Throughout his highly successful coaching career, Art Briles’ life has been shaped by the tragic event on Oct. 16, 1976.
That was when his parents and an aunt were killed in a car accident on their way from Rule to Dallas to watch Art play for the Houston Cougars against the SMU Mustangs at the Cotton Bowl.
Briles rose from that tragedy to coach four state championship teams at Stephenville in the 1990s and revive college football programs at Houston and Baylor. Once a Big 12 bottom feeder, the No. 19 Bears are shooting for a school-record fourth straight bowl game.
Nick Eatman tells Briles’ story in a new book entitled: “Looking Up: My Journey from Tragedy to Triumph.” Briles and Eatman will hold a book signing from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Thursday at the Bill Daniel Student Center on the Baylor campus.
“Hopefully, whoever reads it will get a little bit inspired by it,” Briles said. “There are some things that I hadn’t thought about in decades.”
One event that has never left Briles’ mind is the death of his parents, Dennis and Wanda Briles. Dennis coached Art at Rule High School, a small town northwest of Abilene. With Art playing quarterback, Rule reached the Class B state championship game in 1973 where it lost to powerful Big Sandy.
Briles’ life was changed forever by his parents’ tragedy. Hampered by a knee injury, Briles quit playing college football and transferred from Houston to Texas Tech in 1977 where his high school sweetheart and future wife, Jan, was attending college.
Losing his parents in such an abrupt manner was so painful that he’s never talked in detail about the accident to his children, Jancy, Kendal and Staley. But Briles describes the events of that day and what he was going through in the new book.
“Art didn’t really hold back,” said Eatman, a columnist for DallasCowboys.com. “Privacy is a big deal (to the Briles family), and my biggest goal was for them to keep their privacy but also to reveal as much as they can. They understood we have to open up a little, especially about his parents.”
Standing at a crossroads in his life, Briles refused to go into a downward spiral. He decided to honor his father and mother by going into coaching and trying to affect people in a positive way.
That commitment led Briles to his first coaching job as an assistant at Sundown and then Sweetwater. He got his first head coaching job at Hamlin in 1984 before moving to Georgetown and finally to Stephenville where his career blossomed.
Taking over a football program that hadn’t reached the playoffs since 1952, Briles changed the culture with his innovate spread offense and an offseason weight program, The result was Class 4A state championships in 1993-94 and 1998-99.
Eatman interviewed people through all phases of Briles’ life from his boyhood to recent Baylor players like Robert Griffin III, Kendall Wright and Ahmad Dixon. He found a similar theme when he talked to all of them.
“What I see now is the same person people described when he was 12, 19 or 25,” Eatman said. “He’s always had high character and high morals. He’s the epitome of a people person, and he’s always been able to relate to people. Throughout my interviews, people described him the say way, and that was the most refreshing thing for me.”
Briles has often related to his players by lifting weights with them. Known for wearing long-sleeve shirts even in 100-degree heat, he told the Baylor players he’d rip off his shirt in the locker room if they beat TCU in the 2011 season opener. The Bears obliged with a 50-48 win, and his players were impressed with his upper body.
“We all knew he was rocked up,” Wright said in the book. “He just had never shown us.”
He’s always loved music and blares it over the loud speakers at practice – anything from rap to soul to classic rock to country.
Throughout his career, Briles’ wife and children have helped him form a strong support system. His son, Kendal, is Baylor’s receivers’ coach while his son-in-law, Jeff Lebby, is the running backs coach. His oldest daughter, Jancy, works in the Cowboys’ publicity department.
Working on the Cowboys’ staff, Eatman got to know Jancy and eventually the rest of Briles family. They started talking about doing a book last year, and decided in January to move on the project.
The book really started to take shape after Briles finished spring drills in April, but Eatman still had to work around the coach’s busy schedule. Briles recorded his memories on tapes and sent them back to Eatman. One thing that came across on tape was Briles’ Texas drawl.
“A lot of the material came from Art talking into a tape recorder,” Eatman said. “He’d make a track and send it back to me. Then I followed up with questions to fill in the holes. If you slow (the tape) down from 100 percent to 70, he sounds like Nolan Ryan.”
When asked how it felt to have a biography written about him while he was still living, Briles grinned: “It feels good to be living.”
ART BRILES BOOK SIGNING
Title: Looking Up: My Journey from Tragedy to Triumph
When: 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.
Where: Bill Daniel Student Center
Book cost: $25.95 (Triumph Books)