Last month former Baylor Bears coach Art Briles — he whose 65-37 record over eight seasons at Baylor University helped build McLane Stadium on the Brazos — snared a potential storybook ending to a career lately in tatters. Three years after his stunning departure in disgrace from a Christian university that he transformed into an unlikely football powerhouse in the Big 12, Briles is headed back to his native Texas to coach, this time at Mount Vernon High School, a slice of small-town Americana near Saltillo, Winfield and Miller’s Cove.
“Hey, I’m ready to go to work,” Briles told trustees and spectators, including 14 of the football team, via Skype at a May 24 school board meeting. “I got a little unfinished business over here in Italy where we’re in the playoffs vying for the Super Bowl, but I’ll have some guys in place there in the next couple of weeks and get y’all going. And then, as soon as I finish up here, I’m in Mount Vernon and we’re not looking back. We’re moving forward.”
Adorned in school colors of purple and white, Briles told his players “what you’re going to get from me, and that’s everything I got, so take care of yourselves, work hard, eat right, sleep right and plan on being a champion because that’s what we’re going to be.”
It’s the stuff of dreams, maybe even a premium-cable TV movie. The plot: At age 63, a gifted but tarnished football coach famous for giving players with dubious backgrounds second chances through rigorous athletic training flounders in a campus sex scandal involving some of those very players, only to find redemption in returning to his small-town Texas roots and the Friday night lights of high school football that first catapulted him to fame.
In short, Briles’ Mount Vernon chapter promises a second act. Or third. Briles has ricocheted here and there the past three years, seeking a niche in which to coach ball again. For the moment, he’s coaching Guelfi Firenze, a semipro football team in Florence, Italy, but he’s flirted with other intriguing possibilities. He even scored a gig coaching the Canadian Football League’s Hamilton Tiger-Cats till public indignation spurred by a #MeToo movement partially born of the Baylor scandal prompted the Tiger-Cats to back out of the deal.
By contrast, Mount Vernon folks appear giddy about a football coach with winning stats in high school and college leading their kids to victory Friday nights. While acknowledging “due diligence process and several earnest conversations,” Mount Vernon ISD Superintendent Jason McCullough describes Briles as “passionate about investing in the lives of young people and helping them to succeed both on the field and in life.” Mere moments after the May 24 school board announcement, as officials sought to convince the audience it was “not a trick,” one audience member cooed excitedly to another amid cheers and applause: “You know who he is? He coached at Baylor when Baylor won the Big 12!” (Former Bears quarterback Robert Griffin III, 29, a Baylor icon who won the 2011 Heisman Trophy under Briles, soon tweeted his congrats: “Happy for you Coach Art Briles!!!”)
Others express grave doubts from afar, given evidence Briles was lackadaisical when faced with allegations of sexual assault involving Baylor athletes. Among the chorus: Morgan Rainer Strehlow, a program manager at the Baylor University School of Social Work and previously manager of administration and strategic initiatives for the Baylor athletic department, who wrote in the Dallas Morning News: “Despite what you choose to believe about what occurred under Briles’ leadership at Baylor, there is no good argument for putting Briles in a position of power and influence at a high school. I believe Briles genuinely wants to help young people. But I also believe Briles has a history of poor judgment demonstrated by his failure to report alleged sexual misconduct, including rape. Now the leadership of Mount Vernon ISD is practicing this same poor judgment by compromising the safety of their students in a quest to win more football games.” Nor have Briles’ own statements and comments the past three years offered clarity. At points, he speaks in a mix of Christian humility and culpability. He can also claim to be blameless. In a 2018 interview with the Baylor Line Foundation magazine, in referring to the Philadelphia attorneys who led the investigation that catapulted him from power at Baylor, Briles suggested some conclusions reached revealed a lack of insight about collegiate athletics, “like taking a first grader and trying to teach them trigonometry.”
Nor has Baylor exactly offered clarity. While exiling Briles from campus in 2016 for failures in “delegation of disciplinary responsibilities with the football program,” Baylor also gave him a letter of recommendation (used for the Tiger-Cats job in 2017) absolving him of specific misdeeds. Then again, there’s a 2017 legal filing by three prominent BU regents (in response to a defamation suit filed by former assistant athletics director Colin Shillinglaw) citing text messaging by athletic staffers — including Briles — expressing satisfaction they had avoided allegations of misconduct being forwarded to Baylor administrative higher-ups. Messages also reflected their frustration at the various decisions of assault victims who might complicate matters for them. The narrative becomes even more convoluted when you add depositions and affidavits in other lawsuits that suggest some regents sought to excessively scapegoat the football program and use the scandal as an excuse to jettison then-BU president Ken Starr, who has strongly defended Briles throughout. Local dentist and alumnus Steve Childress in a June 2016 Trib column offered a glowing defense of Briles that burns yet in the hearts of many alumni, some wishing Briles was coaching the Bears still: “As a friend of Art Briles, I can tell you that there is no malice in this man’s heart. He is two things to many of his players: an outstanding football coach and a father figure. Art Briles is a man who believes in second chances. He was betrayed by those who squandered the chances they were given and then betrayed again by the university he strove to serve in a noble way, the best way he knew how.”
Conventional wisdom demands outrage over Briles’ hiring in Mount Vernon, given the few vague managerial shortcomings he did acknowledge. Yet one wonders how long someone who hasn’t been indicted for a crime, let alone convicted, and who lives under ambiguities perpetuated by Baylor itself must wander in the wilderness — even if the wilderness is Florence, Italy.
That said, Mount Vernon trustees and parents must recognize at the very outset of this latest development that just because a coach builds young athletes to win doesn’t mean he or she builds strong character and moral fiber. They must recognize that the thrill of potential victory can marginalize far more important matters, including sexual violence. They must recognize that coaches are not parental proxies, despite myths to the contrary spun by movies and sports banquets. The saving grace in Mount Vernon is that Briles’ young charges live at home with their parents and under their presumed vigilance. At Baylor, some youths naive, foolish or headstrong in their newfound independence weren’t so lucky.