Enveloped by uncertainty, Baylor football is facing the possibility of a lost season, NCAA sanctions and the program slipping back toward the losing ways that predated Art Briles’ tenure as coach.
The university board of regents began the process of firing Briles on Thursday as it released some of the findings of a scathing report that accused the coach and other university leaders of not responding or inappropriately handling allegations of sexual assault.
Kenneth Starr was also demoted from his role as university president and athletic director Ian McCaw was put on probation but the ramifications of the scandal will linger at Baylor, possibly for years.
The first task is finding a coach. On Friday, ESPN reported that the school offered defensive coordinator Phil Bennett the position of interim head coach. But there was no formal announcement planned, and leadership of the program remained in limbo.
The recent history of schools that have had coaching upheaval at this time of the year suggests Baylor, which was expected to contend for another Big 12 title, could be in for a tough go on the field.
After Ohio State dismissed coach Jim Tressel in May 2011 for lying to NCAA investigators, defensive coordinator Luke Fickell was named interim head coach and the Buckeyes went on to finish 6-7.
A scandal involving assistant coaches and agents led to Butch Davis being fired by North Carolina in July 2011 and the Tar Heels finished 7-6 under interim coach Everett Withers.
Then-Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino was fired for lying to his boss about an affair he was having with a member of the football staff after getting into a motorcycle accident in April 2012. A Razorbacks team with high hopes ended up finishing 4-8 under interim coach John L. Smith.
Bill Carr of CarrSports Consulting, a firm that works with schools on coaching searches, said Baylor is best to take a short-term approach for the 2016 season.
“Baylor was unlikely to find a long-term remedy in the next 30 days,” said Carr, the former athletic director at the University of Houston and the University of Florida.
Retaining Bennett and other Briles assistants could be seen as a curious choice. The law firm Pepper Hamilton, in its report on Baylor’s handling of sexual assault allegations, stated football staff members other than Briles were involved in inappropriate investigations and withholding information from the university.
But trying to bring in an entirely new staff into such a volatile situation at this time of the year would be an almost impossible task.
“Extraordinarily difficult situation,” Carr said.
While it is conceivable Bennett could do well enough to earn the head coaching job permanently, it’s more likely Baylor will re-enter the market in November or December when more candidates are available, the school leadership has been replaced and more of the fallout from the scandal is known. That could include NCAA involvement, but there are none of the association’s bylaws that seem to fit this case.
“I think at this point in time, I’m not seeing any outward NCAA violations,” said David Ridpath, a professor at Ohio University with experience in NCAA compliance.
Ridpath said the NCAA might be able to deem players received extra benefits in the form of special treatment by the athletic department or law enforcement. However, Ridpath said he can’t recall a similar past NCAA investigation.
The NCAA sanctioned Penn State after the Jerry Sandusky sex-abuse scandal, but in a way that was unprecedented and far removed from its usual procedures. The NCAA eventually rolled back massive sanctions against Penn State, reducing a four-year bowl ban to two years and restoring dozens of scholarships that were docked.
“My initial guess is the NCAA won’t get involved because of Penn State, because that turned out to be such an issue for them,” Ridpath said. “I think most everyone agrees that they shouldn’t have gotten involved – at least not to the extent that they did – by exercising executive authority.”
Even if Baylor avoids NCAA sanctions, turmoil and uncertainty are obstacles on the recruiting trail. The coaching turnover alone will put the Bears at a serious disadvantage against its competitors this year.
Before Briles took over in 2008, Baylor had languished through 12 losing seasons in the Big 12 as a small-town private school that couldn’t come close to Texas and Oklahoma. Under Briles, Baylor upgraded facilities, recruited more talented players and re-energized the fans. But the days of routinely racking up double-digit win totals – four times in the last five seasons – could be coming to an end in Waco.