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Baylor head football coach Art Briles high-fives fans during happier times.

Staff photo— Jerry Larson

A few years ago, when plans and fund-raising for the $266 million riverfront McLane Stadium were coming together, I mentioned to a Baylor University athletic official how it certainly would be the stadium that standout Baylor football quarterback Robert Griffin III built. Acknowledging Griffin’s athletic prowess and leadership skills, the Baylor official nonetheless corrected me: The new arena would be the stadium that Baylor head football coach Art Briles built.

Of course, Briles was the one who brought Griffin to Baylor. But the athletic official suggested Briles meant far more to the resolutely Christian university and surrounding community than just his recognition of RG3’s considerable talents.

No less than Briles claims as much in his 2014 memoir, “Beating Goliath: My Story of Football and Faith.” Before he even gets into recalling his relationship with Griffin and his philosophy of building character through football, discipline and tough love, he focuses on the need for a stadium that could better show off everything Baylor was about — as opposed to a stadium 60 years old in another part of the city:

“To this day, as high school, college and NFL coaches come to visit our program and see us in our still relatively new athletic department offices on the north part of campus for the first time, we get this comment over and over again: ‘Wow, this is Baylor? I’ve been coming here for 20 years and never knew this was Baylor. I thought Floyd Casey (Stadium) was where the campus was.’”

Credited with smart recruiting, Briles was confident enough in his football program after two seasons to make his wishes known at a June 2010 reception for then-new Baylor President Ken Starr. As Starr later recalled: “I went over to say hello to Coach Briles. I asked him, as I tend to ask when I meet with coaches or deans, ‘What is it that you need?’ He said, ‘We need an on-campus stadium. It is a need, not a want.’ He’s a very persuasive person. But my first thought is that it can’t be our highest priority.”

Indeed, the highest priority for Starr was shoring up the Big 12 athletic conference, then in danger of fragmenting amid various colleges’ concerns about high-dollar TV contracts, athletic prestige and doubts about whether Baylor even belonged in a conference with schools such as the University of Texas and University of Oklahoma.

In his book, Briles recalls business titan and Baylor benefactor Drayton McLane signing papers making the lead gift for the state-of-the-art stadium that bears McLane’s name. While McLane was committed to the idea of an on-campus stadium, he said he “needed me and the football team to be the engine to get other people behind the project,” Briles writes. Possibly alluding to the 2003 scandal in the Baylor men’s basketball program involving everything from NCAA violations concerning drugs and improper payments to murder, McLane voiced confidence in the football coach, noting in 2014 that “one of the most important assets Coach Briles has brought to Baylor is the moral character that he has built into the football program.”

The truth is many of us bought into Briles’ vision, rooted in the down-to-earth West Texan’s ability to win football games and pick talent. The city of Waco plowed $35 million in taxpayer money into infrastructure complementing the stadium — an astounding gesture given our area’s politically conservative leanings. Then-Councilman (and now-Mayor) Kyle Deaver, a Baylor grad, predicted the stadium would “change the face of downtown over time.” He was right.

McLane Stadium opens

Summer 2014 saw city leaders, Baylor officials and downtown merchants huddle to ensure that fans could be conveniently and quickly shuttled to the stadium from downtown Waco — stadium parking was limited — and that merchants stood to benefit on game day. The day of the first game, witnesses described the bridge crossing the Brazos into McLane Stadium as swaying beneath the weight and movement of the crowds passing over it.

Many of us remember the excitement of ESPN’s first “College GameDay,” which allowed television viewers across the nation to learn that, just as Briles said, Baylor was far more than football, stretching into everything from global missionary work to groundbreaking scientific research. But those aspects paled amid the frenzy of Baylor fans that day, many reveling in a new stadium and a football team that, after so many years of defeat, was finally a contender.

All that now seems a millennium away. Last month, civic leader and BU regent Clifton Robinson pronounced the Briles era over. Amid scandal rooted in sexual assaults, some involving football players, and varying degrees of indifference by campus administrators, BU regents ousted Briles, less than two years after the stadium he helped build opened amid great fanfare and glowing prospects. Other casualties included Starr, a dynamic force on campus and in the community who in some ways proved a mere supporting player in the Briles era rather than the other way around.

To complicate matters, pleas by BU football fans and donors that Briles be reinstated collided with regents’ refusal to specify Briles’ failures involving a handful of players who upended another theme in his memoir — that of giving players with difficult backgrounds a chance through college football. Two such players have been convicted of sexual assault; another has been charged with the crime. They undermine an admirable philosophy touted by Briles that somehow backfired and took a heavy toll:

“If they do falter or make a mistake, then we need to save them and give them a chance to get back on the right path. If we don’t, then we know what’s going to happen. We know they’re not going to be able to get a college degree. We know they are not going to have a chance to get a good job, be a productive husband, father or citizen.”

The legacy of Art Briles at Baylor? There are his stats: a 50-15 record the past five seasons, two Big 12 championships, six straight bowl games and a Heisman winner in RG3 in 2011. But his legacy will also leave confounding gaps about his role in an ugly quagmire that, justly or not, saw him to an inglorious end at Baylor. His actions have only added to the confusion.

‘Serious shortcomings’

In his June 16 legal motion against Baylor, he dismissed the idea he was responsible for failures by BU higher-ups to adequately incorporate Title IX protections for campus victims of sexual assault. The following day Briles withdrew the motion — likely part of a power play to pressure settlement of his football contract, reportedly worth tens of millions of dollars, rather than any drive to clear his name or those of his associates. Days later Baylor issued a statement in which both the university and Briles acknowledge “serious shortcomings” in responding to reports of sexual violence by some student-athletes. We may have to wait for Briles’ next memoir to know more.

Till then, another passage in Briles’ 2014 memoir, when read in the wake of his departure, signals the tragedy already unfolding on his watch two years ago:

“What I’m very much trying to do is create an environment for young men where they can come and know that we’re going to be behind them the whole way. Maybe that sounds a little like Father Flanagan, but I believe that. I believe people want to be good, they want to succeed. They want to achieve. It’s up to us, as coaches, to guide them toward that achievement.”

Ultimately, Briles’ legacy hints at lessons about coaches who, however well-intentioned, take huge risks on problematic football players when failing to gauge the risks those players pose to the safety of others. As a social worker remarked to me about all this, it’s one thing when the player is someone such as Robert Griffin III — a charismatic, dedicated athlete deeply moved by the sacrifice and sense of duty of his parents, both of whom served in the military, and who demonstrated such qualities on the field with teammates. It’s quite another if the player has, say, the ego-ridden, self-indulgent persona of Johnny Manziel, who won the Heisman Trophy during his remarkable freshman year at Texas A&M just a year after RG3 won it. Some football fans had “Johnny Football” pegged for trouble even before he left Aggieland for professional football, dogged by allegations of everything from unrestrained partying to violating NCAA rules in accepting pay for signing autographs. In recent weeks, the now-free agent quarterback has been indicted for assaulting his girlfriend and penalized by the NFL for substance abuse.

Meanwhile, nagging questions remain about the coach who had titanic impact on Baylor University, Central Texas and the Big 12. Did Art Briles and his staff create, as the Pepper Hamilton law firm concluded in its investigation of Title IX problems on campus, a “cultural perception that football was above the rules,” particularly as the reputations of both Briles and Baylor swelled? Or, given some reservations that Pepper Hamilton hinted at about Baylor regents themselves, their qualifications and possible conflicts of interest, did panicky Baylor regents put Briles on the sacrificial altar (along with Starr) to save their own hides? Or is something else afoot?

No one should be too quick to assume or dismiss anything in the absence of facts and specifics, few of which are forthcoming from Baylor and its tight-lipped, secretive leadership. Pepper Hamilton’s list of 105 recommendations for correcting Title IX gender-violence issues at Baylor hints at certain problems, yet raises as many questions. Regents seem content to let everything fester through the long, hot summer.

While an imposing statue of RG3 beckons fans at McLane Stadium, the shadow of Art Briles and his faith in a handful of players who clearly didn’t deserve his trust looms larger, at least these days. And to our discredit, only a winning football season is likely to dispatch such shadows.