Art Briles is Still Standing
MAY 24, 2016
That evening, they met behind Robinson Tower to avoid being seen. The group of men entered the back of the building and made their way up towards a conference room. This would be Art Briles’ last-ditch effort to explain his side of the story. A handful of Regents were present, with others on the conference call. Briles asked for the meeting and they obliged.
Briles had already received a heads-up phone call letting him know that his time at Baylor was over. A group of Regents had determined that amidst mounting media pressure over the sexual assault scandal they needed to part ways with Briles. Only, the Board didn’t have authority to fire him. That job had to be done by Ian McCaw or Ken Starr.
Inside the conference room in Robinson Tower, Briles sensed the awkwardness. He presented a few options of how to move forward and still stay on as the head coach. He suggested ways the Title IX process could be improved. He read the room and quickly understood the decision had already been made. This meeting was a courtesy, and nothing else.
When Briles asked for a specific reason why he was losing his job after eight historic years as Baylor’s football coach, he was told, “You’re not the right person to run the program.”
“It was a dagger in my heart,” Briles said.
For the last two years, much has been said about Art Briles.
But Art Briles hasn’t said much.
For those who know him, that comes as no surprise. Following his departure from Baylor, every sports and news show in the nation discussed and projected his role in the ‘coverup’ of sexual assaults by Baylor football players. While the allegations mounted, Briles limited his exposure to the media.
“If you want to be honest, I got bashed so bad,” Briles said. “I figured anything I said, people would say well this guy is just talking, trying to prove this or prove that. I’ve always lived by the quote ‘people may doubt what you say, but they’ll always believe what you do.’ If somebody wanted to go back and trace me on a daily basis through 38+ years of coaching, everybody I’ve dealt with day in and day out, there’s never been a single complaint filed against me. I just think your actions speak louder than your words. It’s like how my Dad raised me – if you’re good, somebody will tell you. You don’t have to tell them. You just keep your mouth shut. People can form the opinions they want to form. Someday we’ll all be judged accordingly. I don’t think it’s my spot or anybody else’s spot to rush to judgment.”
The most discussed interview was done on ESPN by Tom Rinaldi. The network hyped the interview for a week and teased portions of it during the College Gameday Kickoff. In the interview, Briles took responsibility for some of what happened at Baylor, and stated, “I feel responsibility. I mean, I do. These players are part of our program. And representative of our program. When they do wrong, it reflects on me.
So I do feel responsibility.” He was widely criticized for the interview. Supporters wished he hadn’t taken any of the blame and implicated himself. Detractors said he didn’t take nearly enough of the blame. For his part, Briles is still evaluating the impact the interview had on his prospects of ever finding another head coaching job.
“The ESPN deal, I was pretty weak at the time,” he said. “I was given some information on how to respond, and that either was or wasn’t the right thing to do. At the time, you just don’t know.”
* * *
“What do you think, Jan? Have I changed?”
His wife of 40 years looks at him with a smile, like she can’t tell if he’s joking or not.
“Yeah,” she said. “We all have.”
Over the last two years, Art Briles has been laying low in the Texas Hill Country. He spends several hours every day writing. He’s also been developing a new offense he describes as “revolutionary” and like “a self-driving car”, and stays in constant contact with the bevy of coaches who have worked with him in the past.
His son, Kendal, is the offensive coordinator at Houston. Others in his coaching tree are spread among schools around the nation and in the NFL.
“I stay extremely involved. Probably more so than they want,” he laughs. “Asking questions, and offering unsolicited advice.”
For Briles, these men and their families are at the center of the burden he still carries from what happened at Baylor. When the Baylor football empire was dismantled, Briles felt responsibility for those who had been lost in the rubble and struggled to clear their names.
“I’m not sure many people have been through this like a lot of us have, not just me,” he said, referring to coaches and staff who lost their jobs. “The effect of the fallout, if you want to call it that, start with victims who have certainly suffered, and will probably continue to do so for a long time. Then you look at the families. The coaches. Staff. It hurts you. It hurts your soul. It hurts me particularly. Those were all people I love and care about. I feel a basis of responsibility from the fallout of it. That takes a big chunk out of your life and your spirit, quite honestly. I’m not content. I’m not satisfied. But I’m okay. I’ve got most of my health. I’m 62 years old, and I’m starting over again. But I’m okay doing that. All those people (coaches) are having to start over. It’s like they never were in the profession. They can’t get jobs. I’m not the only one that couldn’t get a job. As time goes on it helps, because they get a chance to be known as people, and not as labels. You’re labeled. You’re judged differently. It lets you see a different side of humanity, and that’s disturbing. It really is.”
We sit on the front porch of a coffee shop off a main road. His wife, Jan, has also joined us. For a football coach, Briles is soft-spoken. At times, his responses are inaudible over the sound of cars driving past. He works out every day and is lean, wearing a black track jacket and black cap, just as he did so often during his time at Baylor. Except, these have no BU logo. For someone who has been scrutinized by the media, he is surprisingly forthright and joyful, although he admits that there were times in the past few years where he has dealt with depression.
“Am I a different person?” Briles said. “Yeah. I don’t think I’m nearly as confident as I was earlier. You feel like people look at you differently. You lived your life in public view. People say I know him, he’s a good guy, good person, good family man, cares about kids. Then you have other people that are saying different things about you. It shells you a little bit. I’m certainly different. No doubt. Sadly, I think the thing that helped me be a good person and, if you want to say, a good coach, is that I was loyal and I trusted people. I’ve always given people the benefit of the doubt. I’ve always expected good out of people until they prove me wrong. Then you judge from there. But I’ve never prejudged anybody. With everything that transpired a couple years ago, my trust factor is certainly lower. I think I’m still extremely loyal, but with a lot tighter group than I was before. Sadly, that’s something that’s changed about me.”
Briles wants to make something abundantly clear: he isn’t bitter about what happened.
“It’s hurtful. Not bitter,” he clarified. “That’s the difference. I’ve never been bitter, from day one. I’ve always been grateful and thankful for where I’ve been, for the people I’ve been able to represent and become good friends with. I have a lot of great friends from my time at Baylor. Great people. A lot of great memories. Why should I let a minority of 5-7 people destroy my feelings for thousands? I’m not that way.”
Perhaps the story of Art Briles would have faded away over time as someone who simply got the short end of the stick, or as a captain who sunk with the ship. His defenders would slowly give up hope for justice, and resign to the fact that because of how the investigation was handled, the real truth would never be revealed.
Until, Dolores Lozano brought a lawsuit against him.
Until, a Jane Doe sexual assault case was brought against Baylor, requiring depositions from key players like former Athletic Director Ian McCaw. Those depositions are slowly being made public.
“Ian knows everything,” Briles said.
* * *
Briles recalls the first time he was introduced to the attorneys from Pepper Hamilton.
“When they initially came to us, they said these people are here to help us. They came in my office with Chris Holmes, Doug Welch, and Ian (McCaw) and introduced them. They said, 'Hey these people are here on campus to help us.' To make sure we are doing everything we can to protect students. They were kind of there at that time investigating the Sam Ukwuachu case. That’s kind of what brought it all about.”
The attorneys’ names were Gina Maisto Smith and Leslie M. Gomez.
McCaw introduced the women as lawyers from a firm in Philadelphia, and explained that they would be helping Baylor work through some of their Title IX issues.
To Briles, Title IX was a fairly new concept. No one in the football department had in-person training until 2015. As he recalls, his first introduction to Title IX training came in the form of an instructional video that was attached to an email sent to him.
Some time later, it became clear that Pepper Hamilton was doing a more thorough investigation than Briles or anyone else in the football department anticipated. They were granted access to eight years of his email and text messages, and began meeting with individual coaches. According to reports, they never interviewed any of the players.
Briles sat down with the Pepper Hamilton attorneys on two different occasions.
“The first time was probably two and a half hours. The second time, probably an hour,” he said. “As it went on, we could sense they were taking a different turn. I didn’t have an agent. But other coaches had agents saying I need to get a lawyer. If you’re going to sit in there, you need to have a lawyer. A representative. Because the angle had changed and they were trying to implicate some people. I asked about it to higher-ups, at least twice and maybe three times, and they said no, it can’t happen. That was a mistake. It was a mistake that none of it was recorded, supposedly. They were on a conference call back in Philadelphia. They could have been back in Philadelphia with a recorder. But when they were talking to us, they said it was not recorded.”
Briles is careful about how he discusses the investigation, just as he has been since the beginning. He still trusts that justice will prevail.
“It’d be a safe call to say they were mission-oriented,” he said. “I’m not here to bash or blame or protect or hide. Apparently, and I think it’s been proven, that there’s been a lot of failure from a lot of sides. As transparency becomes more public, interviews like this won’t need to be done. The facts will finally speak. Right now, everybody is putting a spin on it. Everybody is creating their own narrative. The facts will speak the narrative. At the end of the day, that’s what will determine exactly what went down and why.”
Despite all that has happened, Briles is still holding out hope. He wants justice for the victims. He wants the stigma removed from his former coaches, staff, and players. He wants everything that has been in the dark to come into the light.
And he wants his name back.
During the ESPN interview, when asked about the meaning of his name, Briles, fighting back tears, said, “I certainly hope it means honor. Integrity. Passion. And care. It means it to me.”
Defending a family name is a key factor in understanding who Art Briles is today, who he has always been, and why he is so determined to find justice. As a twenty-year-old football player, his parents were tragically killed in an automobile accident on the way to see him play. Since then, he has felt the responsibility to carry on his family name with integrity. He feels that the allegations levied at him over the last two years are a direct insult to his name, and thus to his parents’ legacy.
“All I really want is my name back,” Briles said. “That’s what I want.”
After the ESPN interview, the media blitz against the Briles name was just beginning.
In October of 2016, a highly-contested article came out in the Wall Street Journal that detailed the alleged sexual assault problems within the football program, making a case for why Briles was fired. They ran text messages from Briles about player discipline, and suggested he had helped cover up serious allegations. The remaining coaches from Briles’ staff fumed in the office of new Athletic Director Mack Rhoades.
According to a recent deposition of former Athletic Director Ian McCaw, a few members of the Board of Regents, with the help of G.F Bunting and Co, a public relations firm hired by Baylor, steered the article to the Wall Street Journal. The article claimed that 17 women had reported assaults by 19 players since 2011. For Briles, it was the first time he was hearing much of the information, and the article detailed stories he wasn’t aware existed.
The allegations laid forth in the article all but ensured Art Briles would not be hired by another university.
Six months later, in a letter dated May 23, 2017, Baylor General Counsel, Christopher W. Holmes wrote to Briles:
“In particular, at this time we are unaware of any situation where you personally had contact with anyone who directly reported to you being the victim of sexual assault or that you directly discouraged the victim of an alleged sexual assault from reporting to law enforcement or University officials. Nor are we aware of any situation where you played a student athlete who had been found responsible for sexual assault.
We wish you the very best in your future endeavors.”
* * *
Briles made political errors along the way.
After beating TCU 61-58 during the 2014 season and finishing with an identical record, Big XII Commissioner Bob Bowlsby decided to label the two teams co-champions of the Big XII. To Briles, and others, this meant Baylor would not be one of the final four teams in the College Football Playoff. He berated Bowlsby at the trophy ceremony, and cameras caught the exchange.
“We turned it upside down. I will say that,” Briles said. “It changed the whole dynamics of who the power brokers were on the football field. And off. That’s why I fought so hard for the College Football Playoff, and supported and defended our football team. I knew it would hurt me professionally and personally with the commissioner of the Big XII. It was the right thing to do. I did truthfully feel like Baylor was getting slighted and judged by decades prior, instead of the present. I was being loyal to the university and loyal to our team.”
When news broke about the sexual assault scandal, Briles was isolated. There was no power structure left to appeal to.
Briles has been paying close attention to the new developments in the Jane Doe 1-10 case – a case that has been releasing depositions to the public about what happened during the sexual assault scandal. For those who are unaware, 10 Jane Does are being represented by Waco attorney and Baylor alum Jim Dunnam, and they are suing Baylor for its handling of sexual assault. The lawsuit, which has become a lightning rod on campus and in the community, is reopening old wounds that many hoped had closed. Unsavory details have been slowly leaking through court filings.
The conversation around the lawsuit accelerated when former Athletic Director Ian McCaw’s testimony was released. The motion revealed that McCaw told lawyers he believes Briles, the athletic department, and black football players specifically were made scapegoats of the scandal.
Baylor has vehemently denied these allegations, and has sought to limit the discovery in the Jane Doe case, presumably because the scope of Dunnam’s inquiries are broader than what is relevant to the case. Baylor has also continued to point to the implementation of 105 recommendations made by Pepper Hamilton and to a summary of findings of fact. An actual report of those facts has never been released to the public.
Because there was no written report released to the public, the revelations of the depositions have created a sense of he said/she said over who is telling the truth, and how that truth can be proven or disproven. For many alumni and supporters of Briles, the series of depositions has cast further doubt on Pepper Hamilton’s summary of findings, and brought scrutiny over the $4.2 million paid to the firm. It is currently unclear if Baylor will settle the Jane Doe case, or if the case is headed to trial. In the second scenario, many of the questions Briles has been asking privately will be asked publicly.
Briles isn’t holding his breath for a trial, but he is hopeful those involved will continue to speak out about their experiences.
“These are things I’ve known all along,” Briles said. “I didn’t know to what degree until last year or so, because I wasn’t privy to all the behind the scenes, covert actions going on. It takes time for the other side to get out. Truth takes time. It’s a shame that it has to happen this way. Open the door. Turn the light on. Be upfront and honest from the get go. And whatever happens, happens.”
When asked if he has any concern for what else could be revealed in regard to his role in this ongoing investigation, Briles firmly replied, “No. Lord, no. Of course not. No. The more transparency, the more soul that will return to many people. If you’re going to destroy people, the closet light better be on and the door open. If you’re going to tear someone down, that house better be strong.”
“There is hope,” Jan added. “It’s going to come back around. It has to.”
* * *
Along with released depositions, several of Briles’ former coaches and players have been speaking out.
Phil Bennett, Briles’ former defensive coordinator at Baylor, also did an interview with Mac Engle in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram where Bennett described his experience with Pepper Hamilton, and doubled down on Ian McCaw’s comments that some of the findings were racially motivated. He also suggested the Pepper Hamilton attorneys had no sense of normal football culture, and overplayed common practices like making players run for being late and handling that punishment in-house, rather than reporting it to the University.
Briles saw the Bennett article as well.
“He’s spot on,” Briles said of Bennett. “My experience was the very same. Very disturbing. Kind of eye-opening, honestly. To see people who have never been around the sport, collegiate athletics or high school athletics, and maybe intramurals. To have people who don’t understand any of the dynamics of athletes, coaches, universities, and everything that’s involved in daily activities. It was like taking a first grader and trying to teach them trigonometry. It was very disturbing, to be honest. I don’t want to delve into the race issue right now because I think there will be a different time and place for that, which I think will show a lot more clarity. But I can tell you Phil Bennett was 100% spot on.”
In a separate lawsuit, a sexual assault survivor named Dolores Lozano has been attempting to sue Briles. Briles’ attorneys filed their own motion that has become public and added texture to the Jane Doe case. The 35-page motion addresses and discredits some of the most serious allegations aimed at Briles, including his handling of Sam Ukwuachu and the alleged “gang rape” of a Baylor volleyball player.
Baylor released a statement in regard to Briles’ motion which reads in part: “The continued efforts of Art Briles and his supporters over the past two years to rewrite history cannot go unchallenged. Just as when he was coach, he again attempts to skirt responsibility for actions of the football program he led, the players he recruited and coached, the coaches he managed, and the loose discipline he championed . . . Much of Briles’ response relies on hearsay and narratives that Baylor previously debunked as “factually baseless and borderline ludicrous.”
The University paid Briles a settlement of $15.1 million.
* * *
“I’m not going to learn Italian,” Briles said with his famous West Texas drawl. “I’m going to teach them Texan.”
Art Briles has been hired as the head football coach of the Estra Guelfi Football Club in Florence, Italy.
Since that night in Robinson Tower, he has been trying to return to the field. After he was fired, Briles believed finding another job in college football would happen within the year. That’s at least part of the reason he dropped a lawsuit against Baylor for wrongful termination. Except, no universities lined up to bring him in. The phone didn’t ring. His name, which is still far more important to him than any amount of money, had become toxic.
In August of 2017, he was offered a head coaching job in the Canadian Football League, only to have the offer revoked under media backlash. Four months later, a scheduled speech at the American Football Coaches Association was canceled for the same reason.
“There’s been other situations that are similar, but not quite as publicly known,” Briles said. “I’ve wondered if I’d ever coach again. Stressed over it. Been sad over it. There’s two things that keep you going, and that’s faith and hope. I have both of those. I’ve always thought if people judge you by what you do and say, not by what they read and hear, the opportunity would come again.”
Coaching football in Italy was never on his radar. The job originated with a random text message.
“It was kind of strange,” Briles said. “I never even knew they played football in Italy to begin with. This person named Edoardo got a hold of me and just said, “Hey coach, I’ve been keeping up.” He had read a Mac Engel article. He said, “I understand what went on and you deserve another chance to get back on the field.” I kind of looked into it. I’ve been itching to get back to coaching the last few years because it’s all I’ve ever done. It’s all I’ve ever had a passion to do.”
In October, Art and Jan Briles will board a plane for Italy, four months after celebrating their 40-year wedding anniversary.
“I can’t wait,” Jan said. “The negative is leaving and not seeing the kids, but they can come visit us. And it’s not forever.”
Briles added, “You know, I think it will be an opportunity to have a great experience at this time in our lives. We’re looking at this like a great adventure. We’ve never been to Florence.”
His only knowledge of the Estra Guelfi program is from what he has been able to find online, and what he has discussed in phone conversations. Even though his knowledge of the program is limited, he is excited to build a powerhouse, much like he has done at Stephenville High School, the University of Houston and Baylor. He’s already identified the date of the league championship on his calendar, presumably because he believes his team will be playing that day.
“I’m going to be able to take a couple of ex-players over there with me, and another dual citizenship guy, and the rest are Italian players. Coaching is coaching. Players are players. Men are men,” Briles said, considering that he has never coached a team outside of Texas. “They play all the way up to 42 years old (in Italy). A lot of these guys have families and children. It’s a very family-style atmosphere. Jan will tell you, if I was coaching at a junior high I’d be happy right now. Just as long as I’m coaching. You can use your innovation and ideas and schemes and dreams, and it doesn’t matter what level you’re at. I’m excited to be able to do some new things I’ve been working on the last two years from an offensive schematic standpoint in Italy, that, quite honestly, I think will be revolutionary.
“My favorite moments are in the dark room with a video, analyzing schemes and personnel. To me, it was always like a puzzle. Finding out what needs to go where at a high efficiency. I miss the intellectual part. And of course, the camaraderie with the coaches and student athletes. But you know at the end of the day, it’s really just about trying to help other people fulfill their potential. You ask what I miss the most, that’s it. I got to see a lot of student athletes who might have been told they’re not disciplined enough, not smart enough, not talented enough, to stay the course and get a college degree. The greatest joy for me was seeing a kid graduate from college, where he’s a first-generation college graduate. To me, that helps them personally and makes them a better father and husband. It makes better citizens.”
When visiting friends or other football programs, Briles often finds himself driving past McLane Stadium in Waco. Initially, it was painful.
“I’ve tried to separate emotion as much as I can, which is hard to do,” he said. “I’m grateful I got to coach in it for a couple of years. And grateful that I got to see Baylor go from the first step on the ladder to the last one.”
He is careful to distinguish between the institution and those he believes were responsible for what happened to his family and his name.
“I have respect and love for Baylor University. I don’t hold any ill towards Baylor or the people that make up the university,” he said. “I was very grateful and very thankful for eight and a half really good years. Good times and good people. A few of the things I’m proud of are that we had the highest GPA in the history of the University in the spring of 2016 in the football department. We led the graduation rate in the Big XII seven out of the eight years I was there. There were some really good things we are proud of, and seeing first generation graduates, and seeing second and third generation Baylor graduates. Watching that legacy continue on. I got to see a community and university change how they were perceived. The City of Waco certainly changed because of Baylor, and Baylor changed because of the City of Waco. Both of them grew together and gained new respect from around the country. That was invigorating and fun. And I’m grateful for it,” Briles said. “For Baylor University, I have nothing but love and cherished memories.”