Do you remember when being the new head football coach at Baylor meant that you were only months away from the hot seat and then only a few more losses away from being the ex-head football coach at Baylor?
Since the dawning of the Big 12 in 1996, the Baylor job has been a dead-end affair like those at Kansas and Indiana.
This was the kind of position where coaches came and were never heard from again.
That is, until a guy named Art Briles took over after the 2007 season.
Briles took a Baylor program that went 35-101 from 1996 to 2007 to a 22-8 record since 2011.
Furthermore, the three coaches who preceded him at Baylor won 10 conference games in 12 seasons, while Briles has won 17 in five seasons.
It’s not an overstatement to say that Briles has engineered one of the most stunning turnarounds in the BCS era.
So, how did Briles make it to Baylor and what’s his recipe for revival?
Briles’ introduction to football came early, a coach’ son who grew up to play quarterback under his dad and capture all-state honors at Rule High School in West Texas.
Briles switched to wide receiver at the University of Houston, where he played from 1974 to 1976 and was part of the ’76 Cougars team that won the Southwest Conference and beat Maryland in the Cotton Bowl.
This was also the year that tragedy struck when both of Briles’ parents and his aunt were killed in a car crash as he prepared for an Oct. 16, 1976 game with SMU.
Briles left football after the ’76 season and transferred to Texas Tech, where he graduated in 1979. He went on to receive a masters’ degree in education at Abilene Christian in 1984.
Briles’ first coaching job came as an assistant at Sundown High School (Texas) in 1979, moving from there to Sweetwater High School (Texas) in 1980 where he served as an assistant for three seasons.
It was at 2A Hamlin High School (Texas) where Briles broke into the head coaching ranks. He took the Pied Pipers to a 27-1-1 record from 1984 to 1985.
After a two-year, unsuccessful run at 5A Georgetown High School (Texas), Briles moved on to 4A Stephenville High School where he began to make a name for himself.
At Stephenville, Briles went 135-29-2 from 1988 to 1999 and captured four state championships. It was during this time that Briles transformed the Yellow Jacket offense from a running attack to a passing machine. These efforts earned Briles credit for bringing the spread attack to Texas high school football.
In 2000, Briles hit the college ranks by taking an assistant role under Mike Leach at Texas Tech, coaching running backs for three seasons.
This provided the launch pad to the head job at Houston in 2003. There, Briles took a Cougar team that was only one season removed from a 0-11 finish and hadn’t hit double digits since 1990 to a 10-4 mark in 2006. The run included Houston’s first Conference USA title in a decade.
Briles landed the Baylor job in November of 2007, taking over a program that hadn’t finished a season ranked since 1986.
Throughout his coaching career, Briles has exhibited three key traits that have underscored his successes.
The Mental Approach
Briles hasn’t necessarily been stationed at powerhouse football destinations in his 34 years on the job.
Situations which might have intimidated others or provided a convenient “excuse card” to play, have instead provided Briles an opportunity to preach further focus.
To illustrate, in an interview this past summer with Spencer Hall of SB Nation, Briles explained his approach to being a coach with “fewer resources than the other team.”
You have to understand that the field may not be equal from a lot of different standpoints—resources, facilities, support, fan support—but all those things, if you let them filter in, you lose sight of your focus. Our focus has always been that we’re gonna be the standard, we’re gonna do what we do and do it as well as anyone does it, and we’re not gonna have any excuses or comparisons along the way. That’s our motto: no excuses, no comparisons, and no compromises.
This is a mentality that is deeply embedded in Briles’ psyche, going back to the unthinkable tragedy he faced in losing both his parents as a college football player at Houston.
According to a 2008 piece by Kevin Robbins of the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal, Briles gave these remarks when taking over the daunting job at Baylor, “I’m not intimidated by my circumstances. … Events in my life made me unafraid.”
Briles’ on-field approach has been to put his teams—which have often played the role of underdog—in a position to win by creating his own unique brand of play.
In the Hall interview, Briles explains what he did to engineer his success at Stephenville High School, a methodology that can be traced to his jobs at Houston and Baylor.
At Stephenville, we definitely had to do something that gave ourselves a chance to get the opportunity to win football games. We weren’t just gonna line up and beat people. We had to be a little unconventional, which we were. In 1990 we had a guy throw for over 3,000 yards, and then had a 3,000-yard passer every year over the next 10 years. In ’98 we actually set a national record for total offense.
The Ability to Adapt
Perhaps what’s most impressive about Briles is his uncanny knack to adjust to the situation around him and pump out wins regardless of the cards he’s been dealt.
Yes, Briles has a great plan, but he also understands that there’s a time to cut and run even from the best laid plans.
Illustrations of Briles’ adaptability are easy to find. As far back as his decision to introduce the spread at Stephenville—according to his remarks in the Hall interview—Briles’ approach is clear.
We did things out of a desire of necessity. I had good people there—we were gonna win anyway—but I was trying to win a state championship. At Stephenville, it was out of necessity. It wasn’t something I wanted to do; it was something we needed to do.
The perfect in-game example of this comes via Baylor’s 49-26 triumph over No. 17 ULCA in last season’s Holiday Bowl.
To upend the Bruins, the pass-happy Bears threw only 13 passes in the entire game—for 188 yards—and ran the ball 67 times for 306 yards.
Briles is a guy, who according to his own tweet from this past May, managed to lead the nation in offense last season with a group of guys who were all recruited from within the Texas state lines.
Briles is the epitome of the adage “dance with who brung you.”
Whether Briles ever leaves Baylor for the greener pastures of a “better” job is yet to be seen.
What’s striking—based on the concrete evidence of his success—is that his name hasn’t been associated with big-time openings at other programs.
The great thing about Briles is he’s not sitting around basking in his own glory, whisking around his office, enjoying his accolades and coveting his trophies.
No, according to his remarks after Baylor’s 41-34 win over Oklahoma State in the final regular season game of 2012, Briles is all about the present…not the future, and not the past.
When asked by a reporter to put his success at Baylor into perspective, Briles said, “I don’t even look at it that way…we’re in the now business, you know, what was is past, it’s over, it’s done. We’re in to what’s happening right now.”
The next opportunity to watch Briles lead his 3-0, No. 17 ranked Bears will come this Saturday versus West Virginia at 8PM EST on FOX Sports 1.