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He rattles off the date his parents and aunt died in a car crash -- Oct. 16, 1976 -- and his voice turns hollow as he talks about the aftermath and how he persevered.
"I pulled up and pushed forward, but it's still with me every second," said Briles, who will lead Houston (6-5) against Kansas (6-5) in Friday's Fort Worth Bowl.
The game ties together what Briles has accomplished with what he's overcome -- the Cougars will play their second bowl in his three seasons about an hour's drive from where the accident occurred, near Newcastle in north-central Texas.
If it had never happened, Briles thinks he still would've become a successful coach and raised the same three children, including son Kendal, who will play his final game for his father Friday.
But he also knows he would be a different person.
"I probably understand the importance of the people close to you better than maybe I would have," he said. "You need people in your life, people who care about you and love you. I think that's made me a more insightful coach."
Back then, Briles was a 20-year-old split end at the school he now coaches. He wasn't sure he would ever get over the grief. The Cougars were playing SMU at the Cotton Bowl that day, and Dennis and Wanda Briles and Art's aunt, Elsie, were driving to see the game from the tiny West Texas town of Rule, where Briles grew up.
His parents had been to many of his games and at some point during all of them, Art would spot them in the crowd.
Not this time.
"I had an intuition something wasn't right," Briles said. "Usually, you always know where the parents sit. My mother would always wave at me, but I didn't see her that day."
The Cougars won 29-6. Houston coach Bill Yeoman delivered the bad news to Briles afterward. "That was pretty traumatic," Briles said.
Briles went home for a week to mourn with his older brother, Eddie, then returned to school. He made it to the end of the spring semester, then quit and retreated to Rule, emotionally drained. "I did leave because of that," Briles said. "I went through a six-month spell after it happened where I had to get myself together and decide whether I would fight or falter."
After a month of soul-searching at home, Briles enrolled at Texas Tech. He graduated in 1979 and went on to earn a master's degree in education at Abilene Christian. He hopes he would've made his parents proud.
"I just had the realization that not anything is going to happen unless you make it happen," he said. "You've got to pick a road to go down, and I chose one where I tried to build a positive legacy for my family's name. I became determined to honor them in the best way I could."
Briles was an all-state quarterback for his father in Rule and knew coaching was in his blood. He bounced around a few high school jobs in the 1980s before finding his niche as the head coach at Stephenville.
The Yellowjackets won four championships in Briles' 12 seasons. In 1998, the team amassed a national record 8,650 yards running Briles' wide-open passing attack. Briles spent three seasons at Texas Tech, guiding one of the nation's most prolific offenses, then returned to Houston for the head coaching job Kendal knew his father coveted.
"He never really talked to me about his career pursuits, but I know he has always had a lot of love and pride for this university," said Kendal Briles, who transferred from Texas to play for his father. "He's really put his life into doing what's best and right for this program."
A victory over Kansas will give the Cougars their second winning season in three years, the first time that's happened at Houston in more than a decade.
At some point, after the game, Briles said he'll share a moment with his son and reflect on their three seasons together. He'll think of his parents, too.
"Ever since October 16th, 1976, I've had to get myself up in the morning. It's a deal that's really made me thankful for friends, players and for family," he said. "I'm extra sensitive now to people who care about people and I've become pretty determined to excel, to be able to stand on my own two feet and do a worthy job. That's all any of us have."