HOOKS, Tex. — There’s an old man standing alone in a cold rain. The high school football team he’s coaching is losing a game a dozen miles from the Arkansas border, and he’s soaked and frustrated as players slide through inch-deep puddles on the sideline.
But there’s nothing sad about the sight, nothing sympathetic to be said about the rain-drenched man, isolated and wasting away. Because he is Art Briles, and his very presence is enough to divide an idyllic locale in east Texas.
“It’s all I’ve ever known,” he’ll say of coaching football, and like many previously powerful men disgraced during the #MeToo era, Briles refuses to go away.
In May 2016, Baylor University fired Briles after an external investigation found that 17 women had been sexually assaulted by 19 football players. A later lawsuit suggested as many as 31 football players had committed 52 rapes; another alleged victim said she was drugged and raped by as many as eight players in what was a freshman hazing ritual.
Though dozens more university and athletic department employees would lose their jobs, Briles — who had led the Bears to consecutive Big 12 championships and coached Robert Griffin III to the 2011 Heisman Trophy — had been the face of the school’s highly successful football team. Now he was the man who, according to investigating law firm Pepper Hamilton, oversaw a program that had shown striking indifference and even hostility toward sexual assault victims.
Briles said he had no knowledge of any misconduct. But a 2017 legal filing, submitted on behalf of Baylor’s interim president and three members of its Board of Regents, suggested the former coach “had developed, enabled, and encouraged a culture within the football program” that shielded players from appropriate discipline and in fact attempted to insulate Briles himself from non-football issues, in effect allowing him to plead ignorance on anything happened off the field.
“What a fool,” Briles texted an assistant coach, according to the filing, referring to a female Baylor athlete who had accused a football player of brandishing a gun at her.
“She a stripper?” the coach said in a separate text to a staffer after a massage therapist claimed a player exposed himself and asked for sexual favors.
“I’m hoping it will take care of itself,” he texted an assistant coach after a player was caught selling drugs.
Time and again, the filing said, Briles sidestepped or outright ignored players’ indiscretions and crimes. After a player was accused of rape for a fourth time, Briles took no action for 10 days, refusing to notify the university’s judicial affairs office until a reporter asked if the player had been suspended.
“Tell me what you want me to do, and I’ll do it,” Briles told the board when it asked for an explanation; the coach’s refusal to accept responsibility or suggest solutions led to his termination as much as the wreckage he had overseen, though the university nonetheless paid Briles $15.1 million in severance.
In the three years since, Briles has been unemployable — at least in the United States — with everyone on his former staff stained. Now he’s back on the sideline in a town of 2,700, coaching the same offense and using the same methods that won big at Baylor, in a state and country where football is a cultural addiction.
“I just wish he wasn’t there,” said Brenda Tracy, a rape survivor and sexual assault prevention advocate who spoke at Baylor shortly after Briles was fired in 2016. “I think it’s the worst-case scenario, to have him in that little tiny town with those kids.”
But he is here, having already attracted new controversy. Although Briles will still insist he’s a football coach who was caught up in a systemic failure, it is no longer possible to view him in such simple terms. So some residents have been reluctant to support him. Or criticize him.
Or say anything.
“Whether or not Briles is guilty, not guilty, people are upset,” said Shannon Ostertag, a resident who runs several businesses here alongside her husband, former NBA player Greg Ostertag. “We’ve just got a bunch of good people who believe different things.”
Keeping a secret
Early last May, Mount Vernon Coach Josh Finney confided to a few district officials that he was pursuing other jobs. This being a small town, and high school football in Texas, it didn’t stay a secret long.
In line at the bank, where two purple Tigers flags wave in the breeze, customers debated whether Finney was staying or going. At a shopping complex off Tom Ramsay Highway, where a small church offers “Pizza with the Pastor” on Wednesday evenings, residents speculated about who would replace him. At the Franklin County Courthouse, a century-old building and the centerpiece of a bucolic town square, lawyers whispered in hallways about whether Mount Vernon High’s glory days — the team had made the playoffs the previous three seasons, after a dozen years that didn’t include the postseason — were finished.
Landon Ramsay, a 33-year-old attorney and a nephew of former state representative Tom Ramsay, didn’t like that.
Two years earlier, he and his wife, Leigh Anne, decided to leave Waco, where they had graduated from Baylor, and return home to Mount Vernon. This wasn’t easy, and they had lived in Waco as the city and the football program grew: Griffin’s Heisman, the Bears’ regular appearances in the top 10, the opening in 2014 of a $266 million football stadium that would be the centerpiece of the Art Briles kingdom. Then, in 2016, the Ramsays watched as Baylor fell.
They had read the media reports, not just describing a lawless football program but what a court filing described as Briles’s and other athletic officials’ “see-no-evil” response to multiple rape allegations. But they didn’t believe them. Leigh Anne worked in the Bears’ football recruiting office and interacted regularly with Briles. He had never been anything but approachable, generous, humble. Turning a blind eye to sexual assault? Knowingly recruiting troubled players, such as defensive end Sam Ukwuachu, who in 2015 had been convicted of raping a Baylor soccer player? Leigh Anne said later that none of it sounded like the Briles she knew.
Regardless, in March 2017, the Ramsays decided to move into a house on the edge of a pasture, live humbly and quietly, give the kids plenty of room to run and grow. But the Tigers’ success on Friday nights, at least when Landon went to Mount Vernon High, had been modest. What if he could do something about it?
So one day, Leigh Anne cautiously agreed to send a text message, and before long Landon found himself on the phone with the Art Briles. At the time Briles was in Italy, so desperate to coach football that he was leading a team in Florence whose players ranged in age from 16 to 43. As the men spoke about Mount Vernon and football here, Landon Ramsay noticed something.
“He kept not saying no,” the attorney says now.
Ramsay then spoke to Jason McCullough, the school district’s superintendent, and he liked the idea and brought it to the principal and the school board. McCullough would later say the district’s attorney vetted Briles, and a 2017 letter from Baylor’s general counsel distancing the former Bears coach from the scandal — dated less than three months after Briles dropped a libel lawsuit against the school — reinforced to McCullough he was recruiting the right man.
“We can for sure go to bed at night and sleep,” he said, though one scenario did make the superintendent restless.
Months earlier, the University of Southern Mississippi and a Canadian Football League team had announced plans to hire Briles as an assistant coach. But public response was fierce, and it coincided with a global movement that empowered women to speak out and fight back against a culture that had previously allowed men to participate in, or turn a blind eye to, sexual violence. Both teams reversed course, and this followed a brief media firestorm after the NFL’s Cleveland Browns invited Briles to their team facility as a guest consultant in 2017, and Auburn distancing itself after rumors suggested it was considering Briles for its offensive coordinator job.
He remained out of work, but McCullough decided the mistake hadn’t been in those teams pursuing Briles. It had been allowing the media to find out about it.
With that in mind, McCullough and Ramsay agreed on a nearly impossible gambit: keeping a secret in Mount Vernon. When a friend or colleague approached Ramsay in the grocery store or the courthouse, he would shrug and change the subject. For about a month, he says now, maybe a dozen people knew Briles was in play.
McCullough also avoided discussions he considered extraneous, including those with victims at Baylor or anyone representing the NCAA.
“We felt very good with the information we had,” he said.
On the Friday before Memorial Day, less than three hours before Mount Vernon High’s graduation ceremony, the school board commenced a special meeting. Briles’s name had not been included on the publicly released agenda. After about 90 minutes, following a 7-0 vote, McCullough appeared in a live video on the school district’s Facebook page. With staffers and a group of Tigers football players present, McCullough introduced Mount Vernon’s new coach.
“Plan on being a champion,” Briles told the small assembly, “because that’s what we’re going to be.”
Sticking to it
It’s a Saturday morning in east Texas, and Art Briles walks into the athletic director’s office at Mount Vernon High. He issues a welcome, asks questions, makes small talk. He doesn’t get much company.
“It’s been a confusing journey,” he says. “But you know, you’ve got to trust God. God’s got a plan, and you know, you’ve got to . . .”
He trails off. Looks down and sighs. Then he smiles.
“You’ve got to stay sane, first of all,” he says, going on to say that’s where football comes in. Without the game, Briles says, “I’d be jumping in the river.”
He keeps talking, something he hasn’t done much lately in public or private, saying that even that title outside the door — “ATHLETIC DIRECTOR” — is a little much. Briles is a football coach, he’ll say more than once. But the job description here was what it was, the only reason Mount Vernon could pay him $82,000 a year, and Briles no longer sees the point in arguing.
“I’ve learned to say yes to everything,” he says, “because I’ve been told no a bunch.”
About two years ago, Briles started writing a book, at first by longhand in legal pads and then on a computer. It contains his life story, told chronologically — the addiction that plagued his mother, the car crash that killed his parents — and it eventually filters into his version of what happened at Baylor. His truth. When colleges and pro teams turned him down, he would jot a few thoughts in his manuscript as, he says, “self-therapy.” When he was in Florence and his wife and daughter went off to explore Europe, he would stay in the apartment and write. He figures he filled maybe 700 pages.
“Do I feel like I should be viewed differently?” Briles says. “One hundred percent. One hundred percent. I think there’s — there was a narrative put out there that doesn’t fit the facts, bottom line.”
He pauses before continuing.
“What made me — what makes me — a good coach is that I trust people,” he says, “and I’m very loyal. But it’s also what got me in trouble: that I trusted people, and I was very loyal to the people that I thought would do everything, thick and thin.”
He won’t say who he believes betrayed him, saying he has to save some material for the book. But he keeps talking. Like here, Briles insists, he coached football. Nothing more.
Decades ago, not long after his parents’ deaths, Briles felt a pull toward alcohol and suspected he had inherited some of his mother’s addictive tendencies. But he had witnessed her unraveling, so he refused to go out in high school or drink beer in college.
“You have to fight that; you have to channel it,” he says, and he did so by directing the energy into football. He didn’t like traveling or socializing or movies. He liked football.
The years passed. Briles kept disappearing into the dark film room, kept sinking deeper. It so happened that his home state suffered from the same affliction, and both could occasionally ignore anything else competing for their attention.
Briles kept winning, rising, being rewarded. Baylor made him a millionaire, Griffin made him a household name, and by 2012 Briles believed the Bears — who, before he took the job in 2008, had won at least 10 games only once in the program’s 105-year history — could win a national championship.
Practically speaking, he had become the chief executive of a sports corporation whose annual operating budget swelled from $26 million in 2003 to $101 million in 2016. But in his mind, he was strictly a coach who could find weaknesses in any defense, game-plan for any opponent, win any recruiting battle. Waco, he identified long ago, was nearly equidistant to Dallas, Houston and San Antonio. Briles, who sold his program and himself by projecting humility with a west Texas drawl, believed getting players there was simple because, he says, “grandmamas want to watch their babies.”
He says now that, regardless of overtures from rival college programs and even NFL teams, he was planning to stay at Baylor forever. Besides, everything he claims to have cared about — faith, family and football, in that order — were in Waco: a private Baptist university that supported him and never asked him to conceal his Christian faith; a coaching staff that included his son, Kendal, and son-in-law Jeff Lebby, with the entire family no more than a short drive away; and a seemingly unstoppable football program.
“We had it going about as good as it could go,” Briles says. “We loved it. We really did.”
Then, he says, he emerged from the dark one day in 2016, and reality was almost blinding. Baylor had no Title IX office until 2014, so administrators learned of several victims’ complaints through the news media. The university faced multiple lawsuits that accused the school and athletic program of failing to adequately address complaints of sexual assault; though several of the suits have been settled, one representing 15 women is still pending.
The vast majority of alleged victims filed civil actions under pseudonyms, but former Baylor student Jasmin Hernandez spoke publicly about her case against the school before it was settled in 2017. An attorney who represented Hernandez did not respond to The Washington Post’s request to interview Hernandez.
Briles would maintain he had no idea about his players’ transgressions, but Hernandez claimed in her suit that her parents attempted several times to call Briles directly. Hernandez’s mother, the filing claimed, received a call from Briles’s secretary, saying the football office was looking into the allegations.
But Briles insists he was never provided a reason why he was fired. He says Christopher Holmes— the university general counsel whose letter would later help Briles get his next job — never explained why the regents were terminating him.
“I coach football,” Briles says, and each time he does, it seems to reiterate that he still doesn’t understand that the job responsibilities extend beyond watching film and calling plays. “That’s what I was hired to do. I was hired to coach football. So I wasn’t caught up in the political, or whatever was going on here or there.”
He says he’s different now, certainly more guarded and less trusting. But some things haven’t changed: Briles’s focus, at least in his mind, is restricted to coaching. But what about the documentary crew that has been shadowing him for months, from Italy to Mount Vernon? What about the two brothers who recently joined the Tigers after moving from Colorado to east Texas, living in an RV park with a former Baylor player who’s involved in the documentary, and were recently ruled ineligible following an appeals process that lasted weeks?
Briles shrugs. Although he was publicly reprimanded last month for subverting Texas high school rules, he insists these were all decisions made by others.
“I don’t know the depth of it,” he says in that drawl. “If they bring me a piece of paper that says they’re eligible, I’ll play them. If they bring me one that says they’re not, I won’t play them. It’s that simple.”
He keeps talking, and in these moments it’s easy to question whether Briles, such a gifted salesman, can truly be this brilliant on a football field and this naive off it. Invariably, his words are drawn back to Baylor. He has watched a few minutes of the Bears’ 9-1 start this season, but because watching his old team is painful, he doesn’t linger. Waco was, after all, the site of so much turmoil, and in the aftermath dozens of employees — including the school’s athletic director and president — lost their jobs. Some, he says, were even Baylor graduates.
“That’s like disowning your own,” Briles says. “Children, grandchildren — all those people involved that had to change their lives. I mean, it changed their lives. . . . That hurt me more than anything else because it affected so many people.”
And the sexual assault victims? What about their lives?
“I feel horrible,” he says. “And I definitely feel like it was a systematic — see, I don’t want to get into that with the university. I don’t think I can do that. I really don’t. But just to answer the question about the victims: I feel awful.”
He pauses, sighing once more.
“A lot of lives were changed,” he says.
The last time Mount Vernon was this divided, it wasn’t because Shannon and Greg Ostertag converted the old hardware store into a restaurant. It was because they advertised “WINE & BEER” on a window facing the town square.
Until 2013, Franklin County had been dry since Prohibition. But five years after a razor-thin vote made alcohol sales legal, some residents were turned off by the restaurant’s flagrancy. There was a petition demanding the removal of the six-inch letters, at least two articles on the front page of the town’s weekly newspaper and a city ordinance proposed last January that would “eliminate the signage requirements” on buildings facing the street.
Eventually the unrest calmed, the letters stayed up, and after the Briles announcement four months later, residents had something new to whisper about. The school’s Facebook post in which McCullough introduced Mount Vernon’s new coach collected 185 likes and 91 angry emoji.
“Shame on you!!” someone posted.
“Great hire Mount Vernon.”
McCullough avoided social media and his email inbox for two days. But then on Sunday morning, he fired up his phone and considered the response. He dismissed critical posts as hysterical, anonymous emails threatening to leave town or calling him a “dips---” or “backwoods” as cowardly, denunciations by national media as out of touch with east Texas, its people, its values.
“It was said we sold our soul,” McCullough said with an eyeroll.
Landon Ramsay, whose idea kicked this off, walked into church some Sundays and wondered what people were thinking.
“I haven’t had anybody come up to me and say this is bad,” he says, imagining his hometown as the next Texas town illuminated and united under Friday night lights. “I also think Mount Vernon is different. We can continue being nice to one another while disagreeing with each other.”
But some people did think it was bad: At a school board meeting weeks after Briles’s hiring was announced, a resident named Lauren Lewis told the seven members that they “could’ve proclaimed that integrity matters over a couple winning seasons of football” or at least voiced their concerns for the sexual assault survivors.
Others were unhappy, even if quietly, about a choice they had no part in making and a conversation they had no interest in having. But here came the media, from places such as Dallas and Los Angeles and Washington, all looking for opinions that might be discussed less as momentary thoughts about a football coach than peeks into neighbors’ minds, political leanings and character.
“We went to bed one night, and we were a small little town that you pass by on I-30,” Greg Ostertag says, “and we woke up in the national spotlight . . .”
“In a bad way,” Shannon says.
“So it was not fair to the town,” Greg says. “If you’re from Texas, you understand football is everything — has been for 40 years. [McCullough] saw an opportunity to bring in one of the best coaches to ever coach football and really uplift our football — not really looking at the big picture. All he saw was ‘Friday Night Lights,’ the stands full, the fans cheering, us putting up 50 points a game, and that’s where it stopped.”
The Ostertags don’t want to say what they think about Briles, considering the “WINE & BEER” thing and how an opinion in either direction might turn off half their customer base. But it strikes Shannon as strange that ordinary residents are the ones usually speaking about this.
Although Briles, McCullough and Ramsay participated in interviews for this story, each acknowledged ignoring or declining requests from other news outlets to speak on the record.
That rankles Shannon as much as anything.
“You’ve got the eyes of a nation on you, and you want to hide?” she says, going on to say this could have been an opportunity to promote Mount Vernon, to help shape a town’s narrative, to at least participate in a difficult but unavoidable conversation.
That’s what she has done, in public and at home. Of the 493 students at the high school where Art Briles coaches football, 239 are girls. One of those is a 15-year-old named Lily, and in addition to being a sophomore and a cheerleader, she’s also Shannon’s daughter.
Briles’s hire, along with everything else, gave Shannon a reason to bring up other things with Lily: boorish or violent behavior by boys she thinks she knows, party culture in high school and college and beyond, complacency by powerful individuals widely viewed as authority figures.
“It’s so easy for us to assume that I don’t need to handle that because somebody else is going to handle it,” Shannon says she has reminded her daughter. “Just stop what you’re doing long enough to be aware, because doing the right thing is always the right thing.”
By the time Briles arrived in Mount Vernon two months after being hired, his coaching staff was running the football machine: conditioning sessions, camp registration, other tasks that aren’t direct responsibilities of the head coach.
Briles, therefore, could walk in two weeks before the first game and do what he’s good at and what he enjoys: installing his offense and designing his plays.
“There’s a lot of accountability,” he says of his new coaching staff. “A lot of trust.”
After Briles was fired at Baylor, his assistant coaches retained their jobs. Kendal Briles was accused in one of the settled lawsuits of using sex to lure recruits to Waco.
“Do you like white women? Because we have a lot of them at BAYLOR and they LOVE football players,” the 2017 complaint accused Kendal Briles of telling a Dallas-area player; the suit alleged the coaching staff arranged sex for recruits during official visits to campus.
But Kendal Briles’s career has remained on an upward trajectory, and he is now Florida State’s offensive coordinator. Lebby, Art Briles’s son-in-law, found refuge at tiny Southeastern University before being hired as an assistant coach at Central Florida in December 2017.
Both coaches have growing families, and Jan Briles travels to Florida often to visit her grandchildren. But Jan’s husband doesn’t, and recently he missed his grandson’s 10th birthday. Art Briles hasn’t seen the whole family since Christmas, because while everyone else is together, he’s on some remote sideline calling his football plays.
“I hate it,” he tells others, and himself.
In Mount Vernon, Briles doesn’t go into town or do much exploring. He doesn’t like sitting at his rented house or watching games at Steve-O’s Pizza & Pub or driving around in his red pickup. It is, he says, because then he’ll think about how most everything he loves is a few hundred miles away.
But the truth is, the thing he loves most — a distraction as reliable today as it was when his parents died — is right here, in a room Briles likes because it’s dark and silent and lonely.
Most mornings, he’s in the school’s film room by 6:30. Around lunchtime, he says, he emerges to interact with players before disappearing again, a junkie retreating into the shadows to get his fix.
He won’t outright say he wants back into the big time, but he does. In 2017 he got a tattoo on his arm that says “Overcome All Odds,” and when Briles assembled his staff at Mount Vernon, he made it a point to hire young coaches with no experience. Four of them played for him at Baylor.
“If I was trying to come here and build a dynasty, I’d have hired coaches with kids,” he says, and if Briles believes winning football games is a path toward redemption or validation, he’s not alone.
On this Saturday, following a few hours of morning film study, Briles has given himself the afternoon off. There’s a Range Rover idling outside the football office, and it’ll drive him to Dallas to see Jan, who’s returning from Orlando after a week with the family.
As Briles stuffs a legal pad covered in football plays into a messenger bag, he says yet again that the separation is the hardest part of being here. But if he really believes that — if he truly ranks faith, family and football in that order — why doesn’t he just bail on this and go with Jan next time?
“It doesn’t make any sense. I know that,” Briles says. “But it’s just who I am.”
With the running SUV outside, he lifts the bag and walks into the hall. Before heading toward the exit, he pokes his head into the film room, where his assistants are analyzing the previous night’s game. Briles says something about the opposing quarterback, lingering as his eyes are drawn back to the screen again and again, and for a little while longer, the vehicle and his wife and everything else can wait.