Baylor’s Rebuild Is Off To A Shaky Start
The university’s first major hires since cleaning house in May don’t exactly inspire confidence that things are changing for the better.
When head football coach Art Briles, athletic director Ian McCaw, and university president Ken Starr all disappeared from Baylor in the wake of a sexual assault scandal, the sweeping changes brought the hope of a controlled burn. By cleansing Baylor of the detritus of massive institutional failures when it came to handling allegations of sexual assault, then perhaps the university could build from the ashes a new and improved Baylor. But Baylor’s first two major hires, football coach Jim Grobe and athletic director Mack Rhoades, cast serious doubt on whether Baylor is making any progress.
Rhoades, who was announced as Baylor’s new athletic director last week, is bringing some baggage from the University of Missouri, where he held the same position for fifteen months. Last fall, Missouri erupted in protests over the university’s alleged mishandling of racial tensions on campus, according to the New York Times. Those tensions peaked in November, when dozens of black football players threatened to boycott their own season in an effort to force the university president to resign, which he later did. Then, in January, Missouri admitted its men’s basketball program violated NCAA rules dating back to 2011, and Rhoades self-imposed a one-year postseason ban and vacated all 23 wins from the 2013-2014 season, according to ESPN.
In the spring, members of the softball team announced they were playing under protest because they felt the athletics department was unfairly investigating allegations of verbal abuse by the team’s coach. “Student-athletes are expected to speak up when they see someone being treated unfairly,” the softball team wrote in a letter, according to the Kansas City Star. “We believe the administration should be held to the same standard, and should take action to put an end to Mack Rhoades’s long road of lies and hidden agendas. It is not fair to our coaches, players, and anyone that supports MU to let Mack Rhoades continue to undermine our athletic department and university.” (Rhoades continually defended his investigation).
When asked earlier this week about his time at Missouri, Rhoades told the Waco Tribune-Herald that he thinks the school is in a better place than it was before he started there. If that’s true, then it makes Rhoades’s willingness to jump from Missouri to a broken Baylor, a lateral move at best, seem rather odd. “I think certainly the culture has changed,” Rhoades said of the University of Missouri. “We’ve created a culture within that (Missouri) athletic department of we’re going to care about people. People come first. We’ll never do anything at the expense of people and we will create that same type of Christian culture here at Baylor University.” To do that, he’ll first have to convince his football coach, Grobe, that the culture actually needs changing.
Speaking to reporters during the Big 12 Conference’s media day on Tuesday, Grobe seemed dismissive toward the seriousness of Baylor’s sexual assault scandal. According to ESPN, Grobe bluntly said, “We don’t have a culture of bad behavior at Baylor University.” Of course, evidence seems to show overwhelmingly that isn’t the case. In its summary of the investigative report completed by independent law firm Pepper Hamilton in May, Baylor even admitted that it has “significant concerns about the tone and culture within Baylor’s football program as it relates to accountability for all forms of athlete misconduct.”
Grobe later tried to clarify his comments, saying that he meant to convey that he hadn’t noticed a culture of misconduct at Baylor so far during his short time on campus. But Grobe still seemed to downplay the extent of the scandal. “If you’re talking about culture that existed before I got there, where we didn’t deal with serious issues the way we should, probably so, but I was not here for that,” Grobe told Fox Sports. “I don’t mean to be disrespectful of anybody who has been violated, of anybody who has been a victim. What I do want for people to understand is the misbehavior of a few has hurt a lot of (people). We have a lot of (players’) parents that are really upset. They feel like their kids are doing great things but they’re being pulled into this so-called ‘culture of violence.’ I’m not disrespecting anything that happened before I got there. Obviously there were problems.”
Also disconcerting is the fact that Grobe has decided to keep the same staff that served under Briles intact, including defensive coordinator Phil Bennett, who had said before the 2015 season that he “expected” a player who he knew was facing rape charges to suit up and play. “If our assistant coaches’s conduct had been bad, if anybody told me that, if anybody can come to me to point out that the coaches have not behaved properly, then I would have no problems making changes. […] I think it’s the association with the program that hurt Phil,” Grobe told Fox, adding that while he has read the university’s summary of the investigative report, he has not been made aware of any specific staffers who were found to be at fault other than Briles, McCaw, and “a couple of support staffers” that he said he was told had already been dismissed.
As for how he would handle allegations of sexual assault against football players, Grobe said he came to Baylor to coach football, not to conduct investigations, and that he’ll take any sexual misconduct allegations directly to the university’s Title IX coordinator, then “go back to coaching and let her deal with it.” Grobe is clearly focused on football. “I’m an old West Virginia hillbilly, and we’ve got that feeling, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” Grobe told ESPN. “I’m not here to change things.”
None of this is what you want to hear from the man taking the reins of a program that is in absolute shambles off of the field.