The greatest coach in the history of Baylor football tried to launch a redemption tour this summer. To say it hasn’t gone very well is being polite.
Art Briles might be the best college coach this side of Nick Saban, but he’s lost his grip on reality. Acting on the advice of Hall of Famer Bill Parcells and others, Briles spent the past few weeks visiting NFL training camps under the guise of seeing some of his former players. This may have been good advice had Briles simply visited with NFL coaches and not talked to reporters. I walked over to say hello to him after a Cowboys practice in Oxnard, California. We were quickly surrounded by a large group of reporters, and Briles made his most extensive comments since being fired by Baylor for his role in the school’s sexual assault scandal.
“I’m dumbfounded and trying to process everything as it goes, but it is what it is,” Briles said. “Reality is reality and so what I’ve got to do is redefine myself and start a new chapter. And that’s what I’m doing.”
In the spirit of transparency, here’s some quick background notes on yours truly: I’m a fourth-generation Baylor alum (we skipped my grandparents) whose father played defensive tackle for the Bears in the late sixties. I have been friends with Briles since soon after he stepped on campus. He and I have spoken since his firing, but like most folks I don’t know exactly why he was fired while his assistants kept their jobs. What I do know is he desperately wants to coach again. He’s told me he’ll go anywhere in the nation. But even folks close to him have their doubts.
“Art’s future would be better in professional football for a number of reasons,” said legendary Dallas Cowboys director of personnel Gil Brandt, who has served as a headhunter for schools in the past. “It’s very hard for someone to hire Art Briles. I think the world of the man, and everything I know about him is good. But if you have to go to your president, it’s going to be tough.”
What Briles did at Baylor is one of the most remarkable turnarounds in the history of college football. I had a front-row seat to the post-Grant Teaff era. I was there on behalf of the Dallas Morning News the night Kevin Steele took a team to Albuquerque, New Mexico, and lost to the Lobos, 23-0. Asked where his team would go from there, Steele simply said, “Home.” Baylor was only in the Big 12 because of the political clout of Governor Ann Richards and Lieutenant Governor Bob Bullock. I retained season tickets only because my father kept paying for them.
If not for Briles, there’s no way Drayton McLane Jr. puts up the money for a gorgeous stadium on the banks of the Brazos River. Those two remain close despite everything that’s happened. McLane declined comment for this column, but sources have told me he’s still advising Briles as he attempts his comeback.
Given the reaction to Briles’ recent comments at the Cowboys’ and Texans’ training camps, he’s been advised to stop talking to the media. Briles has hired the powerful agent Jimmy Sexton in an effort to land a job for the 2017 season. Sexton has represented Parcells, but now he’s known as one of the biggest power brokers in college football. Sexton reps Alabama’s Nick Saban, Florida State’s Jimbo Fisher and Auburn’s Gus Malzahn. Briles and Malzahn have a close relationship, which explains how one of his former Baylor recruits, Kameron Martin, is now a running back at Auburn. Sexton declined comment, but someone he knows very well, Jerry Jones, was willing to speak on Briles’ behalf.
“I think he has such a distinguished coaching career that . . . I will vouch for him as a person,” Jones said during Briles’ visit to training camp. “He’s top quality as a person. I’d want my grandson if he had the chance, to play for him.”
I believe Briles is still in denial about what’s happened to him. When McLane and Rangers principal co-owner Bob Simpson are your biggest backers, there’s a feeling of invincibility that takes hold. This was evident in late May when Briles sent a now infamous tweet touting his program’s graduation rates.
Even now, Briles doesn’t seem to have a grasp of the enormity of the scandal. If he’s going to talk to reporters, he needs to show contrition for what happened on his watch. Those close to him insist his biggest fault was delegating too much to others on his staff and not keeping a close enough watch on the program.
“I’ve coached for 38 years, lived the right way sixty years of my life, never done anything illegal, immoral or unethical,” he told reporters in Houston. “You know, if you lose your dog, all of a sudden you’re looking around hard for him. You’ll stay up late at night looking for him. I’ve lost my dog, my dog’s football, and I’m ready to go find him again.”
I don’t think Briles truly meant he’s lived a perfect life, but the comments didn’t play well. I’ve been around him enough to know he was trying to charm a group of reporters with that analogy, but this isn’t the time. When I recently asked him for comment about the scandal at Baylor, Briles said, via text, “I’m very sorry for the victims. I always am thinking about their pain. It’s a sad fact that any female should face those types of fears.”
What will happen sometime in the next few weeks is a sit-down TV interview in which Briles will have an opportunity to answer more specific questions about the scandal. It’s hard to know exactly what led to his firing because his name isn’t mentioned in the “findings of fact” from the Pepper Hamilton report. I would expect Briles to be much more apologetic about his role in the scandal. It’s obvious he and his advisors believe this interview might provide him an opportunity to show he’s ready for another opportunity.
Former college assistant coach Jed Hughes leads a team at Korn Ferry International that recommends coaches and GMs to college and pro teams. He recently recommended Hue Jackson to the Cleveland Browns and Charlie Strong to Texas. Hughes brought up former Ohio State coach Jim Tressel as an example of someone who wasn’t hired again at the college level.
“He was a lot more successful than Art was,” said Hughes. “And he had a lot stronger reputation. He has a better chance in the NFL, but I would have a hard time presenting him as a credible candidate at either level. The only thing that can calm this down is time.”
I’ve been told by sources Briles refused to meet with University of Texas officials three years ago unless they told him he was their first pick. That could’ve led to bad blood between Hughes and Briles, although neither man confirmed that for this column.
I tend to agree with Brandt that it will be difficult for a college president to sign off on hiring Briles when it’s likely he’ll remain under investigation. That president would want to find out more specifics from the Pepper Hamilton report, but he or she will have to stand in line. The fact there’s nothing in print can either serve as a veil of protection for Briles or perhaps make it more difficult for him to be hired. His best bet might be to become a quarterbacks or wide receivers coach in the NFL next season, and then try to land a college job in 2018. But it only takes one school president who is willing to deal with all the blowback to give Briles a shot. It’s worth noting Herman is represented by Trace Armstrong, who is part of Sexton’s CAA group. It’s not hard to imagine a scenario where Baylor hires Hermann while Briles returns to his alma mater. Some of that might depend on whether Texas A&M and UT retain their coaches after this season.
With the Cougars on the cusp of gaining entrance to the Big 12, this might be a best-case scenario for Briles. I can assure you it wouldn’t be a best-case scenario for conference commissioner Bob Bowlsby.
Briles will likely try to convince prospective employers that he was scapegoated by Baylor’s board of regents. He’ll point to the fact the school kept nearly every one of his assistants. But any school that hires Briles will know he’s not out of the woods when it comes to Title IX lawsuits or a potential NCAA investigation.
Briles may be working on a unrealistic timetable for landing a college job. But if he’s looking for his “second chance” in the NFL, Jerry Jones is a great guy to know. He’s offered a halfway house for players for many years. Surely he can find a spot for Briles.
And regarding Jerry’s grandson comment, John Stephen Jones is currently the star quarterback for Highland Park. Briles would be wise to start angling for the Arkansas job immediately.