Mark this day down. Turn the corner of this page in the college football family bible. Someone in the gridiron-industrial complex stood up and said some standards are more important than winning.
Baylor will fire head coach Art Briles, who in the past five years has won 50 games and two Big 12 Conference championships. The university also forced president Kenneth Starr to relinquish the job and reprimanded athletic director Ian McCaw. But Starr will be university chancellor, and McCaw will still be AD. Briles received the harshest punishment.
“We were horrified by the extent of these acts of sexual violence on our campus,” Baylor Board of Regents chairman Richard Willis said in a statement. “This investigation revealed the University’s mishandling of reports in what should have been a supportive, responsive and caring environment for students. The depth to which these acts occurred shocked and outraged us.”
Briles’ dismissal is different from Barry Switzer being forced out at Oklahoma, or Jim Tressel at Ohio State, to name two other highly successful coaches who lost their jobs because of their program’s misdeeds off the field. Oklahoma and Ohio State live among the blue bloods of the sport. Both programs regained their status within college football and maintain it to the present day.
Baylor asking Briles to leave is like Facebook turning on Mark Zuckerberg. Both of these CEOs created something where nothing existed.
Briles won while protecting several players from the criminal justice system. Once upon a time, football coaches did this the same way they ordered players to run. The university and the coach considered that duty a part of their job. Hall of Fame coach Bobby Bowden, late in his career at Florida State, lamented the passing of the era when a phone call with the chief of police would clean up any mess his players might have made.
In a release Thursday trumpeting “extensive corrective actions,” the university announced it had “significant concerns about the tone and culture within Baylor’s football program as it relates to accountability for all forms of student athlete misconduct.”
That era, and Bowden, are long gone. Who is responsible? You are. We all are. We demand greater adherence to community standards of good behavior. Coaches must treat players well. Players must treat other students with respect. The double standard is the exception, no longer the rule.
The reasons for this may not be mere honor. This is a more litigious society. Legal responsibility weighs more heavily on employers than it did a generation ago. Thanks to the internet, we all live more public lives. The motivations for good behavior may not come from an angelic place. But good behavior is demanded where once it wasn’t.
Baylor is not the first school to demand it. Illinois dumped head coach Tim Beckman the week before last season started because he treated his players poorly. But Beckman had won one Big Ten game in two seasons.
Alabama forced out defensive line coach Bo Davis three weeks ago reportedly because he didn’t cooperate with an NCAA investigation. Not cooperating with the NCAA used to be an article of faith among coaches.
Still, Davis is an assistant. He is not the head coach who has been lionized for turning a perennial loser into a national contender. That is who Baylor just ditched. That’s what makes the dismissal of Briles a milestone.
Briles took over a football desert. The four coaches before him had been fired for losing. Baylor had gone 13 years without a bowl game. Grant Teaff averaged a 6-5 record for 21 seasons (128-105-6, 1972-92) and the university erected a statue of him. History demanded little. Briles provided a lot.
He executed Baylor’s rise with a watchmaker’s timing. Briles built Baylor into a Big 12 power just as Texas and Mack Brown lost their edge, just as Nebraska, Missouri and Texas A&M bailed on the conference for points north and east. That’s not diminishing what the Bears achieved. Nine other programs had the opportunity to do what Briles drove Baylor to do.
Briles’ success begat McLane Stadium, the House That Art Built, the $266 million palace that opened in 2014. McLane Stadium will serve as proof of Briles’ ability to coach long after people forget why he left. But the stadium, and the success that built it, aren’t enough to excuse the corners that Briles cut on his way to the top of the Big 12.
The release Thursday said the university would “create and maintain a culture of high moral standards among student-athletes and leadership.” You only create something when it heretofore didn’t exist.
We live in an era of great change within college football. The Power 5 conferences have concentrated the political clout within the sport among themselves. On the field, however, the power in college football hasn’t been this diffuse in the past 60 years. Sure, Alabama and Ohio State have won the two College Football Playoffs. But the cross-pollination between the College Football Playoff rankings and the programs with the top NCAA graduation rates has never been higher. Stanford, Northwestern and Duke, academic powerhouses all, are contending for and winning championships.
Even as college football gropes about to defend its way of life from those demanding salaries for the student-athletes, as coaches deal with big money and the win-now demands that come with it, the sport has come a long way from the cesspool in which it resided 30 years ago. The sport is cleaner than it used to be. Some ills are too virulent for winning to cure. In the end, that’s why Baylor got rid of Briles.