Mount Vernon hasn’t traditionally been a football town. Their high school team has enjoyed some recent success—they’ve made the playoffs the past three seasons—but many locals say this East Texas town of 2,750 has, in recent years, been more into girls’ basketball, particularly since that team won state in 2018. Yet football has been the hottest topic of conversation here for most of the summer, after the May 24 school board announcement that Art Briles, the disgraced former football coach at Baylor University, would be named the high school’s new head coach.
The team’s first practice of the year took place on a muggy, hot August day in Mount Vernon, but that didn’t keep fans—and media—away. In lieu of a professional PA system you might find at a place like Baylor’s practice field, someone pulled a pickup truck around the side of the field and cranked the stereo, and the young men ran blocking drills to the beat of Future’s “Just Like Bruddas.”
First Baptist Church pastor Pepper Puryear, who leads one of the town’s largest congregations, stood away from the field, off in the shade. When I first met Puryear in June, he explained that, as a pastor, he’s “in the business of redemption and second chances.” Meanwhile, members of the Ramsay family sat in camping chairs on the sideline. The Ramsays are one of the community’s most prominent families—its members include the district attorney, a legendary county judge, a former five-term state legislator, two Baylor law grads, and Briles’s former assistant head of campus recruiting during his time in Waco. When Mount Vernon officials first reached out to Briles, they did so through the Ramsays.
When practice ended, Briles held his first and only press conference prior to the start of the season. The publicist hired by the school district informed reporters that questions about anything that happened at Baylor were off-limits. Instead, maybe a dozen members of the media, mostly TV reporters from local East Texas stations, as well as a few from Waco and Dallas, were handed a letter from Briles’s attorneys claiming that “what the public has been led to believe about Coach Briles is flatly false.” When one reporter asked Briles if he felt like he owed anyone an apology, he responded, “If you’re asking about Baylor, that’s been addressed in a statement.”
The Baylor fallout is how Briles landed at Mount Vernon, which plays 3A football. The types of programs that Friday Night Lights brings to mind—with multimillion-dollar stadiums, where the kids are looking to get football scholarships and the coaches hope to ascend the ladder to the college and pro level—are at the much bigger 6A level. That means there’s a low ceiling on how much glory you can win in a place like Mount Vernon, or how much a championship can boost gate receipts.
In the aftermath of the Briles hire, a narrative coalesced in the national media: This was yet another example of a football-mad Texas town sacrificing its morals in pursuit of gridiron glory. Spend a little time in Mount Vernon, though, and you’ll find that not everyone was on board with the decision to bring him to town.
Lauren Lewis is a Mount Vernon native whose family has roots in the town dating back several generations. After a decade in Austin, she convinced her husband to go back three years ago. She missed it there, and loved the community she grew up in. When they learned that, of all the places Briles could have landed, he was going to be coaching in Mount Vernon, it was a tough day. “There was an immediate pit in my stomach that we had done this,” she says. “It was an embarrassment.”
At the first school board meeting after Briles was hired, Lewis was the only member of the community who expressed opposition. In June, she spoke of her “concerns for the young women whose lives were forever altered by the actions of players under the guidance of Art Briles,” and the message it sent to hire him, of all coaches. She was also worried for the students she mentors as a volunteer at the high school. What would it mean for them to see their school portrayed as a bad guy in the national media?
Others worry that the players who take the field for the Tigers this fall are going to be in a tough position. They didn’t have any say in who their coach would be, but they’re the ones on the front line dealing with the consequences. In fact, when Mount Vernon held its first football practice, one of the team’s best players was absent. Tony Grillo,* a returning star senior, had spent the summer struggling with the idea of playing his senior year.
Grillo’s mother, Lauren, is a survivor of sexual assault. “He said, ‘I don’t want to play because I know what happened to you,’” Lauren Grillo told me. “The people that did that to you weren’t held accountable, and I don’t think he’s been held accountable, either.’” She was proud that her son was confronting the issue in such a grown-up way, but heartbroken, too. Watching her son play football is one of her favorite things to do. “Teenagers tend to pull away, and that’s one connection Tony and I have,” she said. (Grillo told me her son disliked “the circus” Briles brought to town and declined to be interviewed himself.)
So why bring Briles to town? Others who oppose the Briles hire point to local politics and religion as the reason. “We love the idea of giving someone a second chance: ‘We’re a good Christian community, and he’s a good Christian man, so what better place than Mount Vernon for this redemption stage?’” Lewis told me. “It’s about connections, and a hunger for fame and glory, and a good ol’ boy system in place.” Mount Vernon ISD superintendent Jason McCullough told me that the people he spoke to about Briles’s character emphasized the positive impact the coach has had on young men, as well as his obvious overqualifications for the job. He’s confident they landed the right guy. “We believe that the coaching staff that’s coming in here lines up with our values and will be a great addition to our community,” McCullough told me in June. “The outside national media has tried to paint that into a different picture, which is unfortunate.”
Puryear, the First Baptist pastor (who is also a former high school football player and the son of a coach), described an even loftier vision for Mount Vernon’s role in the Briles saga. “The story of Art Briles coming to Mount Vernon, Texas, is not about winning football games,” he told me, as we sit in his office, which is heavily adorned with football memorabilia. “The story of Art Briles coming to Mount Vernon, Texas, is a story about redemption, and grace, and forgiveness—something we all need, and none of us deserve.”
Here’s some of what Briles might be seeking redemption and forgiveness for: Briles recruited at least four athletes who faced criminal allegations prior to coming to Baylor, had a number of instances where his players were accused of those things while under his leadership, and oversaw a system where it took years before anyone found out about it. A former Baylor student’s parents say they called Briles’s office several times to tell the coach that their daughter had been raped by Tevin Elliott, a Bears defensive end currently serving a twenty-year prison sentence for the crime. (Briles had agreed to meet with her in 2016 to offer an apology, but never showed up to the meeting.) A former Baylor athlete testified in court that she was raped by Sam Ukwuachu, a pass-rusher Briles brought to Baylor. Just a few weeks before that trial—after Ukwuachu had been arrested and indicted, and suspended from playing at Baylor (though he still did conditioning with the team)—one of Briles’s assistants talked to the media about how excited they were to have him back on the field. (Ukwuachu was initially convicted in August 2015; on appeal, his conviction has been variously overturned and reinstated because of a technicality regarding evidence. He’s currently awaiting a new trial.)
Baylor never gave a clear explanation for why it fired Briles. (In a statement, the school and Briles jointly acknowledged “serious shortcomings in the response to reports of sexual violence by some student-athletes” and “the delegation of disciplinary responsibilities with the football program.”) The university paid him a massive settlement—more than $15 million—as part of his dismissal.
Briles was initially considered a hot coaching prospect, despite the scandal. When vacancies came up at the University of Houston and Texas Tech, his name was floated. He spent the summer of 2016 prowling NFL training camps as a guest of established head coaches, but he ended up being virtually unemployable. He was out of the game for 2016, then briefly hired as an offensive assistant by the Canadian Football League’s Hamilton Tiger-Cats in late 2017. The job offer was rescinded within 24 hours amid public outcry. Eventually, he went to Florence, Italy, to coach the Guelfi Firenze, an amateur team in a country where most people don’t even know how American football is played. In early February of this year, he interviewed for the job of offensive coordinator at the University of Southern Mississippi, before a school official wrote to the head coach, asking him to “please go in another direction for your OC hire.”
Briles’s attorneys noted in the statement provided to media after his first Mount Vernon practice that Baylor’s general counsel issued a letter in May 2017 expressing support for the coach. At that time, though, university officials were under heavy pressure to do so. A group of high-profile, big-money donors—folks who have statues on campus and stadiums named after them—had formed an organization to demand “leadership reform” at the university in the wake of the coach’s dismissal. They held multiple press conferences to call out the administrators and regents who got rid of Briles, with one high-dollar donor, John Eddie Williams, suggesting that he might withhold future donations as a result of the board’s actions.
Gale Galloway was one such high-profile donor. In June, the 89-year-old former energy executive and onetime chair of the Baylor Board of Regents went so far as to attend the Mount Vernon school board meeting to help Briles out. There, Galloway told locals that “not only are you getting an outstanding Christian, a man with ideals above and beyond reproach, he just happens to be the best coach in the United States.”
He declared Briles a “scapegoat” for a university-wide problem, then ended his statement with a theatrical flourish: “I swore to tell the truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God,” he intoned. “If anything I have said is not the truth, the good lord can strike me dead right now.”
At the end of August, the Mount Vernon Tigers opened their season at Bonham High School. It wasn’t a particularly notable affair. There were plenty of reporters in attendance, and the Bonham side of the bleachers was crowded. But the Mount Vernon side was less densely packed—the editor of the Mount Vernon Optic-Herald told me in the press box before the game that it looked thinner than usual, which she attributed to a ticket advisory announced by Bonham that may have scared off some spectators who didn’t want to fight a crowd.
Bonham High School banned signs during the game, a one-week rule it implemented for the match with Mount Vernon, presumably to discourage protests. Prior to kickoff, the announcer advised fans that this would be an atmosphere of friendly competition—booing the opposing team would not be tolerated.
When Mount Vernon took the field, Lauren Grillo’s son, Tony, was among them. After sitting out the first week—a week during which, Grillo’s mom says, Briles drove by their house several times looking for the player—Grillo says that her son’s former coach, who’s now leading Mount Vernon’s chief rival, convinced him to rejoin the team. “He told him that in life, we have to deal with a whole lot of people we don’t necessarily agree with or like,” she told me shortly before the game. “But he knew that Tony was a competitor, and if he was going to beat Mount Vernon, he wanted to beat the best team on the field, and that wasn’t going to happen unless Tony was there.”
His mom is happy that she’ll get to see him play ball one more year, but she hates that he and his teammates had to agonize over the choice in the first place. “They shouldn’t have to deal with this,” she told me. “None of them should.”
Mount Vernon scored first but played sloppy ball for much of the first half, committing four turnovers. Ultimately, though, the Tigers stomped Bonham 44-16, a widely anticipated outcome. Since then, they’ve gone on to beat Farmersville 50-20, and to clobber Canton in their first home game 57-0. Nobody, after all, doubts that Briles is good at coaching football.
And yet, no matter what side they’re on, almost no one in Mount Vernon talks about the decision to hire Briles in terms of winning championships. Sure, it’d be fun, his supporters say, but it’s unlikely given the two years he has on his contract. “Do I anticipate Mount Vernon being the last stop for Art Briles? Probably not,” Jason McCullough told me.
For his part, Puryear says he hopes that Briles will fall in love with the community. But when I asked him how he thinks people would feel if his stop in Mount Vernon is a brief one—if he gets offered the head coaching job at, say, Florida State or Ole Miss after a year—he laughed. “I don’t know if I can answer that,” he conceded. “At least we provided the place that he got his foot back in the door.”
Briles will almost certainly get another shot at a big-time college program. And the next athletic director who considers Briles will have to answer one big question: Can they weather the PR storm that comes with hiring him? If nothing else, they might be able to point to a quiet time in the small town of Mount Vernon as a reason to say Briles has put the past behind him.
*Some names have been changed at the request of those interviewed.