dealt with much bigger problems in his storied career. On the legal front alone, he has argued 36 cases before the Supreme Court. Now 65, the man they now call "Judge Starr" on campus is perhaps most famous for being the independent prosecutor who investigated Bill Clinton.

"It's in the past," said Bears guard A.J. Walton, who is from Little Rock, Ark. "You got to leave everything in the past. Judge Starr is our president now."

Under Starr's watch during this historic six-month stretch, Baylor has arguably reached the athletic pinnacle of its 167-year history. The fact that the men's basketball team is in its second Sweet 16 in three years is almost overshadowed in this half-year of positivity.

Which Baylor story at this moment is bigger? Let's see: Women's basketball is ranked No. 1 and unbeaten, considered a favorite to win a second national championship in eight years. Robert Griffin III's Heisman is being stored in coach Art Briles' office for the moment. It will soon be on display at the entrance to the athletic facility.

A new football stadium is well on its way, thanks to the largest gift in school history (the exact amount of which remains undisclosed) from outgoing Houston Astros owner Drayton McLane. Almost all of this achievement and momentum has been made possible by the nurturing of Starr.

Because without him, there may be no Baylor, athletically, as we know it. When Texas A&M was headed to the SEC in September, Starr stepped out on his own, threatening legal action against the SEC and Texas A&M. Baylor was eventually joined by Kansas State and Iowa State (at least) in keeping open their right to sue. It was in part a tactical move, but a powerful one -- a litigious Starr is a dangerous Starr.

"Judge Starr was one of the heroes of conference realignment this past fall," Baylor AD Ian McCaw said. "He made a very courageous decision to introduce potential litigation into conference realignment."

At one point it looked like the Big 12 was close to breaking up, with A&M headed out the door and both Texas and Oklahoma checking out the Pac-12 again. During a 30-minute call with CBSSports.com in September, Starr mentioned on background a dizzying number of legal options available to stiff-arm the SEC.

The action slowed the conference realignment train enough for everyone to catch their breath. The move was impressive. Had the Big 12 broken up, Baylor faced the prospect of not having a BCS-level conference home. Think of going from bringing in $20 million per year based on future media rights contracts to maybe $2 million per year playing in Conference USA.

You think superstar women's coach Kim Mulkey would have stayed around much longer had that been the case? Would McLane have made that monster donation? Starr made lofty proclamations about preserving Big 12 rivalries. Behind the posturing, he was trying to preserve the athletic relevance of his school.

Could you blame him?

"We jumped in and worked really hard to keep a great conference alive," Starr said, "using every appropriate tool that we could -- persuasion."

Did Starr's maneuver give even the Pac-12 pause? It had to factor in when the Pac-12 presidents later rejected Texas and Oklahoma. Don't believe that blather you hear about the 'Horns and Sooners backing out. The Big 12 infighting had become so repulsive to Pac-12 CEOs, they decided the two iconic brands weren't worth it.

While the Big 12 recovered -- adding West Virginia and TCU after losing Missouri -- at that point in September, it has been on the brink of collapse for the second time in 15 months.

"You'll have to write that history," Starr said. "I just don't know. No one wants to be talking about lawyers and courthouses but there were contracts and promises. A lot of hopes and dreams depended on those contracts and promises."

But as seen in the Lovitt case, when a cause is worth fighting for Starr, a sixth-generation Texan, is more bulldog than Bear. He and others in the Big 12 argued that money had been spent and plans had been made based on being part of a BCS league that was being promised $20 million per year per school in the future.

"He is amazing," Walton said. "He is a character, a good heart, a good spirit and all for Baylor."

At the same time Starr was trying to preserve Baylor, Griffin was dramatically raising its profile. His Heisman weekend in New York was a weekend-long commercial for the school.

A program that didn't go to a bowl for 15 years found out the exact weight of the sport's grand prize -- 48.7 pounds. Baylor football publicist Heath Neilsen memorized the number while checking in the Heisman at airports in the RG3 Over America tour.

It wasn't just New York, it was national talk shows, radio interviews and, soon, the NFL Draft.

"Robert's a one-man marketing campaign for Baylor," McCaw said. "He mentions the school everywhere we go."

Big 12 security -- at least for 13 more years -- is now all but assured. CBSSports.com reported last week the conference is in negotiations for a $2.6 billion TV deal with ESPN and Fox that would last until 2025.

The next step for Baylor's resurrection is for the Big 12 to expand its current media grant of rights out to 2025 as well.

"I'm very optimistic," Starr said.

The current all-in media rights agreement is for six years. A grant of rights essentially means if a team leaves the conference during that period, the league owns that school's TV rights. To put it in perspective, grants of rights aren't issues in the SEC and Big Ten because of equal revenue sharing. Because of its disparate culture, values and views, the lack of such a deal almost mortally wounded the Big 12.

That was made clear to Starr on his second day on the job -- June 2, 2010. That marked the week of the epic Big 12 spring meetings that led to the departure of Nebraska and Colorado.

Four teams have been lost since then, two have joined. Judge Starr's school not only remains relevant, its league home has been remodeled.

"The sense of the conference," Starr says now, "is that we're stronger than ever."


Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.
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