I've always loved the big stage.
When I was growing up, if it was on a field or any kind of sports setting, I was happy. And I wanted to take command. I wanted to be the leader.
In elementary school I'd call all my neighborhood friends on the phone. A parent would answer and I'd say "Hi, this is Baker. Can Johnny come over?" Everyone would come to my house and we'd play baseball or football or go swimming. A lot of times we did all three.
I'd make a list of my friends who said they were coming over and would organize the teams before they arrived. If there was an odd number of people, I'd always make sure my team was the one with one fewer player so it'd be a bigger challenge. Or I'd organize the teams so it was a little bit of a mismatch in favor of the other one. I'd have everything set up outside and my mom would make lemonade and cookies. It was like an organized youth league in our backyard. We had a blast.
For as long as I can remember, I loved having the last at bat in baseball or having the ball in my hands in football on the last drive. It was something that I enjoyed and embraced. And still do. I doubt that will ever change.
If somebody said to my teammates, "Describe Baker," I would hope they'd say that I'm very confident and that I like to have fun. But also that I care about those guys. And I would want them to say that I do it with a fearless mindset. When it comes down to it, I would do anything for them. Because that's what leaders do. They want to help make a difference in peoples' lives.
Most people have a preconceived idea of what I'm like based on what they see on TV. But if they get to know me, I’m a little bit different than what they see on the outside. I will genuinely put my arm around someone and care for them. And if they're on my team, you can be certain that I will work my butt off for them.
I'm comfortable as a leader because I've learned how to communicate and get my point across. I'm not afraid to share my opinion and I think that's why I've been able to gain the respect of my teammates very quickly, whether in high school, at Texas Tech or here at OU.
When I got to Texas Tech as a walk-on, it was in July 2013, a month after everyone else had been there working out. At one point once practice started I got put in the first-team huddle and most guys didn't know my name. Some of the older guys just called me "No. 6." And it was kind of the same thing here at OU for a little bit. Guys had an idea of who I was because I played at Tech for the better part of a season, but it wasn't really until we put the pads on in the spring of 2014 that I was able to show what I was capable of, and that I was the same guy off the field as I was on it.
I had fun with it. I was competitive and I talked crap to the guys. I think they were like, "Why is this new guy so comfortable doing this?" But pretty soon they were like, "OK, I can go with this flow. He just seems like he's having fun and he's doing his job well, so might as well respect that."
I wasn't necessarily the most vocal leader early on at OU. I mean, I don't think anyone really expected me to stand up in the moment and give a big speech. But how I carried myself and pushed the other guys, I think that was key to my development as a leader at this level. I had a leadership role just by how I worked out and how I practiced. Making sure we all live up to the high standards here was — and is — important to me. There's an unbelievable tradition here and a winning culture. The quarterback's in a unique spot of needing to push everybody and make sure everyone's on the same wavelength. If anybody slips up, I have to be the first one to help correct things.
Some people lead by example. Take a guy like Samaje Perine. He was a great leader, but he was also a man of very few words. He let his actions do the talking, and they spoke volumes in terms of how you're supposed to handle yourself on and off the field. Some people, like our left tackle Orlando Brown, do it verbally. That's not to say Orlando doesn't also lead by example, because he definitely does. But he's a very vocal person and everyone always knows what he's thinking.
That's what I try to bring to the table. I can lead by example and then go tell our guys what we're going to do and how we're going to handle it, and I can tell them I need them to rise to the occasion. So I think I can push them by speaking to them and I can push them by showing them the intensity with which I practice and play.
The toughest part about being a team captain and a team leader is not doing too much in terms of the verbal part. There's a fine line between being the good leader your teammates need you to be by pushing them, and just focusing on doing your job at a high level. I think they're equally important. If I'm not doing my job, my teammates will notice and my credibility as a vocal leader will be shot.
In 2015, my first year on the field at OU, we lost a game against Texas that we shouldn't have lost. And then in 2016 we lost two of our first three games to Houston and Ohio State. In both instances, we weren't playing like we were supposed to. I wasn't playing like I was supposed to. And because of that, my leadership wasn't as effective as it could have been.
Coach Riley called out the offense and said, "This is how it's going to be. The people who practice the hardest, the guys who are the most physical and want it and show the coaches, they're the ones who are going to play." He set the tone right then and there.
So I went back to the basics. I got in the film room, watched film of myself and just focused on doing my job at a high level. Once I was comfortable with that and got the offense back on track, that's when I could take over the vocal leadership role again. But I had to handle my business first because my teammates were all counting on me. As Coach Riley told me:
"So let's worry about that first." I took that to heart, put it into effect and watched the results. In 2015, we won our last seven regular season games and qualified for the College Football Playoff. In 2016, we won the Big 12 with a 9-0 record and went on to beat Auburn in the Sugar Bowl.
After the Iowa State loss this year, I didn't have to be overly vocal, because we have so many guys who were here the previous two years. Coach Riley and Orlando talked immediately after the game about the standard here at OU and how we let that slip. I was ready to say some things that needed to be said, sure, but I didn't need to because those two did. That's why this team is so special. We have guys who are able to do that, like Orlando and Erick Wren on offense, and Ogbo Okoronkwo and Steven Parker on defense. It's a strong leadership group and why we have so much potential.
So after the Iowa State game I handled it like I did the previous two years. Went back to doing my job, and then I was able to push everyone after that. I worked on doing my job against Texas, and we got that win. Then at Kansas State the next game, I worked on getting the offense going in the second half. It wasn't until then that I went over to the defense and got them fired up. Until I get my part of things down, I can't be worrying about other guys.
There's a right way to try to get the most out of people and there's a bad way. Not just a wrong way, but a bad way. I think I've been fortunate enough to be able to do it the right way and I think that's the reason I've been able to get the respect of my teammates and to be able to push them.
He has been a HUGE influence on me; the strongest one I've had besides my family. Being six hours away from home, he's a father figure for me here in Norman. Watching how he handles himself in certain situations has been so important for me. I've picked his brain and have watched his open line of communication in action.
His emotion, his work ethic and how he leads with true care and passion is something I truly respect. I wouldn't say those are things he's necessarily taught me because I've always had passion and wanted to work. But knowing that he was a student-athlete for a little bit and has been a coach for a while now, he's been through everything and is really good at what he does. I've learned so much from him just by being next to him every day.
I don't think I'd be the same leader if it weren't for him. A lot of coaches out there would try to tell me to calm it down and not be as intense. Or not say this or that in the public or to teammates. But he knows how to handle me and that's just because of how smart he is. He knows I'm going to get the best out of my teammates. Doesn't matter how intense I'm being, how outgoing, how brutally honest; he's not going to reel it back unless it's absolutely necessary. That's why he's so special. He can decipher little details that people don't normally see or analyze. He's got a very keen eye for observing what's going on and then addressing it in the appropriate way. He really analyzes details and how they'll affect the future. He's letting me kind of be myself and I think that's the best thing for me. Having a guy who trusts me in that regard has meant a lot to me and I think it's helped me and our team.
He's not a yeller. He's a players' coach. All the guys respect him so much. He'll put his arm around you and he'll say, "What are you thinking here?" Because he wants to hear your perspective first. Then he might say, "Well why don't you try this next time?" It's not like he gives you a straight-up lecture unless you need one.
He cares about his job, but he also cares about his players. That's one of the many things that makes him special, and I appreciate all he's done for me.
I've read a fair number of articles on guys like Tim Tebow, Tom Brady and Russell Wilson about their leadership skills. There's a list of QB commandments that Bill Parcells put together, and Derek Jeter has a book that I read a long time ago that I've been meaning to read again.
I've picked up some things here and there, and have put them to use for myself.
I've learned a lot of things about how to handle different people. Transferring from Texas Tech, I've been in two different locker rooms, two different environments. I've met and learned how to approach so many people from all sorts of backgrounds. One thing I think I've gotten really good at is reading people. I can tell if you're telling the truth or not being honest with me. That's allowed me to learn when to put my arm around someone and encourage them, or when to get under their skin and light a fire under them in an effort to make them work a little harder. You can be sure that my actions almost always have intentions behind them.
If one of my teammates says I'm always talking crap about them, it's probably because I've seen that they play better when I do. But there are certain people who don't handle that well and instead need a pat on the back and encouragement. "Hey, you're all right. Just get the next one. I'm counting on you." Other times I think it's good to take a lighthearted approach. It can be tricky to make sure everybody is focused while at the same time not stressing or trying to do too much. I think you play your best when you're relaxed and having fun, and when you have a clear mind when it comes to doing your job.
If guys seem a little too uptight I might crack a joke here or there. Sometimes I'll even do that with Coach Riley on the sideline. I just like to lighten the mood on occasion if I feel it's necessary. No, I won't joke around in the huddle just to be funny. There's a purpose behind it. I've read stories about Joe Montana pointing someone out in the stands to his teammates right before the final drive in the Super Bowl. Even when it's the most important drive of his life, he's trying to lighten the mood because he's a great leader and knows that's what his team needs.
Before I wrap up, I want to acknowledge one of my teammates for the way he's really stepped up his leadership this year, and that's our center, Erick Wren. I know I mentioned him earlier, but he deserves to be mentioned again.
During the offseason, Erick saw a window of opportunity. Everybody was talking about how a major strength of our team was going to be the offensive line, and he wanted to be a huge part of that. He didn't want it just to be about the tackles or our All-Big 12 guys returning from last year. He wanted it to be him. And so he's thrived in that leadership role. He wants to be the guy making the calls, giving a speech here and there, being in control of the situation. And that's important because he's the center. The center and the quarterback need to be ones to do that. I really credit him for stepping up big this year and taking control of things. He's been fantastic.
Football has given me the best relationships I'll ever have. That goes back to high school as well. I've built some great relationships here at OU that I'll maintain forever. And that includes an important one with Coach Riley. That's a friendship that will impact me for the rest of my life. Same with my teammates. You build a special bond with guys when you go through grueling offseason workouts and when you deal with the daily grind and with the expectations at a place like Oklahoma. It's a long season, so you really come together as one as it progresses.
I'm proud of this team and I like what we've accomplished so far this year. But believe me when I tell you we understand we're not finished. Achieving our goals is going to require hard work, it's going to require determination and it's going to require focus.