Sept. 17, 2009
By Dwain Price
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
WACO -- Perhaps no player understands and appreciates Baylor coach Art Briles more than the Bears' quarterback.
"He makes you laugh, but he knows when to be serious and get on you," Robert Griffin said. "So that's a good quality.
"I like to laugh -- I'm a laid-back guy -- so we fit perfectly."
When Baylor hired Briles to resuscitate a sagging football program last year, he appeared to be the perfect fit. After all, Briles' track record suggested that nearly everything he touches turns to gold.
Briles turned Stephenville High School into a national powerhouse, winning four state titles in a seven-year span during the 1990s. And in five years at the University of Houston, he took the Cougars to four bowl games.
This from a school that was 0-11 before Briles' arrival in 2003.
Now comes Briles' biggest challenge to date -- trying to get Baylor to its first bowl game since 1994.
"He doesn't like anyone to tell him that something can't happen or can't be done," said Randy Clements, Baylor's co-offensive coordinator and offensive line coach.
"But maybe he does like it.
"Maybe that gets him going even more."
Clements, who has worked for Briles since 1990, mentioned another thing that gets Baylor's coach going.
"People are hungry here, and I think that's the key," Clements said. "That's what he hopes for when he takes over a job.
"He wants people that are rabid and are hungry and want to make a change."
Briles himself was forced to make a life-altering change in 1976, when his parents were driving about 90 miles outside the family's home in Rule and headed to Dallas to watch Briles and his UH team play SMU.
They never made it.
They were killed in a head-on collision with a truck on a country road outside of New Castle.
The UH coaches knew of the tragedy before the game, but didn't tell Briles until it was over.
"I can still remember being at the game and all the parents sit together and usually I kind of glance up there [in the stands] in pregame and my mother would wave at me," Briles said. "I can remember being on the field that day and looking up and not seeing them.
"Of course, that was back before cellphones and texting, so there wasn't any way to communicate. I remember thinking, 'This is a little different and I hope everything's OK.' Then [the UH coaches] told me right after the game."
The raw emotions of that day still run deep with Briles. He was just 20 years old and his life was shattered.
"The hard thing about losing -- what I've learned through life -- both parents so young is that you really don't start to enjoy your parents until you get older," Briles said. "So I think a lot of my memories [of his parents] would have come the last 20 years or so as opposed to my nurturing years or growing-up years."
Perhaps that's part of the reason why Briles is usually flashing a smile and looking like he's always enjoying life to the fullest. He knows tomorrow is not promised.
"I think the biggest thing that sets him apart is not only his love of the game and love of being around young men, he's just the ultimate competitor," said Philip Montgomery, the Bears' co-offensive coordinator and offensive backs coach. "He's always feeling like you're fighting uphill every day and just trying to get an edge, and I think that's the thing that makes him go.
"There's no fakeness to him, and what you see is what you get. He just works hard and is a good-hearted guy."
Briles' players have always noticed his unbridled passion for the game and his fierce desire to get the best out of them.
"He's laughing with you and talking with you all during practice," nose guard Trey Bryant said. "He's not one of those coaches that's going to stay with the offense the whole practice.
"He walks around to every position [station] and he listens to what we want to say. If we want to wear this, he lets us wear that. He tells us what he wants to wear, so I feel like he's just one of us, like he's just another teammate and not even my coach sometimes."
The line between a coach cracking the whip and comforting a player can sometimes get blurred. Briles, however, knows how to walk it.
"He only expects the best out of you every time, and he knows that you're capable of greatness and he'll hold you to that every practice and every down," wide receiver David Gettis said. "He won't hold you to anything less than that, so you definitely respect that, and you've got to love it as well."
Briles started coaching a Stephenville team that was mired in mediocrity in 1988 and led it to state championships in 1993, '94, '98 and '99.
From there, Briles was the running backs coach at Texas Tech from 2000-02 before taking over Houston's program.
Colin Shillinglaw, who worked with Briles at Stephenville and UH and is now Baylor's director of operations, said his boss is the most supportive person he's ever known.
"He just rallies everybody around," said Shillinglaw, first hired by Briles in 1988.
"His goal is to get everybody on the same page.
"Somehow he gets everybody to buy into what he's saying and what he's doing. Plus, he's not going to ask anybody to do something he's not going to do himself."
Except for Briles' three-year stint as Mike Leach's running backs coach at Tech, Clements has worked for Briles since 1990. Montgomery has worked with Briles at Stephenville and Houston.
Even Griffin, the Bears' star quarterback, followed Briles to Baylor after initially committing to play for Houston.
"I'm grateful that he asked me to come here to Baylor with him instead of just saying, 'I'm at Baylor now, I don't need you,' " Griffin said. "I always like listening to him talk because he's a smart guy.
"He's been through a lot, so he's got a lot of experiences on his hands. That just makes me a better quarterback, just listening to him and how he coaches."
Briles played quarterback and free safety for his dad, Dennis, who was a high school football coach in Abilene and Rule (about 60 miles north of Abilene). He draws his strong values from both of his parents, especially his mother, Wanda.
"Without question, from my dad, just hard work and you're never going to be given anything, and everything you get you're going to have to work for," said Briles, 53.
"A kind of a mind-your-own-business approach, and make sure you take care of your business and stay out of other people's.
"And probably from my mother, probably belief and love. Love the people you love."
Briles and his wife of 31 years, Jan, instilled those same values in their three children. Even today, in the often fast-paced life of a college football coach, Art and Jan Briles have managed to somehow stay free of the rat-race.
"Anywhere I've ever lived, I've enjoyed it mainly because we don't socialize much, because time is so precious in our profession," Briles said. "When I do have any free time, I like to spend it with my wife, so we just hang out and stay at home."
It is that appreciation of life, that love for each moment, that makes Briles special.
Under Briles, the Bears were 4-8 last year and are 1-0 this season. Excitement for the program has reached a fever pitch, and Baylor athletic director Ian McCaw knows why.
"Coach Briles is one of the most positive and enthusiastic people you're ever going to meet," McCaw said. "He's just fun to be around, he gets the most out of everybody, he gets the most out of his players, his coaches, and he gets the most out of me as an athletic director, because you want to fight and do everything you can to support him and help him be successful."