Expectations for Baylor University’s football team in recent years have centered on conference and national championships. Interim President David Garland drastically changed those expectations for the 2016 campaign, and college football head coaches performing on a national stage say their role is about much more than what happens on the field.
“I don’t care if we go 0-12. We cannot have sexual assaults,” Garland said in an interview.
Baylor has seen a whirlwind of attention during the past year after findings that it had mishandled sexual assault claims. Garland and acting head football coach Jim Grobe are looking to calm the storm by building character in the program.
“The No. 1 thing in our program is for our guys to be good guys off the field,” Grobe said at Big 12 Media Days last month. “We want them to be good in the classroom and be good guys in town and society. We’d like to win a lot of football games, too. Winning is really important but not at the expense of character. That’s the thing we’ll be pounding into our guys every day.”
Art Briles led the Bears to a 65-37 record, six straight bowl appearances, two conference titles and was the driving force behind a $300 million stadium, and he was fired May 26 after a report alleged coaches and staffers did not report sexual violence and dating violence by players.
Baylor’s regents have been tight-lipped on specific reasons for the firing, but board Chairman Ron Murff has spoken of the weight of the information he received from Pepper Hamilton LLP, a Philadelphia law firm that conducted a nine-month investigation at the school. The firm presented survivor stories to the board.
In a sports climate where off-the-field issues are heavily scrutinized, college football coaches are constantly learning about program priorities.
University of Nebraska head football coach Mike Riley said he has learned firsthand the importance of coaching beyond the X’s and O’s. As head coach at Oregon State University in 1998, he handed one-game suspensions to two players who were accused of sexual assault but never prosecuted.
Brenda Tracy identifies herself as the victim of those assaults and has since reconciled with Riley. She travels the country telling her story to college football teams, including stops at Nebraska and Baylor. Tracy will speak to the University of Oklahoma football program this week, according to reports Friday.
In a Tribune-Herald interview, Riley said he does not try to take over as a father figure to players, but there is a familial aspect of coaching and being part of a team.
‘You always represent’
“This is my line: ‘You always have to remember you always represent,’ ” Riley said. “Basically by saying that, I’m putting us in a big box together, saying we are a group. I would like to consider this an extended family.”
His players make choices and are responsible for those choices, but he also feels responsible when players make mistakes, he said.
“I feel like, ‘What could we have done different? How can we do this better and how can we prevent this sort of thing?’ We continue to try to provide them different resources to make good choices, and it is an ongoing, ongoing daily process,” Riley said.
Hugh Freeze, the head football coach at University of Mississippi, called himself the CEO of the program last month, amid allegations of NCAA violations.
Grobe also has said college head coaches’ responsibilities extend past the playing and practice fields.
“You really are a CEO,” Grobe said. “There’s nothing more in the world I would like to do more than coach our linebackers. . . . But you have to be careful you don’t lose your focus and take care of your football team. As a coach, my main responsibility is to take care of our football team first. The assistant coaches need to help me, but you have to start with me.”
Since 2011, Baylor football coaches and staffers “conducted their own untrained internal inquiries, outside of policy, which improperly discredited complainants and denied them the right to a fair, impartial and informed investigation,” according to Baylor regents. Two athletics staffers were fired amid the scandal, while the entire assistant coaching staff remains intact.
Grobe has said all potential Title IX violations involving players now go straight to Patty Crawford, Baylor’s Title IX coordinator. From there, Baylor’s policy decisions involving athletics suspensions have not been finalized, athletics spokesman Nick Joos said in an email.
“Athletics policies regarding coordination and information flow with campus authorities are among the highest priority as we prepare for the 2016-2017 academic year and are in the process of being reviewed and finalized,” Joos said. “Once they are approved and implemented, it would be more appropriate to speak to these issues. We believe it would be counterproductive to discuss past policies. Our focus remains on collaborating across the university to put in place best practices that are consistent and ensure the safety and well-being of our students.”
In a Wednesday interview, Crawford said the Title IX office has the authority to suspend a student immediately after a complaint is filed if the student poses a campus safety threat. While working with police and Baylor administrators, Crawford has the federal authority to make interim suspensions while a full investigation is ongoing.
“That doesn’t happen very often,” Crawford said. “I’ve only done that a couple times since I’ve been here (starting November 2014), and it takes a lot of thinking through and there has to be patterns and weapons or arrests or something like that to make that happen — good, factual evidence. But a real suspension, a real sanction? No, the whole process has to happen.”
Riley said a Nebraska player will generally be suspended from the team immediately when the university opens a Title IX investigation against him.
Riley also said he has sole authority to suspend a player for minor infractions, including absences at study halls or weight-lifting sessions. In more serious cases, others make final suspension decisions.
Title IX intricacies
It is a tall order for football coaches to understand all intricacies of Title IX, said Christina Mancini, an associate professor at Virginia Commonwealth University who studies sexual victimization and campus sexual assault. Still, a coach needs to know of subcultural problems in the program, she said.
“What’s being alleged at Baylor and other universities is that it’s not just one individual,” Mancini said. “There’s a sense of entitlement when it comes to sex or being the big man on campus, so do coaches have an obligation to stamp that out and change perceptions? I think, yes. How they do that is the big question.”
Baylor’s lack of transparency on its policies for major violations by players, and its lack of transparency when players were suspended for major violations, also came under fire by Pepper Hamilton.
According to Baylor’s regents, “the football program dismissed players for unspecified team violations” in some instances when staff found that players had committed serious crimes. The term “violation of team rules” is often used by athletics programs across the country when players are disciplined.
Joos said the term protects student-athletes and universities under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.
“We must be able to report to the media that a player is out for a game without sharing details that would violate their rights under FERPA,” Joos said. “Because of this, the industry has adopted the team rules violation language to reflect disciplinary actions for a range of incidents — from being late to practice, being late to class, late to academic appointments, drug test violations or criminal offenses, including interpersonal violence, that are not felonies.”
Felony charges result in automatic suspensions until the case is resolved, he said.
Legendary Baylor football coach Grant Teaff said coaches lead best by example, and teaching lessons to players verbally but not backing them up is counterproductive. Teaff was Baylor’s head coach from 1972 to 1992 and also served as a longtime executive director of the American Football Coaches Association.
Teaff said societal issues including peer pressure, disrespect and lack of accountability have a greater impact on young athletes today.
“Nothing has changed in the coach’s responsibility, except it has gotten more flagrant,” Teaff said.
Grobe revealed at his first Baylor press conference that Teaff was instrumental to his decision to coach at Baylor.
“It’s sad when something happens that distracts from what the coaches are doing,” Teaff said. “But trust me, they are trying in every way, whether it’s here at Baylor or across the country. Every day, much time is spent in thinking about how they can teach, what they can do to set an example and the positive results they can get.”
While Baylor’s football program works to recover from the scandal and the role of its head football coach is redefined, the school’s lessons are far-reaching.
Riley said the shock waves of the last few months at Baylor have forced coaches and their programs to check policies and discipline, especially involving sexual violence. He also praised Baylor’s hiring of Grobe.
“You’d have to have your head in the sand,” Riley said. “I think it’s just really important to have awareness of what’s going on. It’s just like parenting. There’s no perfect way, and I think we continue to learn how to do that. . . . Not everything is in the book. We have to continue to learn how best to handle this.”