Former Baylor coach Art Briles had success on the field with the Bears, winning Big 12 championships in 2014 (tied with TCU) and 2015. Max Faulkner Star-Telegram archives
Former Baylor coach Art Briles had success on the field with the Bears, winning Big 12 championships in 2014 (tied with TCU) and 2015. Max Faulkner Star-Telegram archives

Fort Worth

Savior or sinner: Will Briles’ past derail his bid to coach again?

By Jeff Caplan

jcaplan@star-telegram.com

September 09, 2016 04:33 PM

UPDATED September 10, 2016 09:44 AM

If it plays out as expected, one of the most contentious moments of this football season won’t be argued in a board room by the College Football Playoff committee. The real action will come later, behind closed doors at universities where administrators with a head coaching position to fill will deliberate between the successes and sins of one potential savior.

Former Baylor coach Art Briles alluded to this inevitable drama while touring NFL training camps, where he confidently — and surprisingly brazenly — suggested in his down-home West Texas timbre that he will be hired as soon as others are fired.

“I will coach and I will coach in the 2017 season,” Briles told reporters at the Houston Texans camp.

Come early December, around the time Briles will turn 61, the man who brought a woe-be-gone program to national prominence in the guise of righteousness and an unmatched flair for offensive football, will likely assume center stage as an alluring but polarizing coaching candidate.

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For he is also the man who was fired less than three months ago for overseeing a program found to have failed miserably in its reaction to a pattern of sexual assault allegations against players, while creating, as the Pepper Hamilton report states, “a cultural perception that football was above the rules.”

Further complicating Briles as a potential candidate is the inadequacy of the 13-page Pepper Hamilton report, the lone documentation Baylor has made public that outlines the law firm’s exhaustive investigation. It skewers Baylor’s administration for failing to implement Title IX resources demanded by law, as well as the actions of the athletic department and football staff. But nowhere does the report name Briles or anybody else, leaving an open-ended answer to the question of just how complicit he is.

Put yourself in the shoes of an AD or a president who might be interested in him, wouldn’t you want to know a full explanation as to his involvement?

Chuck Neinas, longtime athletic administrator

A report Wednesday by Waco television station KWTX painted Briles as more a scapegoat than a leader of a sinister plot to protect players and his program at all costs. That report went online shortly before ESPN aired a snippet of Briles in his first extensive interview since being fired admitting to making “mistakes,” apologizing for making those mistakes and vowing to do better. However, he has yet to describe what those mistakes were or how he plans to act differently when and if he secures another coaching position.

Perhaps that will come when the ESPN interview airs in its entirety at 8 a.m. Saturday on the network’s College GameDay show.

‘That’s a nice, glossy overview’

Acknowledging that he made mistakes at Baylor — especially considering the seriousness of the sexual assault allegations — would seem to run counter to Briles’ recent defiant claim that he has never done anything “illegal, immoral or unethical.”

“What makes things acceptable to people is when you’re willing to admit the things that you did wrong, but just saying, ‘I made some mistakes,’ that’s a nice, glossy overview of what you did wrong. But man-up and say specifically what you did wrong,” said Linda Fischer, an Austin-based specialist in sexual assault on college campuses and the military. A retired major in the Army, Fischer is author of Ultimate Power: Enemy Within the Ranks. “Because if you are specific, people can learn from specifics. But just saying, ‘Yeah, I made some mistakes, I’m going to be a better person,’ well, what are you going to do to be a better person? You told us already you were a better person.

“Those kind of comments don’t help address the problem; it just helps them go away.”

And so it continues a theme of competing Briles personas that dates back at least to his legendary high school coaching days at Stephenville: The gold standard of football coaches and a church-going family man with conservative values versus the calculating, cold-hearted coach who places winning above all else.

A group of sport psychologists and consultants who aid universities in coaching searches believe there are institutions that will consider Briles, even hire him, but they almost unanimously say his next coaching shot will not come from one of the Power 5 conferences: SEC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and ACC.

I for one believe that a major component in the change of culture at the high school — a change which emphasized excellence over mediocrity — was the impact made by Art Briles.

Ricky Sherrod, Stephenville High School history teacher

An interested administration, they say, will will require of Briles a mea culpa, and details of how he plans to do things differently, from establishing internal protocols to recruiting questionable athletes, a key component to the chaos that ensnared Baylor.

“Put yourself in the shoes of an AD or a president who might be interested in him, wouldn’t you want to know a full explanation as to his involvement?” said Chuck Neinas, a longtime athletic administrator who has been a consultant to a number of institutions’ coaching searches. “While an athletic director may be interested in coach Briles because of his obvious abilities, presidents are very sensitive to what happens when there is a hiring, and they don’t like the taint of bad publicity. So presidents might be more questionable about hiring Briles than an AD might be.”

Briles, credited with turning around the University of Houston football program from 2003-06, has hired noted agent Jimmy Sexton to help revive his career. When reached by phone Thursday prior to ESPN’s airing of the interview clip, Sexton declined to talk about his client and denied an interview request to talk to Briles.

For now, the perception of Briles’ involvement in the scandal by administrators around the country is likely consistent as stated by well-known clinical and sport psychologist John F. Murray: “He’s either indicted by his ignorance or by his complicity. He’s either complicit in allowing it to happen or he’s negligent in his overseeing of the program.”

Changing Stephenville’s culture

Briles wasn’t the first choice of retired Stephenville school district superintendent Ben Gilbert. He had never even heard of Briles. Gilbert wanted. W.T. Stapler, but he had just taken over at Andrews High School and wasn’t keen on moving again so quickly. Stapler recommended a coach he hired at Georgetown, a man he described to Gilbert as a student of the game. That coach was Briles.

In 12 seasons at Stephenville, Briles turned a mostly mediocre program the previous half-century into a state power. He won four state championships from 1993 to 1999 and had a major influence on the way football is played in Texas, moving it from simple running-based offenses to more complex, wide-open passing attacks.

Gilbert was so distraught when he heard Baylor had fired his former coach that he drove to his farm outside of town and stayed there in seclusion.

“I was just saddened, I left town,” Gilbert said. “I didn’t want anyone calling me or talking to me. Will Art Briles be back in coaching? He’s such a talent that maybe … I don’t know.”

Gilbert says Briles was beloved by Stephenville’s teachers and students alike.

History teacher Ricky Sherrod came to Stephenville 18 months before Briles would leave to become an assistant coach at Texas Tech. Sherrod, now a part-time teacher who called Briles an “honorable man,” even credited the football coach with helping to turn around Stephenville’s academic competitiveness in statewide contests.

“I for one believe that a major component in the change of culture at the high school — a change which emphasized excellence over mediocrity — was the impact made by Art Briles,” Sherrod said in an email. “Yes, in the athletic arena, but also in a general, student-body-wide attitude toward achieving success.”

There were, however, issues that hung over Briles’ program — issues that Gilbert said were quickly extinguished by the coach.

Briles was consistently accused of recruiting players from outside of Stephenville, and in 1993 and 1994, rumors were rampant that Briles’ players were using steroids. At a playoff game against Sherman at Pennington Field in Bedford, Sherman fans hung signs that read, “Body by Art” and “Shoot ’Em Up Art” with pictures of needles and syringes. Outraged, Gilbert asked Briles what it was all about and if he could take care of it.

While Stephenville was reprimanded by the University Interscholastic League District 6-4A executive committee for unspecified rules violations, the committee stated that “there was no substantiation to charges of steroid use or abuse.”

In 12 seasons at Stephenville High School, Briles turned a mostly mediocre program the previous half-century into a state power. He won four state championships from 1993 to 1999 and had a major influence on the way football is played in Texas, moving it from simple running-based offenses to more complex, wide-open passing attacks.

Stephenville athletic director Mike Copeland served as Briles’ defensive coordinator. Copeland, who had two sons play under Briles, said he has spoken to Briles since his firing, but that they did not discuss specifics about the case.

“I don’t think Art would ever bring anybody on that campus, as much as he loved Baylor, that he thought was a danger to other students,” Copeland said. “Coaches kind of believe in redemption — maybe I can make a difference in a kid’s life, maybe I can turn him into a productive citizen. I think the impact you can have on kids can be life-lasting. I know that Art shares that philosophy.”

Talent trumps character

In a fact, a chapter in Briles’ book, Beating Goliath, is called “Kid-Saving Business.” It’s hardly a unique concept among college football and basketball coaches, who recruit many players who come from disadvantaged backgrounds.

However, Briles also details in the book his recruiting philosophy, and tells the three things he deems most important when evaluating a recruit: talent, talent and talent.

Briles contends that some coaches “talk about behavior begin bigger than it is and that is unchangeable.” He continued, “I can help change your perspective.” Kendal Briles, his dad’s offensive coordinator at Baylor, who retained his position along with the majority of Briles’ staff, says in the book: “What my dad is saying is don’t worry about the negative stuff. Find the best football player and then it’s your job as a coach to make him produce.”

It is a noble pursuit, but also potentially a dangerous one, particularly, it would seem, in the view of potential employers.

Art Briles’ interview with ESPN’s Tom Rinaldi will be aired on the network’s College GameDay at 8 a.m. Saturday.

“I think that reflects poor judgment because obviously you are going to overload the wagon at some point if you don’t have the character issue as a part of your filter for whom you get involved in your program,” said a prominent consultant to universities in coaching searches. He spoke on the condition of anonymity because his firm could potentially become involved in a Briles coaching candidacy. “Yes, the talent part is paramount. But the kid that’s a high-character risk is always, always a danger.”

Baylor was thought to have learned this lesson after the 2003 basketball scandal in which one player killed another — both came in as transfers — and led to an attempted cover-up by coach Dave Bliss. A key tenet of reforms Baylor announced would be a much stricter policy toward vetting recruits, particularly transfers.

But even with such a policy in place, troubled players found their way to Waco:

▪ Sam Ukwuachu, a transfer from Boise State, was sentenced in August 2015 to six months in jail and 10 years of felony probation following his conviction for sexual assault. Ukwuachu had been kicked off the team at Boise State, where he had been accused of striking and choking a girlfriend.

▪ Shawn Oakman, a transfer who had been kicked off the team at Penn State and became Baylor’s all-time sack leader, was indicted on charges of sexual assault in July.

▪ Rami Hammad, a transfer from Texas, was arrested last month on a felony stalking charge.

▪ Tevin Elliott, recruited out of high school, is serving a 20-year prison term for sexual assault.

Coaching philosophies differ

Administrators might need Briles to commit to altering his recruiting practices and move character up his list. Still, unless a potential new boss demands change and implements a process to achieve it, experts suggest Briles is unlikely to change.

“As psychologists, we often say that past behavior is a good predictor of future behavior,” said Trent Petrie, director of the Center for Sport Psychology at the University of North Texas. “And unless there’s been some kind of very strategic intervention to help shift how a person might think and feel in a situation which might be related to what they ultimately do, you’re probably going to get a fairly similar type of behavior in the future.”

Some of the best kids I had came from very poor backgrounds, but they had character. There’s an old saying in coaching: You win with character, not characters. I tried to make that a motto for us.

R.C. Slocum, former A&M coach

Former Texas A&M coach R.C. Slocum had his own three-point recruiting checklist. His went, in order, character, valuing a college education and finally, “I want you to be burning up with wanting to be really good.”

“It didn’t mean you had to come from a fancy background or a fancy family,” Slocum said. “Some of the best kids I had came from very poor backgrounds, but they had character. There’s an old saying in coaching: You win with character, not characters. I tried to make that a motto for us.”

But coaches do differ on philosophy.

Former Oklahoma coach Barry Switzer falls more in line with Briles’ philosophy of gathering talent first and dealing with character later.

“I had some [players] screw up late in the end of my career, but we thought we had a good one,” Switzer said. “Sometimes they make dumb mistakes and do dumb things. I never even sometimes hold their parents responsible, a single-parent mother responsible — I hold the kid responsible for his actions and behavior. But I’m held accountable at the same time because I brought him into my family. I’m the football coach.”

Switzer, who became emotional talking about second-chance players he coached and who made the most of their opportunity, stands by his philosophy.

“Obviously, coaches are held accountable and I think coaches have to be put in purgatory sometimes,” Switzer said. “And finally if someone wants a winning coach then they’ll be given an opportunity to get back coaching. But we all pay a price for it.”

This article includes information from the Star-Telegram archives.

Jeff Caplan: 817-390-7705, @Jeff_Caplan

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