What it means to be ‘coach’ in Texas. Art Briles’ return to football.

Why We Wrote This

What does it mean to be a good coach? Is it winning games, molding young characters, or both? A small town in Texas considers after it hires a controversial coach.

Smiley N. Pool/The Dallas Morning News/AP
Mount Vernon High School football players take the field for their first game under coach Art Briles on Aug. 30, 2019, in Bonham, Texas. Mr. Briles was fired from Baylor University three years ago.

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Mount Vernon has never won a state championship in football. It’s the biggest town in one of the smallest counties in Texas, with a population under 3,000. The only stoplights are by the interstate linking Dallas, 100 miles to the west, to Arkansas, 80 miles to the east. Like any Texas town, the high school football team is a big deal. But like at any high school in any Texas town, the head football coach is much more than just a coach.

“I tell people a lot that coaching on Friday nights is 2% of the job of a head football coach in the state of Texas,” says Greg Tepper, managing editor of Dave Campbell’s Texas Football, known as the “bible” of Texas football. “You are very much involved in the lives of these student-athletes, both on and off the field.”

Which is why Mount Vernon’s hiring of Art Briles is news. This is the first coaching job he has had in the United States since he was fired from Baylor University three years ago amid a sexual assault scandal involving football players at the school.

Texas high school football coaches need to be, and for the most part are, “men of character,” he believes. “For those parents out there in Mount Vernon, that’s the question they have to answer for themselves,” he adds. “Is Art Briles a man of character?”

Like most young boys, Holly Grigson’s two sons love sports. But with their father not in the picture, sports have taken on an extra significance for them. She highlights a baseball coach they’ve had for years.

“It’s like he’s taken them in. I mean, if they need it they can call him in the middle of the night if they need anything,” she says.

“That’s the way coaches are,” she adds, “and I think Coach Briles is like that, too. I can sense that in him.”

In small-town Texas, the “coach” honorific is up there with “mayor” in terms of stature, and for decades Art Briles has been one of the best there is. In recent years he has also been one of the most polarizing.

No one questions Mr. Briles’ talent as a football coach. But the immediate reaction to the appointment of the former Baylor University coach in May – a disbelieving silence, followed by loud applause – hinted at the pause it has given some in this east Texas town.

This is the first coaching job Mr. Briles has had in the United States since he was fired from Baylor three years ago amid a sexual assault scandal involving football players at the university. In a way the move is a return to his roots: He launched his career by winning four state championships as an innovative attacking coach at Stephenville High.

Mount Vernon has never won a state championship in football. (Its girls basketball team brought home the state title in 2018.) It’s the biggest town in one of the smallest counties in Texas, with a population under 3,000. The only stoplights are by the interstate linking Dallas, 100 miles to the west, to Arkansas, 80 miles to the east. The team plays in the 3A division, reserved for schools with 225 to 504 students, and like any Texas town, the high school football team is a big deal. But like at any high school in any Texas town, the head football coach is much more than just a coach.

“I tell people a lot that coaching on Friday nights is 2% of the job of a head football coach in the state of Texas,” says Greg Tepper, managing editor of Dave Campbell’s Texas Football, known as the “bible” of Texas football. “You are very much involved in the lives of these student-athletes, both on and off the field.”

Thus Texas high school football coaches need to be, and for the most part are, “men of character,” he believes. “For those parents out there in Mount Vernon, that’s the question they have to answer for themselves,” he adds. “Is Art Briles a man of character?”

Smiley N. Pool/The Dallas Morning News/AP
Mount Vernon High School football coach Art Briles talks to his players on the sideline, Aug. 30, 2019, in Bonham, Texas. His hiring has given some residents pause in this small east Texas town.

Home of Don Meredith

Purple-and-white Mount Vernon Tigers flags ripple in the wind around the historic main square. Don Meredith, a former Dallas Cowboys quarterback and sports commentator, grew up a short walk away. A special exhibit about him is on display at the Franklin County Museum.

A sticker has been pressed onto the museum’s sign – identical to stickers placed surreptitiously around downtown, reading: “Art Briles Protects Rapists.”

When the controversy began, Mr. Briles had transformed Baylor from a team that had won just 11 games in 12 years to back-to-back conference champions. After the convictions of two football players for sexual assault in 2014 and 2015, the university hired an outside law firm to investigate how it responded to sexual assault allegations.

The investigation, of which only a summary has been made public, uncovered 17 sexual assaults or cases of domestic violence by 19 players from 2011 to 2016, and noted “significant concerns about the tone and culture within Baylor’s football program as it relates to accountability for all forms of athlete misconduct.”

Mr. Briles was dismissed soon after, receiving $15.1 million from Baylor in a settlement. He has never admitted to doing anything illegal. A 2017 letter from Baylor’s general counsel to Mr. Briles said the university didn’t know of a situation where he “personally had contact with anyone” who reported being the victim of sexual assault, “or that you directly discouraged the victim” of an alleged sexual assault from reporting it.

He struggled to find coaching jobs. He was let go one day after being hired by the Hamilton Tiger-Cats of the Canadian Football League after, according to the team’s CEO, a “tsunami of negativity.” Administrators at Southern Mississippi blocked the football team from hiring him as offensive coordinator this February. When he got the call from Mount Vernon, he was coaching a team in Florence, Italy.

Jason McCullough, the Mount Vernon Independent School District superintendent, did not respond to multiple requests for comment, but he told the Los Angeles Times that the district’s vetting process has been “vast,” though it did not speak to any of the women who have sued Baylor over alleged sexual violence.

In a furniture store on the main square, manager Leona Dillard doesn’t know what to think about the Baylor scandal and Briles’ role in it. She does know she isn’t comfortable with his hiring.

“Anybody in a position of leadership should be a good role model and have a clear background,” she says.

“Away from all the big-town drama”

Across the square in Steve-O’s Pizza and Pub, where Ms. Grigson works as a waitress, there’s a different view. It’s the view that seems to prevail in Mount Vernon.

One of her sons, a quarterback for the eighth grade football team, “loves Coach Briles,” she says. Every time he has stopped in at Steve-O’s he’s been “super, super nice.”

Sitting at the bar, Jason Ross adds that having a coach as talented and well connected as Mr. Briles can only benefit the players long term, particularly with college recruiters.

“He’s a [Division I] coach, he knows all the other D1 coaches. ... If any of those kids has decent talent and size, he’ll deliver for them,” he says.

Located far outside the state’s major media markets, Mount Vernon is somewhere you’ve needed the talent of Mr. Meredith to get noticed. But the town’s remoteness may be something that benefits both Mr. Briles and any parents who may be skeptical of him.

“Y’all don’t wanna believe it but I just like to coach football,” he told the Los Angeles Times after the team’s first game of the season.

And in a town with a population one-sixth the size of Baylor’s student body, there will surely be fewer unknowns within the community.

“You would think because he’s going to be such a part of the community, that there’s going to be an extra layer of oversight” from locals, says Mr. Tepper, the editor. And while success on the field may help win over critics, there will also be the accountability of working for a public school. Baylor is not subject to public records requests, for example. Mount Vernon is.

“He’s moving to a public institution from a private institution,” adds Mr. Tepper, “and that is not nothing.”

Mount Vernon gave Mr. Briles a two-year contract. The team won its opening three games by a combined score of 151-36. But winning over skeptics like Ms. Dillard “all depends [on] what he’s like here.”

“That’s going to [be seen] over the next few months here in Mount Vernon,” she says, “away from all the big-town drama.”

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