Baylor's Art Briles is built to last

Originally Published: November 5, 2013
By Mark Schlabach | ESPN.com

WACO, Texas -- Reminders of the worst day of Baylor coach Art Briles' life come every year like clockwork. There are a few dates on the calendar -- his parents' birthdays, their wedding day, holidays and, of course, the anniversary of their tragic deaths -- that tug the painful memories from the back of his mind.

Briles, 57, has never forgotten how much his life changed on Oct. 16, 1976. Nearly four decades later, the deep emotional wounds still fester because he never allowed them to heal. How could they? Briles still shoulders much of the blame for the deaths of his parents, Dennis and Wanda, and his beloved aunt, Elsie "Tottie" Kittley, who was more like a grandmother to him.

"I think about them every day, every second," Briles said, while sitting in his dark office last month. "I can sit here right now and know that tomorrow is the anniversary of it. It never leaves you."

At nearly every stop in his coaching career, from West Texas high schools to the University of Houston to Baylor, Briles has somehow molded perennial losers into winners. His family, close friends, former players and assistant coaches say Briles has an extraordinary ability to persuade others into believing that anything is possible, even for football programs that have never won.

"I was blown away by his ability to instill confidence in his players and the people he's around," said Texas Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury, who played quarterback for the Red Raiders when Briles was an assistant there from 2000 to 2003. "He always made you feel like you were 10 feet tall and bulletproof."

It kind of jolts the soul and spirit, you know? All of the sudden, you look down and there's not a net anymore. When you're falling, you're falling. One day everything is good and then the next day you're wondering where you're going for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Fortunately, I'd been raised right long enough to understand that there's a purpose in life.

--Baylor coach Art Briles

Briles embraced the underdog role after that tragic day so many years ago, when his life was shattered in an instant as a 20-year-old. It was an experience that taught him to recognize unseen potential in jobs nobody else wanted and allowed him to convince the people around him that they were capable of accomplishing anything.

"It was kind of a hopeless time, to say the least," Briles said. "It kind of jolts the soul and spirit, you know? All of the sudden, you look down and there's not a net anymore. When you're falling, you're falling. One day everything is good and then the next day you're wondering where you're going for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Fortunately, I'd been raised right long enough to understand that there's a purpose in life.

"Very easily, I could have gone down a wrong path with alcohol or an undriven lifestyle. But I decided I was going to try to live nobly for my parents' name and honor. If anything good came out of it, I think it's that I've learned to care and respect people differently than I would have."

Over the years, Briles rarely talked about the details of his parents' deaths, even with his three children. His wife, Jan, his high school sweetheart from their hometown of Rule, Texas, helped him cope and recover from the tragedy, but Briles seldom shared his sorrow or guilt with anyone else.

"Honestly, I've never mentioned it to anybody, other than maybe some players who have been in similar situations as I was trying to help them," Briles said. "It's not a topic I like to share or talk about. It hurts. You don't like to talk about things that hurt."

The subject wasn't taboo in the Briles home; it was simply never discussed.

"He says he doesn't like talking about it," said Kendal Briles, who played for his father at Stephenville (Texas) High School and Houston and now works as Baylor's passing game coordinator and receivers coach. "I think the most I ever heard about my grandparents growing up was my dad saying, 'My dad would have loved to see you play,' when I was in high school. That was the extent of it."

Jancy Briles, Art's daughter, who works as the media relations coordinator for the Dallas Cowboys, barely remembers a time when her father spoke about her grandparents.

"Our mom would tell us today was the day they were killed or today was his dad's birthday or his mom's birthday, and that's why he was a little off or sad," Jancy Briles said. "She said holidays were always sad for him. I don't know who told us the story; it just kind of came up. We understood it was something he didn't want to talk about. I don't know that he ever dealt with it. His way of handling it was moving on and honoring them."

For nearly 40 years, Briles kept his feelings and guilt about his parents' death bottled up inside. Finally, at the urging of Jancy, Briles shared his story of recovery and perseverance in his autobiography, "Looking Up: My Journey from Tragedy to Triumph," which was released last month. The book is a blueprint of a man who has made a living winning at places where few others have ever won.

"I think a lot of it has to do with what happened to my mother and father," Briles said. "I've been where nobody ever wants to go. I've been in the dark room. What are you going to do? Send me back there? I've been there, so I'm not intimidated or fearful of things not being the way you want them to be. If they are that way, you're still going to make it and you're still going to be fine."


Briles TombstoneCourtesy of Triumph BooksArt Briles' parents, Dennis and Wanda, as well as his aunt Elsie Kittley, were killed in a car accident in 1976 as they drove to watch Art play in the Cotton Bowl.

After Art Briles stepped onto the Cotton Bowl field on Oct. 16, 1976, he could sense something wasn't quite right. He looked into the stands for his parents and aunt, but didn't see them. Briles knew his family members were supposed to be there; he'd spoken with his mother on the telephone the night before. Dennis and Wanda Briles had planned to make the 200-mile drive from Rule to Dallas to watch their son play for the Houston Cougars against SMU. Dennis, who coached Art in high school before retiring, worked as the principal of Rule High School and was the small town's mayor.

[+] EnlargeArt Briles
Courtesy of Triumph BooksArt Briles, right, played quarterback for his father, Dennis, at Rule High School.

Art tried to discourage his parents from coming to the Cotton Bowl because he wasn't sure how much he would play, if at all. But Wanda told Art that she and his father weren't going to pass up an opportunity to see him. A former standout quarterback at Rule High, where he led his team to the Texas Class B state championship game as a senior in 1973 (the Bobcats lost to Big Sandy High, which was led by future Chicago Bears coach Lovie Smith), Briles moved to receiver at Houston. But now Briles' knee throbbed and he feared there was serious damage. It was another setback in an injury-filled college career; he broke his wrist in the final scrimmage before the 1975 season after redshirting the previous year.

When the Cougars returned to the field after coach Bill Yeoman's pregame speech, Briles looked into the stands again. He still didn't see his family, which made him uneasy. The No. 19 Cougars defeated the Mustangs 29-6, then Briles made his way to Houston's locker room to shower. But before Briles reached the door, Yeoman stopped him and pulled him into a small room, where he broke the tragic news he had learned only 30 minutes before kickoff: Briles' parents and aunt were killed in a car accident outside of Newcastle, Texas.

According to Briles' autobiography, his parents and aunt had left Rule in Dennis' beige Ford LTD about 8 a.m., but didn't make it even halfway to Dallas. As they were approaching a hill on Highway 380, a tanker truck trying to pass another truck veered into their lane. Their car was hit head-on by the tanker truck, and they were killed instantly. The driver of the truck suffered a broken arm. No criminal charges were ever filed.

"It was a terrible situation," said Yeoman, who coached at Houston from 1962 to 1986 and now works in the athletics department's development office. "It was horrible. You really don't know what in the world to say. We visited briefly, but I don't know what you say to a young man who endures something like that."

It might have even been worse. Briles' girlfriend, Jan Allison, who would later become his wife, also had planned to go to the game with his parents, but she stayed in Rule for a friend's bridal shower during a weekend break from school at Texas Tech.

"If there's a shining light out of all of it, that's it," Art said. "Jan could have been in the car, too. She's been very important to me because she's been rock-solid. She's been really good for me."

Briles and his older brother, Eddie, weren't the only ones grieving the deaths of their loved ones. The small town of Rule, with a population of only a few thousand residents at the time, was grief-stricken over the loss of its mayor and high school principal, his wife and her sister. Wanda Briles was a special education teacher at the high school and was raised by her older sister, "Tottie," after their mother died during Wanda's birth. Art's aunt became more like a grandmother to him, taking him and his brother on annual camping trips to Colorado.

[+] EnlargeArt Briles
Courtesy of Triumph BooksAs a child, Briles went on camping trips to Colorado with his aunt "Tottie," who was killed in the accident along with Briles' parents.

"In Rule, everybody knew who the mayor was," said Texas Tech track and field coach Wes Kittley, a Rule native and one of Briles' closest friends. "It was really devastating for a small town."

That Sunday morning, Art and Eddie drove to nearby Haskell, where a department store opened so they could purchase sports coats and pants for the funeral. The towns are separated by only about 10 miles, but it seemed to take them forever to get there. Eddie was driving, while Art sat dazed and silent in the passenger's seat.

"We drove on the shoulder for about 45 minutes or an hour," Eddie said. "We wanted to make sure we weren't hit in a head-on collision."

Art and Eddie also had to select a gravestone for their parents.

"They suggested something like, 'In memory of our parents,'" Eddie said. "But Art said he wanted it to say, 'In honor of our parents.' He just said, 'I believe in honor.' He was 20 years old."

The funeral was Monday, only two days after their parents and aunt were killed. The memorial service was held at the high school gymnasium in Rule because none of the local churches could accommodate the overflowing crowd. More than 450 people packed the gym with the three closed caskets.

As Art and Eddie made their way to a nearby cemetery to bury their parents and aunt, John Greeson, pastor at the Rule Church of Christ, walked with them. According to Briles' biography, he told Greeson, "Preacher, please tell me God didn't take my momma and daddy."

"No, son, God didn't do this," Greeson answered. "It was a bad, tragic accident."

Then Art replied: "When's all this going to end?"

"I think Art was asking me when the funeral would end, but my thought at the time was that he was asking me when he was going to get over all that happened," Greeson told ESPN.com. "I told him it was going to take time and he'd have to allow God to help him. We don't get over it in a day or a week or a year. Maybe he never will."

Greeson, who still lives in Rule, suspected that Briles was dealing with the tragedy as well as someone his age could. He didn't know that Briles felt responsibility for the accident, guilt he still lives with today.

"I do," Briles said. "I really do. If I hadn't been playing, it would have never happened. They were coming to see me."

As much as Briles' family and friends have tried over the years, they haven't been able to convince him that it wasn't his fault his parents and aunt died.

"I've always felt no blame for what happened," Eddie said. "It was just meant to happen. I've never felt it was his fault or he was the cause of their deaths. They were doing something they wanted to do. Dad retired from coaching to go see Art play."

Briles returned to Houston about a week after his parents' funeral, but wouldn't stay for long. After undergoing surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament after the 1976 season, Art packed his bags and returned to Rule. He never told his coach or teammates goodbye. Eddie had moved into their parents' house, but Art didn't think he could live there, so he moved in with Jan's family. He joined her at Texas Tech the next fall. Art never played another down of intercollegiate football.

"I feel really bad for him," Kittley said. "It's just in him. It doesn't matter who tells him it wasn't his fault, I know he feels in his gut that they were going to see him play. He still feels guilt about it and it's not going to change."

After Briles enrolled at Texas Tech, he never attended a Red Raiders football game. He watched local high school games, perhaps because Friday nights were when he and his father spent the most time together. Eventually, Art figured out that coaching was in his blood. 

Briles proposed to Jan on Christmas Day 1977, and they were married in Rule on June 8, 1978. Art drove a forklift at a warehouse as a part-time job while finishing his bachelor's degree at Texas Tech, then took an assistant coaching job at Sundown High School after graduation. He moved to Sweetwater High School the next year and stayed there for four seasons.

[+] EnlargeArt Briles high school
Triumph BooksBriles became a hot coaching commodity at Stephenville High School, where he won four state championships before moving to the college ranks as an assistant at Texas Tech.

In 1984, Briles was named the head coach and athletic director at Hamlin High School, a Class 2A school located about 45 miles from Abilene. Briles inherited a team that had gone 12-1 the previous season and guided it to an unblemished record in his first regular season as a head coach. The Pied Pipers breezed through the first three rounds of the state playoffs before facing Panhandle High School in a state quarterfinal game in Childress. Hamlin High's offense stalled, and the score was tied 7-7 entering the fourth quarter. Briles realized his split-back veer offense wouldn't break Panhandle High's bigger and stronger defense, so he decided to spread out his offense when it got the ball back.

By using a shotgun snap in one-back or no-back formations, Briles figured he could counter his opponent's brute strength by getting the football to his faster skill players in open space. Alas, the Pied Pipers never got the ball back, as Panhandle High controlled possession for the entire fourth quarter. The game ended in a 7-7 tie, but the Pied Pipers lost on penetration and first downs, as there weren't yet overtime rules in place. Hamlin High used a spread offense the next season, averaging 41.6 points and outscoring its opponents 416-26 in the regular season.

Briles' spread offense was born, along with much of the offensive philosophy he still uses today. On that cold, windy West Texas night, Briles decided his teams would play fast and score fast.

"I saw right then that we were going to go up against people that were better than us," Briles said. "At the end of the day, you better do something different if you're going to win. We went shotgun and one-back and just did it. I don't recall many other people doing it at the time. It was something we felt gave us an edge."

Eventually, Briles landed at Stephenville High School, a Class 4A school located about 70 miles southwest of Fort Worth. Under Briles, the Yellow Jackets, who hadn't reached the state playoffs since 1952, won Class 4A state championships in 1993 and '94 and 1998 and '99. In 1998, Stephenville High set a national high school record for total offense.

"He's a fighter," said Baylor offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Philip Montgomery, who also worked under Briles for six seasons at Stephenville High. "'No' is never the answer, and he's always going to find a way to make whatever he wants done work."

After Kendal Briles led the Yellow Jackets to a 16-0 record and state championship as a junior in 1999, Art wasn't sure there was much left for him to accomplish in high school football. He was ready to try his hand at the college game.


He started by joining Texas Tech coach Mike Leach's staff in 2000 as a running backs coach. In Lubbock, Briles was surrounded by many of college football's brightest young minds: California coach Sonny Dykes and West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen were among those on Leach's staff. One of the primary reasons Leach hired Briles was that he was well liked by high school coaches around the state. 

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James D. Smith/Icon SMIBriles got his start in college coaching on Mike Leach's staff at Texas Tech.

He proved early on that he had an eye for talent. His first recruit at Texas Tech was Wes Welker, a smallish, under-recruited receiver from Oklahoma City. The Red Raiders didn't offer Welker a scholarship until the day after signing day in February 2001. Briles was so confident Welker could play at Texas Tech that he dubbed him "The Natural." Four years later, Welker left Tech with more than 250 receptions and an NCAA-record eight touchdowns on punt returns. He is a five-time Pro Bowler in the NFL.

Even though Briles wasn't coaching quarterbacks, Kingsbury still found himself lured to Briles' office nearly every morning for breakfast. They'd sit in his office for about a half-hour, discussing his philosophy for offense and for life.

"He's a guy that I've actually patterned myself after with his ability to relate to his players and motivate them," Kingsbury said.

Nick Florence, who was Baylor's starting quarterback in 2012, said Briles is also adept at figuring out what buttons to push to motivate his players. As Florence was preparing to replace 2011 Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III, Briles unexpectedly called him into his office before the season opener.

"I think you should grow a beard," Briles told him.

Florence didn't know what to think. He was really surprised later that night when Briles sent him a text message with a photo of Snoop Dogg and Martha Stewart. The text message read: "Only one of them is a felon."

"He was too clean," Briles said. "Good Lord, there was a squeak when he walked. You don't have to be bad, but you at least have to have a little edge to you. It's not about appearances. It's about who you are. It doesn't matter how you look."

Over the years, Briles learned to look deeper than the surface, to identify potential and talent where perhaps no one else saw it. It was why, when his alma mater was looking for a head coach after the 2002 season, he was interested.

On the recommendation of his former coach, Yeoman, Briles became the first former Houston player hired to coach his alma mater. He inherited a Cougars program that was only two years removed from a 0-11 finish and had gone 8-26 the previous three seasons combined.

Briles didn't need long to turn around the Cougars, leading them to a 7-6 record and the Hawaii Bowl in his first season in 2003. After going 3-8 in 2004, Houston played in three consecutive bowl games from 2005 to 2007. The Cougars went 10-4 and won a Conference USA title in 2006 behind quarterback Kevin Kolb, leading the league in total offense with 446.1 yards per game.

After the 2006 season, Briles interviewed with Iowa State, but the Cyclones hired then-Texas defensive coordinator Gene Chizik. Iowa State wasn't the most attractive job in the country, but it was a chance for Briles to coach in the Big 12. When the Baylor job opened the next year, Briles eagerly threw his name into the hat.

"I didn't view it maybe the way many other people did," Briles said. "To me, it was a chance for accomplishment. You can have opportunity anywhere. It was a chance for people to accomplish something. I knew Texas well enough to know that Baylor is centrally located and you can go two-and-a-half hours in every direction and recruit every high school in the state. I knew I had about a 15-year window left in coaching. It seemed like a good fit at a good time."

Clearly, there was only one direction for Baylor to go -- up. The Bears hadn't played in a bowl game in 13 consecutive seasons and hadn't had a winning season since 1995. After the Big 12 opened its doors in 1996, Baylor finished last in the South Division in 11 of 12 seasons (it finished fifth in 2005, going 2-6 in league play). In the Bears' first dozen seasons in the Big 12, they lost conference games by an average margin of 24 points and won more than two league games in a season only once, going 3-5 in 2006.

"Nobody wanted the Stephenville High job," Briles said. "Nobody wanted the Houston job. Nobody wanted the Baylor job. Traditionally, I've had jobs that more people turned down than applied. You have to go into it believing that you'll turn it around."

[+] EnlargeBriles-Griffin
Joe Faraoni/ESPN ImagesThe Bears enjoyed a dream season in 2011, culminating in the school's first Heisman Trophy winner, Robert Griffin III.

Briles didn't exactly turn around the Bears quickly. Baylor went 4-8 in each of his first two seasons, but there was reason for hope. After Briles left Houston, he persuaded Griffin to switch his commitment to the Bears. Griffin, from Copperas Cove, had previously committed to play for Briles at Houston. After Griffin was named Big 12 Offensive Freshman of the Year in 2008, he tore the ACL in his right knee in his third game as a sophomore. He came back in 2010 and led the Bears to a 7-6 record and their first bowl game in 16 years behind an offense that shattered 22 school records.

As a junior in 2011, Griffin became the first Baylor player to win the Heisman Trophy, leading the Bears to a 10-3 record, including their first-ever victory over Oklahoma.

"It's what we dreamed of," Griffin said. "When I got to Baylor, he told me I'd win the Heisman. It's just something you can believe in. You can dream it, but you've got to work to achieve it."

Last season, even after the Bears lost Griffin and their leading rusher and receiver, they finished 8-5, upsetting then-No. 1 Kansas State 52-24 and defeating No. 17 UCLA 49-26 in the Holiday Bowl. Baylor finished with back-to-back winning seasons for the first time in 25 years and was ranked No. 2 nationally in total offense, averaging 572.3 yards per game.

Regardless of personnel, the Bears want to play fast -- whether they're running the ball or throwing it. At a Nike coaching clinic last year, Briles said, "People do not pay money to come to a game and watch a slowdown offense. If they go to the restroom, I want them to come back and say, 'What happened while I was gone?' They will miss something if they leave the game."

This season, Briles has led Baylor to unprecedented heights -- the Bears are 7-0 and ranked No. 6 in the BCS standings -- going into Thursday night's Big 12 showdown against No. 10 Oklahoma at Floyd Casey Stadium. Somehow, Briles has transformed one of college football's traditional doormats into an improbable BCS championship contender.

"I still don't think he gets the credit he deserves for the job he's done at Baylor," Kingsbury said. "I don't think people nationally understand how down the program was when he took the job. To go from there to where it is now, I think it's one of the great feats in college football history."

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Jerome Miron/USA TODAY SportsBaylor's offense hasn't skipped a beat since Robert Griffin III left; Bryce Petty leads the nation in Total QBR this season.

The Bears lead FBS programs in scoring with 63.9 points per game, and they're No. 1 in total offense (718.4 yards per game) and passing (417.3 yards per game) and No. 7 in rushing (301.1 yards). They've scored 70 points in four games and might have scored many more if Briles hadn't pulled his starters in the second half of blowouts.

"We want to play as fast as possible," quarterback Bryce Petty said. "We love to make the defense tired. The faster we go, the better we play."

Next season, the Bears will move into Baylor Stadium, a new $260 million on-campus stadium that sits on the banks of the Brazos River. Briles told university president Ken Starr that an on-campus stadium was a necessity for recruiting and building a truly elite program. Decaying Floyd Casey Stadium, the Bears' home for more than 60 years, was the site of many forgettable seasons -- and perhaps an unforgettable one this year.

"We were in the valley for a long time, but we'd been to the mountaintops before," Starr said. "We knew we had mountains to climb, but we'd climbed them before. Art Briles has taken us to the mountaintop again. That's where people want to be, looking out."

Make no mistake: Briles has been to the bottom of the valley, and it's not a place he wants to go again.

Mark Schlabach | email

College Football and Basketball

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