By Jeff Brown
Art Briles has earned high praise in the short time since he was named Baylor's head football coach last fall. "An outstanding offensive football coach," says Hall of Fame coach Grant Teaff. "A man of integrity and a winner," says ESPN analyst Andre Ware. "A great role model for young men," says Dr. Ed Young, pastor of Houston's Second Baptist Church.
Texas high school football fans know Briles as the man who took the Stephenville High Yellow Jackets--a program that hadn't made the postseason in nearly 40 years--to the playoffs in just his second season. Briles twice led Stephenville to back-to-back state championships (1993-94 and 1998-99) and was inducted into the Texas High School Football Hall of Fame earlier this year.
College football fans know Briles as the man who took the University of Houston--a winless team just two years before his hiring--and led them to bowl games in four of his five seasons. The Cougars claimed the Conference USA title in 2006 as Briles was named CUSA Coach of the Year.
But beyond the accolades and achievements, just who is Art Briles?
'Always felt like an underdog'
Rule, Texas, sits about 60 miles north of Abilene, midway between Fort Worth and Lubbock. In the early 1970s, Briles was an all-state quarterback at Rule High School, where his father, Dennis, was football coach. In fact, with a population of only about 700, Rule was small enough that Dennis Briles also served as basketball coach, civics teacher, high school principal and mayor.
Growing up with a coach in the home, the younger Briles naturally picked up on how a coach should approach the game, something he took with him when he headed southeast to the University of Houston, where he lettered as a receiver in 1976.
"The first time I felt like I might coach was when I was a freshman at the University of Houston," Briles says. "I remember a halftime one time during a freshman game ... and we were getting beat or something. I just remember saying a few things that seemed to make sense at the time. Later on, I was thinking, 'Shoot, I may have a chance of doing something with this.'
"I was always a guy, especially in college, doing whatever I could to get on the field, which I honestly think helps me as a coach, because you understand the trials and tribulations that a player has to go through," he continues. "I've always felt like an underdog. It motivates me that Baylor is an underdog team right now."
In 1976, Briles' father, mother and aunt were killed in an auto collision while driving from Rule to Dallas to watch Briles' Cougars play SMU at the Cotton Bowl, a loss that not only the Briles family but all of Rule mourned.
"I definitely think the tragedy with my parents threw me into this family-type atmosphere that coaching has," he says. "Being involved with a team, you definitely always have family; you always have support people."
Briles transferred closer to home to finish his college career, graduating from Texas Tech in 1979. (He went on to earn his master's in education from Abilene Christian in 1984.) Briles spent the next nine years coaching at high schools across Texas before beginning a 12-year stint as head coach and athletic director at Stephenville in 1988.
"In the high school programs that he was in, he brought the fans, the parents, folks that are in a community, into the fold so that they felt a part of the program," remembers Teaff, who got to know Briles through his involvement in the Texas High School Coaches Association. "I think that's what's been needed here at Baylor for a long time, and I believe he'll bring that to Baylor."
After his success at Stephenville, Briles moved on to the college ranks, helping lead Texas Tech to four bowl games in four years as an assistant coach before taking over the reigns in Houston in 2003. This fall will be Briles' 30th year in coaching, all within the state of Texas.
"I've had a couple chances to cross state lines, but I don't know... I like Texas. I like what it stands for, I like the people, and I understand it. I'm thankful for the fact that I've been able to coach here all my career to this point. It makes it a little more believable in recruiting. I like to tell players, if you're going to live in Texas, [then] go to school in Texas, because that's where your ties are gonna be. If you jump off and go out of state and then think you want to come back and live and work in Texas, well, you won't have the ties here that you need. To me, it makes sense."
'In the provin' business''
Briles' Texas ties have already paid off, helping him bring in the program's highest-ranked recruiting class in years this fall. This summer, he and his staff held not only the usual camps for high school football players here in Waco, but also satellite camps in Houston, Dallas and Tyler to promote interest in Baylor.
"We're seeing some good athletes, seeing some prospects, but the key thing about it for me is that we're creating awareness for Baylor University, and for Baylor football," Briles says. "Every one of these 1,200 kids has a Baylor t-shirt on that says 'Baylor Bears,' that they wear around and work out in. It's all about getting our name out, and then what we have to do is put a good product on the field and produce. It's a series of steps, and the first steps are going well."
Briles says the things he looks for in a recruit are the same things he looked for in building his staff of assistant coaches.
"I wanted guys who were self-driven, self-motivated, who had instinct and initiative, and also had a whole lot of self-confidence, because we're going to have to cross some bridges that haven't been crossed," he says. "We're in the provin' business, and this is a great opportunity and a great time to do it."
Director of Athletics Ian McCaw frequently mentioned Briles' faith during his introductory press conference last November. A lifelong Baptist, Briles has repeatedly noted Baylor's Christian environment as one of the things that attracted him to the University.
"He's a strong Christian who is going to surround himself with coaches who are good coaches and men of faith," Teaff says. "He believes in family, which is extremely important, and I think he grasps the concept that many of us believe very strongly in, and that is the Baylor family."
The concept of family plays itself out even with a roster of over 100 young men.
"I honestly think you have more influence collegiately than you do in high school, because in high school, every night they're going home to somebody," Briles explains. "It may be a mother, it may be a grandmother, it may be a father or stepfather, but they're going home to somebody every night. In college, they're going to an apartment, they're going to a dorm room. ... So a lot of times as coaches, we're the last adult influence that they have at the end of the day. I honor that, and I cherish the relationships.
"The thing I like more about college is that you can build stronger bonds with the student-athletes, because it is on a little more mature level. The focus is a little different because of the focus on career and degree. And then professionally, when you come out of here, you have to have some kind of focus, energy and attitude toward accomplishment, which puts them on the line. I like that growing process that we get to go through with them. It's fun getting to know these young people and spending time with them."
'Say good things about Baylor'
In just a few short months on the job, the former Cougar and Red Raider says he already feels like a part of the Baylor family that Teaff described.
"It's been fun getting out and meeting the Baylor community of people across the state. The thing I've been most impressed with is the eagerness, and what I view as a hunger, that the Baylor family has for the football program. That inspires me, makes me want to do well, and we'll bring that inspiration over to our players, because they feel the same way--they want to prove themselves," Briles says.
"Everybody needs to get in the boat now; you can't wait until the waters get smooth to jump in. We need to be in there through the rough waters and help smooth them out. I think people are ready for that--ready for the challenge, ready for the fight, and ready for the results."
Longtime Baylor fans say they can't remember this level of excitement and unified support surrounding a new football coach. Many of those fans point out the similarities between Briles and Teaff, who led the Bears for 21 years and remains the winningest coach in school history. Both are West Texans with strong roots in Texas high school football, and both earned reputations for bringing in and coaching up players who weren't highly recruited elsewhere.
"The quality of person that he is and the kind of coach he is, it's a compliment to me that we would be compared," says Teaff. "I think there are a lot of similarities, and I think that's all positive. But he's definitely his own person, and he's an individual who knows what it takes to win, and he knows that in order to win at Baylor, it's going to take an awful lot of work and a lot of people working together."
"I've been around him for a long time, admired him for years," Briles says of Teaff. "It's professional and personal, so we have a great relationship. I cherish his friendship and his intellect towards the game. [The comparison] is very humbling, but at the same time, it's very premature. Grant did it; we haven't done it. If they're comparing me to him in 10 years, then that'll be a great accomplishment, and a great professional honor."
In order to get there, Briles asks just one thing of Baylor fans, wherever they may be.
"Say good things about Baylor University. Whether it's education, athletics, whatever it is, say good things about Baylor, because somebody's listening. We are Baylor. That's who we are. Be proud of it, cherish it and honor it."
Spoken like a true Baylor Bear.