Chasing Challenges & Leaving Legacies: The Art Briles Story

By: Terry McKeown

Today, you’ll most likely know Coach Briles as the head football coach for Baylor University, where he once again turned an ailing program into a powerhouse performer.

The past two years the Baylor Bears football team has been back-to-back Big 12 Champs.

Leaving a legacy isn’t easy. It takes patience and persistence and a tremendous amount of hard work, but the end result is always pride. And that pride can last for lifetimes to come, echoing into the next generation and the generation after that and the generation after that.

Baylor Football vs UCF (Central Florida) - Fiesta Bowl - Airport sendoff, Grand Canyon, parade, press conference and practice - Glendale, Arizona - 12/30/2013

Baylor Football vs UCF (Central Florida) – Fiesta Bowl – Airport sendoff, Grand Canyon, parade, press conference and practice – Glendale, Arizona – 12/30/2013

In Stephenville, Coach Art Briles is a household name, but not for just his recent successes. Although he hasn’t coached in Erath County for well over a decade and a half, his legacy is the type that lives on.

I recently had the very special privilege to sit down and talk with Coach Briles and hear firsthand about that legacy.

Briles grew up playing football in Rule, Texas, where his father was head coach at the high school. Football and being a coach’s son was just part of everyday life for him.

“I think you could classify us as a coach’s family,” Briles said. “That’s kind of all we know. That’s all I ever knew growing up. It’s just what we do.”

After graduating high school, Briles attended the University of Houston on a football scholarship. During his sophomore year, he suffered an unthinkable tragedy when his parents and aunt were killed in a car crash as they were driving to a game to watch him play.

After such a devastating loss, Briles could have easily given up. But as his later career would demonstrate, Briles is not exactly the giving up type. In the fall of 1977, he transferred to Texas Tech, where his high school sweetheart Jan was attending, and finished out his degree.  He and Jan eventually married, and after completing grad school at Abilene Christian University, Briles started his career as a coach at Sundown High School.

“Jan has been my rock,” Briles states. “She’s someone that just always has a lot of trust and faith and is very positive – supportive all the way. We knew we were a team from day one and that’s never going to change.”NS_BRILES14B_2883006

In 1988 Briles became the head football coach at Stephenville High School. His challenge: the daunting task of turning around a team that hadn’t been to the playoffs in nearly 40 years.

“To put it bluntly: the football program there was just in bad shape,” Briles admitted. “They were coming off an 0-10 season just a couple seasons prior, and hadn’t been to the playoffs since 1952.”

In his book, Beating Goliath, Briles writes, “In Texas, where football is king, this school was a long way off from any coronation.”

It’s a fair question to ask what might draw a coach to want to take on such a tall order. He says he wanted to make a difference somewhere.

“It was a place where the people were hungry and anxious to get their football program turned around. I just came in to the right place at the right time.”

When asked if he ever felt like he might have bitten off more than he could chew, he didn’t seem to like that idiom too much.

“I don’t think you can ever bite off more than you can chew,” he said. “There might be times where you think, ‘hey this is going to be a tough role.’ But it’s all tough everywhere.”

In Briles’ first season as coach, the Stephenville Yellow Jackets managed to tie against their archrivals, Brownwood—at that time, one of the biggest heavy hitters in Texas high school football. In fact, the last time Stephenville beat Brownwood was in 1963.ECUW Art Briles_054

“You need a ‘wow’ game or a game that grabs people’s attention and makes them think, ‘Hey, maybe there’s a chance.’ That was our ‘wow’ game,” Briles said. “It changed everything about the perceptions of Stephenville and the program at the time.”

The very next season, the Yellow Jackets made it to the playoffs for the first time since 1952, and came out with a 10-3 record. They made it to the playoffs the year after that, and again the following year, and again the next. Finally in 1993, they won the state championship title. They won it again in 1994 making them back-to-back state champs.

“When I first got [to Stephenville] there were more opponents’ fans at the games than our own,” Briles said. “To go from that to becoming one of the best fan football teams in the state, it was pretty special.”

It’s worth noting that during Briles’ last two years as head coach, the Yellow Jackets were again back-to-back state champs (’98 and ’99.)

In 2000, Briles crossed over into collegiate coaching at his alma mater, Texas Tech. Three years later he was hired as head coach at the University of Houston, where he was also a student. Similar to Stephenville, Briles was tasked with fixing up a football program that was in desperate need of revival. In the two years before Briles came on board, the University of Houston Cougars had only won five games. In 2001, they didn’t even win a single game.

In his first season at Houston, Briles led the Cougars to a 7-5 record and snuck into a bowl game to finish out the year. In 2006, the team clung to a 10-4 record and clenched the conference championship.

Today, you’ll most likely know Coach Briles as the head football coach for Baylor University, where he once again turned an ailing program into a powerhouse performer.

In fact, the past two years the Baylor Bears football team has been back-to-back Big 12 Champs. Before Briles, the last time the Bears had won as many as 10 games in a season was back in 1980.Briles3

I’m sure you can detect a pattern here. From Stephenville to Houston to Baylor, there’s an Art Briles signature of taking on downtrodden teams and turning them into champions. When asked about this calling card in his career he simply said that he’s just always chased challenges. It’s something that motivates him.

“If you can be different and have people believe in what you’re doing, then you have a chance to change people’s perceptions and the outcomes of a program that’s been dormant for years,” Briles said.

As evidenced by his illustrious career, chasing challenges and changing people’s perceptions are all variables in Art Briles’ formula for creating a legacy. And to his fans and supporters, whether they come from Stephenville or Waco or wherever, Briles believes that everyone’s just looking for a reason to smile. “And that’s what we want, we want to make them smile.”

To smile in Stephenville, find a seat at Memorial Stadium this fall and enjoy some Friday night football. You probably won’t see Briles there, but you can still feel the remnants of his legacy.

And to catch the coach chase his next challenge, tune into the Baylor v. SMU game on September 4.