Art Briles: The Rebuilder
Photos by: Kyle Beam, Travis Taylor and Matt Hellman
In just under five years, a very hopeless crowd of green and gold has become one of the most enthusiastically expectant fan bases in college football. Baylor University football hadn’t finished in the top 25 rankings of the AP or Coaches Poll since 1986. Bowl Game appearances were limited since the tenure of legendary head coach Grant Teaff came to an end in 1992. With a fading program and an endangered fan base, it was only a matter of time before someone accepted the challenge of what would become one of the most monumental rebuilds in Baylor history.
On Nov. 28, 2007, Art Briles accepted the head coaching position at Baylor. Walking into the program, Briles was eager to do what he does best. “Like the first day I went to work in 1979 coaching high school football; I was eager, I was excited, I was anxious and I tried to be a sponge, learning as much as I could,” Briles said.
Many recognize Briles’ gifted ability to rebuild football programs. The question as to how he does it, looms over the heads of college football coaches all over the country.
Briles hits the ground running, committed to building strong relationships with his players, establishing an effective recruiting system and putting his spread offense to work. Spearheading record-breaking programs at Hamlin High School, Stephenville High School and the University of Houston, Briles is no stranger to what it takes to win football games.
“I remember him [Briles] talking about what type of magic we were going to bring here. We didn’t understand the work ethic that it took. We had good talent, but we didn’t know how to win,” said Joseph Gillespie, former Stephenville linebacker, who later became an assistant on Briles’ staff and eventually took over as head coach and athletic director at the high school.
When Briles coached at Stephenville, it didn’t take long for hope to build in the program. Playoff wins became routine and they earned four state championships in Briles’ 12 seasons as head coach.
It not only took a change in the mindset of the football players, but the community as a whole. “He makes everybody believe that anything is possible,” said Michael Copeland, defensive coordinator at Stephenville. Many believe Briles generates a willingness to do what it takes to win. He encourages a work ethic of absolute commitment that begins in the classroom, continues on the football field and is sustained in all aspects of life.
His ability to build genuine relationships with his players enables young men to mature into confident adults. “He always sat there and said, ‘you may be 6 foot, 200 pounds, but play like you’re 6-3, 220, and run like a deer.’ You begin believing those things,” Gillespie said. Relationships can foster the type of trust it takes to leave everything on the field with no regrets. Confidence builds from these high levels of trust and players develop the ability to play with a chip on their shoulder, self-assured with a head full of steam.
“We bled blue and gold, he bled blue and gold and he transformed a program, he transformed a school and he transformed a community,” Gillespie said. After 12 years, Briles knew it was time to move onto the next challenge and accepted an assistant coaching position at Texas Tech University.
Headed to his alma mater, Briles’ role as a high school head football coach transitioned into a running back position coach for Tech with a strong voice in the offensive game planning. His all in attitude was apparent both on the field and in the weight room with his running backs. Building camaraderie was his mission and one of the strongest ways to develop relationships with college athletes is by doing the hard work with them. Post-practice workouts did not excite his group, but alongside a determined coach and friend, they weren’t so bad, said Briles in an interview with DallasCowboys.com columnist, Nick Eatman.
Briles’ gift to see past surface skills and beyond the stat sheets led him to Oklahoma City native Wes Welker. A wide receiver seen as valuable by few, Briles pursued him. Film alone provided Briles with what he needed to start referring to him as “The Natural,” a nickname that would stick with him through five pro bowl appearances. Throughout his time at Tech, Welker was one of the most dynamic players in the nation.
With the dream of becoming a head coach at the collegiate level, Briles accepted a head coaching position at the University of Houston. Briles immediately began pooling his resources to build a coaching staff. Two of his former coaches at Stephenville, Philip Montgomery and Randy Clements, responded to Briles’ call and joined the team. Coming on campus to a nearly extinct program, Briles started from the bottom up, rebuilding Houston’s football culture.
High school senior Donnie Avery had one scholarship offer in 2003 and signing day was approaching. Briles saw in Avery what he had seen in Welker at Tech, and pursued him the same way. Two years later, overwhelmed with football, school and his duties as a new father, Avery wanted to hang up his cleats and quit football. Briles wouldn’t let that happen and convinced him to stay. Nearly a decade later, Avery signed a three-year $8.3 million contract with the Kansas City Chiefs. Needless to say, Briles knew best.
During his time at Houston, Briles was introduced to two of the most powerful building blocks to Baylor’s new program. Robert Griffin III and Terrance Ganaway were both committed to Houston and until Briles’ move to Baylor, had every intention of wearing the Cougar scarlet red and albino white. “I honestly thought I’d never play college ball anywhere else,” Ganaway said.
Nearly stepping away from the game after the death of his mother in 2008, Ganaway accepted an invitation from Briles to come and play for him at Baylor. Recognizing that his mom would have wanted him on the field, Ganaway fell back in love with the game as a Bear. “I wanted to be with Coach Briles and his staff because it was always family,” he said. The experience of parental loss was shared between Ganaway and Briles, having to say goodbye at 20 and 21 years old respectively.
On Oct. 16, 1976, Briles lost both of his parents, Dennis and Wanda, and his aunt, Elsie “Totty” Kittley, who was like a grandmother to him, in a car accident. “I think that’s really what draws me close to Coach Briles. He’s been through a lot and he’s overcome a lot,” Ganaway said. “I look up to Coach Briles not only as a coach but as a man: how he treats his family, how he loves on his family. He tries to set an example for 110 men every year. I consider him my mentor not only in football, but in all life stages.”
Briles’ ability to gain trust from both his teammates and fellow coaches sets him apart as one of the strongest coaches in the nation. “Coach Briles is a visionary and gets people to see the way he sees,” Ganaway said. Briles recruits players who aren’t necessarily getting a lot of looks from big schools. He does what’s best for the players and puts their best interest first, Ganaway said. Briles recruited Robert Griffin III to play for him at the University of Houston after only a handful of alternative offers from sub-par football programs.
In December 2011, RG3 became Baylor’s first player to earn the Heisman Trophy. When the Downtown Athletic Club called Griffin’s name, Briles had succeeded in building a program capable of producing the nation’s best. “When we got to Baylor, Coach Briles told me back when I was a freshman that I would win the Heisman,” Griffin said, not fully aware the offense he helped develop would become the best in the country.
Briles’ formula for success builds on several key components, one of which is his spread offense. “It gives you a lot of opportunities to make plays,” said Antwan Goodley, Baylor wide receiver, responsible for 974 receiving yards through eight games of the 2013 season. The efficiency of Briles’ spread offense is slightly different than the ones most other teams use. Wide receivers line up approximately three yards from the sideline as opposed to the typical six yards. This gives the quarterback bigger gaps to slip through, forcing the defense to defend all 53.5 yards between sidelines.
Briles has restored Baylor football of its former winning ways, developing one of the strongest offenses the nation has ever seen. Baylor leads the country in total offense and is the only school that ranked among the nation’s top two offenses in each of the past three seasons. Elite quarterbacks are drawn to this offense, recognizing the capabilities of the system. Over the last 12 years, Briles has recruited quarterbacks such as Nick Florence (Baylor), RGIII (Baylor/Redskins), Case Keenum (Houston/Texans), Kevin Kolb (Houston/Bills) and Kliff Kingsbury (Texas Tech/Jets), who now serves as head coach at Tech.
High school numbers and stats remained absent from the decisions Briles made as a recruiter. When he saw a good player, he went after him. Terrance Williams was one of those players. He accepted a spot on Baylor’s roster after receiving only one other scholarship offer from Colorado State. Williams affirmed Briles’ judgment as a recruiter, earning honorable mention notice from Big 12 coaches as a junior by gaining nearly 1,000 yards and scoring 11 times on 59 receptions. His senior year, he led the country in receiving yards, earning first-team All-American honors and was drafted by the Dallas Cowboys in third round of the 2013 NFL Draft. Briles saw potential in Williams when no one else would look.
“He has guys around him that he believes in. When he buys into his players, he plays to their strong suits, helps them do what they do best and helps build them as men, to play for him and to play with him,” Griffin said.
With his rigorously forward-looking mindset, Briles leads his players into each and every game as a united front, ready for battle. Football is a moment-by-moment profession with each immediate success and failure shaping the next. Learning from the mistakes of the past, Briles and his team of players and coaches earn respect, consistently pushing for national recognition. “You can’t be a one-hit-wonder. You’ve really got to stay on the national scene for 6-8 years before you really establish yourself as a prominent national program,” Briles said.
Baylor’s combination of student-athletes, a supportive administration, excited fans and a proactive board of regents fuels its fire for bigger and better dreams. Baylor football has bridged a very necessary gap between the university and the Central Texas community. “I’ve always felt like they were one and the same. When I got here, I felt like Baylor was Waco and Waco was Baylor. You’ve got to co-exist,” Briles said.
Baylor football has motivated the city of Waco into a state of revival and rebuilding. With the construction of an on-campus football stadium, hope has been restored to sleepy streets. “We have gotten to the point where we have arrived where they haven’t been in a long time,” Briles said.
Waco has earned respect. A drive from Dallas to Austin along one of the nation’s busiest highways now has a necessary stop along the way. Thanks to a $260 million, 93-acre Baylor Stadium site, Baylor football is showing what Waco is all about. Set to debut in the 2014 season opener against Southern Methodist University, the on-campus stadium will hold 45,000 spectators, with the ability to expand to 55,000 seats.
Looking to cap off Floyd Casey Stadium’s last season, Baylor achieved its first 9-0 start in school history, followed by a loss to Oklahoma State University in game 10. As the green and gold community rallies around its favorite team, one can only wonder how long it will take to win a national championship.
On Nov. 13, the Baylor Board of Regents approved a 10-year contract extension for Briles, fortifying his bond to the Bears until 2023. “We are very fortunate to have a strong vision of leadership from the Board of Regents and President Starr who want us to have an outstanding football program,” said Baylor athletic director Ian McCaw. “Thanks to their support and commitment, we’re able to secure Coach Briles for the long term.”