Dave Sheinin (c) 2013, The Washington Post
WACO, Texas — Art Briles’s football career has carried him far and wide, from the dusty towns of the northwest to the sprawling cities of the east — northwest Texas and east Texas, that is. He was raised in the tiny hamlet of Rule, right at the base of the Panhandle. Got his first high school coaching job in Sundown, out west of Lubbock. Became a college head coach for the first time at Houston. Currently plies his trade in Waco, smack-dab in the middle of the state — convenient for in-state recruiting, which is pretty much the only kind he does.
Briles, 57, is as Texan as that lone star up on the state flag. He married his high school sweetheart. He hasn’t even vacationed, let alone lived, anywhere but in Texas. Ask him what’s the longest he’s ever been outside its borders, and he’s stone-cold stumped.
“That’s a pretty good question,” he says in a thick drawl. “We don’t vacation much. We honeymooned down in Corpus [Christi] — so that’s still in the state. I’m trying to think — I mean, probably four or five days, that’s it.”
More than just a quirk of circumstance, Briles’s Texas-ness is an essential part of his self-identity. And these days, with Briles’s reputation as an offensive genius on the rise along with the national profile of his No. 9-ranked Baylor Bears, it is also an important factor to keep in mind for any teams that might have designs on poaching the Wizard of Waco.
“I have people asking me all the time if he’s going to go to this place or that place, and I tell them every time, ‘Look, he’s not going anywhere,'” said Ken Bailey, a Houston attorney and one of Briles’s closest friends and confidants. “His roots are too deeply entrenched in Texas soil.”
It’s only natural that Briles’s name has been batted around on sports-talk radio and internet message boards in regards to open jobs — or probably-will-be-open-soon jobs, or might-just-under-certain-conditions-become-open-jobs — from Seattle (University of Washington) to Austin (University of Texas) to Washington (the Redskins).
In the case of the Redskins, this appears to be at least partly a case of the transitive property gone awry: that because Briles is close with former Baylor and current Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III, and because Griffin is tight with owner Daniel Snyder, that Snyder is compelled to make a play for Briles in the event Mike Shanahan is gone at the end of this season.
But beyond that, the speculation over Briles is a function of something much more pure: the fact that his Baylor offense — an extreme, fast-paced, no-huddle variation of the spread — is doing things never before seen at the major college level. Amazing as it sounds, the most innovative and brilliant offensive mind in the sport might just belong to a man who spent 20 years coaching high school football and who hasn’t crossed the state line for more than four or five days at a time in his entire life.
“I still feel very young in the profession,” Briles said recently in his office overlooking one of Baylor’s practice fields. “I think it’s because of my career path, because I stayed at the high school level for 20 years, and I’ve only been in college for 14 now. To me, I’m just getting started.”
To the frequent questions about potential interest in him from other schools, Briles has consistently stated how happy he is at Baylor — which, just to be sure, recently gave him a 10-year contract extension – and how his only focus is on winning the rest of the Bears’ games this season, beginning with Saturday’s regular season finale against Texas. A question about potential NFL interest gets the same response.
About the only thing Briles will acknowledge is a certain amount of curiosity over how his offense — molded and tweaked over the years into something that this year has at times resembled perfection — would play at the next level.
“It’s just like when we were in high school and wondering how we’d do at the collegiate level,” he says. “My aspiration is to win our next ballgame. [But] if you ask me if I’m curious, yeah, I’m curious.”
And then, he starts to talk about Chip Kelly’s move from the University of Oregon to the Philadelphia Eagles, and the growing influence of so-called “college” concepts in the pro game. “I think it’d be fun to see this style progressed to the league,” he says. “And I think it will, without question.”
But by that point, what he seems to be talking about in regards to infiltrating the NFL is a type of offensive theory — not Art Briles.
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It is an offense that has neither a name nor a playbook.
Most folks call it the “spread,” but Briles, if forced to choose a label, prefers “multiple” — because it has no-back, one-back and two-back variants, and because he’ll occasionally use a two-tight-end, power formation.
As for the playbook, he’s never had one and never needed one.
“I’m a visual learner,” he said. “When I can see something, I can retain it. So I guess it’s kinda like: How do you learn to talk? You listen, and then you mimic. You don’t read to learn how to talk. You listen and mimic. So we show it [to the players on video], and then we memorize. It’s all repetition — memorization and repetition.”
Briles was 28 years old, in his first year as a head coach of the Hamlin High Pied Pipers, about 40 miles north of Abilene, and running the split-back veer option — popularized by Bill Yeoman at the University of Houston, for whom Briles had played wide receiver — when he realized he had little chance of beating the bigger, better teams in the region with his squad of mostly athletic but small players.
His solution was to spread the field — and the defense — by using four or even five receivers and spacing them out from sideline to sideline, forcing the defense to go out there and cover them. He also started putting his best athlete at quarterback — rather than tailback, as was typical in those days. The extreme spread formation, in effect, put every defensive back on an island, increasing the chances of finding the matchup that could be exploited.
Briles went 27-1-1 in two seasons at Hamlin, which attracted the attention of the bigger schools to the east. He moved on to Georgetown High, just north of Austin, jumping three school-size classifications in the process, and lasted just two years there before being hired in 1988 at Stephenville High, about an hour southwest of Fort Worth.
At the time, Stephenville hadn’t been to the playoffs in 36 years, but in 12 seasons there, Briles’s teams won four state titles, turned out four Division I-A college quarterbacks (including his son, Kendal) and in 1998 set an all-time national record with 8,664 yards of total offense.
That landed Briles his first collegiate job, as running back coach on Mike Leach’s Texas Tech staff in 2000. His first recruit for the Red Raiders was an undersized wide receiver and punt returner named Wes Welker, who set an NCAA record with eight punt returns for touchdowns and later was a four-time All-Pro in the NFL.
By 2003, at the age of 48, Briles was being asked to interview for the University of Houston’s vacant head coaching job. In the interview, Briles told the story of his life — which pivoted around the traumatic loss of his parents, as well as a beloved aunt, in an auto accident when Briles was 19 — and blew away some members of the school’s search committee with his humility, optimism and confidence.
“Some people wanted to get a big-name coach,” said Bailey, who was on the committee. “I just said, ‘Y’all need to listen to [Briles’s] story about his life. That man’s a winner.’ Luckily, I talked couple of people into it.'”
At Houston, Briles took over a program that had gone 8-26 under its previous coach and guided it to four bowl games in five years, while producing a pair of future-NFL quarterbacks, Kevin Kolb and Case Keenum.
That, in turn, caught the attention of Baylor athletic director Ian McCaw, who in 2007 interviewed only one candidate for his vacant head coaching job — Briles — and offered him the job the day after the interview. “He was a guy,” McCaw said, “who clearly had a knack for turning around programs.”
Briles accepted the job on Nov. 28, 2007, and soon thereafter convinced his top incoming recruit at Houston to switch his commitment and come with him to Baylor — a quarterback with a sprinter’s speed and a scholar’s smarts, a kid named Robert Griffin III.
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Nearly six years later, with Griffin having won a Heisman Trophy at Baylor, moved on to the NFL and gotten married, he and Briles still talk about twice a week, the latter said, “about football and life.” Their relationship is more than player-coach, less than father-son, but deeper than mentor-protégé.
“I now have other coaches in my life,” Griffin wrote in the foreword to Briles’s autobiography, “Looking Up: My Journey From Tragedy to Triumph.” “But he holds a special place in my life. Wherever we are in our lives, he’ll always be my friend. He’ll always be my guy. And most importantly, he’ll always be my coach.”
When Briles and Griffin arrived at Baylor in 2008, the school hadn’t posted a winning season in 13 years and had won just 10 of 96 conference games since joining the Big 12. Three years in, the Bears went 7-6 and earned a bowl berth, and four years in, they had posted the school’s first 10-win season in 31 years and Griffin was standing at the podium in New York City — with Briles in the audience, just behind Griffin’s family — accepting the Heisman Trophy. It remains the watershed moment for the program, and altered the terrain for Briles’s future recruiting efforts.
“These young [recruits], they might not know who the governor of Texas is,” Briles said. “But they know who RGIII is.”
Just as remarkably, Briles’s offense kept growing and evolving even after Griffin jumped to the NFL in 2012. That season, Nick Florence, Griffin’s replacement — and a guy who was out of organized football a year later — actually exceeded Griffin’s passing yardage total from the year before. But in a stunning demonstration of the pick-your-poison approach defenses must take against Baylor, UCLA succeeded in stopping the Bears’ passing game during the Holiday Bowl, but Baylor ran the ball 67 times for 306 yards in a 49-26 rout.
Still, it wasn’t until 2013 — with the offense piloted by yet another quarterback, junior Bryce Petty — that Briles’s reputation as an offensive mastermind has begun to expand beyond the borders of Texas and into the national consciousness. The Bears won their first nine games — while averaging a staggering 61.2 points per game — and climbed to No. 3 in the AP poll before losing at Oklahoma State on Nov. 23, their first loss in more than a year. Their total offense of 635.1 yards per game remains on pace to set an NCAA record.
During practices, the Bears run their offense at a frenetic pace, with a goal of running four plays per minute. In games, the extreme hurry-up leaves defenses gasping for breath, while for the Bears themselves — who have to wait on the referees to place the ball — it actually feels slow in comparison to their practices. Baylor’s average scoring drive this season has lasted only one minute 46 seconds.
“The deal at Baylor was unlike anything I’ve ever been associated with in my life,” West Virginia defensive coordinator Keith Patterson told the Charleston (W Va.) Daily Mail after Baylor put up 73 points and 872 total yards on the Mountaineers in October. “It was just catastrophic in a lot of ways to our psyche.”
It’s no wonder other teams have schemed to pry Briles away from Baylor. Last winter, amid reports that Texas Tech had raised enough money to buy out Briles’s contract, Baylor’s Board of Regents quickly approved an eight-year extension at a reported $3.5 million per year. (Because Baylor is a private school, it does not have to reveal its coaches’ contract information.)
And earlier this month, amid more speculation, Baylor went even further, extending Briles’s contract through 2023, with a buyout reported to be nearly $5 million. In the Texas media, the move was largely viewed as a pre-emptive move to keep poachers away.
“I feel I’m very blessed to have great job at great university, in a great conference, in a great state,” Briles says. “What more could you want?”
From his office window, through a stand of trees off to the side of the practice field, Briles can see a trio of cranes in the distance, at the site of the $260 million stadium being constructed on the northeast edge of campus and that will open next fall.
He has 92 homegrown Texas players on his roster of 105, a top-15 recruiting class coming in next year, a ranch outside of town where he can hunt deer in the offseason and a contract nearly long enough to envision the day he’ll be recruiting an RGIV to Baylor.
If you can’t see how this is heaven, you’re probably not from Texas. And you’re definitely not Art Briles.