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Art Briles Looking Up
My Journey from Tragedy to Triumph
By Nick Eatman
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2013 Art Briles and Nick Eatman
All rights reserved.
Who Is Arthur Ray?
"Be who you are."
"Don't let that 'aw shucks' attitude fool you. ... He's trying to beat you by 60."
That's how Arthur Ray Briles is seen by his first college quarterback, who just so happens to now be one of his colleagues. Kliff Kingsbury learned that lesson while playing under Art at Texas Tech, and fully expects the same attitude today when they compete against each other as rival Big 12 coaches.
Under the long-sleeved, Dri-FIT shirt, stylish sunglasses, and always- present ball cap, behind the smiles, laughs, and kidding around, lies a man who is eagerly looking to get any edge possible to win. Football games, a hand of cards, or even off the line at a stoplight in a residential area — whether there's a scoreboard or not, Briles knows who's winning.
As the head coach at Baylor, he's a busy man with people continuously tugging for his attention. But if he's got time for a little golf or even a board game with his family, having fun is fine, perhaps a close second. Art's intention, first and foremost, is to win.
And when it comes to his chosen profession, if you're not winning, you're losing.
Over the course of his life, Briles has faced challenges that tested more than just his competitive nature, but the very core of his fighting spirit. At the age of 20, he lost the only safety net he had ever known when his parents and aunt Tottie (who had been like a grandmother to him) were killed in a horrific car accident en route to one of his college football games in Dallas.
Does he carry any guilt?
"You bet I do," he said. "I definitely felt guilt about it and still do. One hundred percent."
While 37 years have passed since the tragedy, Art knows that feeling isn't going away. The loss is something he must carry with him. But he made a decision not long after the accident to live his life through the manner in which Dennis and Wanda Briles had raised him, with honor, pride, respect for others, an obligation to do and act right, and a burning desire to succeed.
His parents have been gone for nearly twice as long as he knew them, yet every day he pays respect to their legacy. Still, talking about his memories of the accident, or even how he continues to cope with the loss, is rare for him.
Briles doesn't want pity or charity. He doesn't want respect that isn't earned. He's a fair and honest man who abides by the rules, goes to church on Sunday when he can, and has genuine care for anyone who steps into his life.
He doesn't treat people the way he wants to be treated. He goes further. Ask a current player on the Baylor squad, a former standout at Stephenville High School in the early 1990s, or even an older colleague or coach, the opinions don't vary.
They'll all tell you how he has a knack for making people feel 10 feet tall. The coach knows how to push the right buttons, say the right thing, apply the right nickname, or assign the right chore. He makes sure the player, coach, trainer, equipment staffer, or anyone else he can help realizes that Art Briles is on his side.
If he knows you, he's a fan. And he'll be a fan until you cross him. And even then, you'll get the benefit of the doubt.
Not that he's always received the benefit of the doubt himself. He's had his share of fights, quarrels, and indifferences. From his childhood days to starring in high school football and track to becoming a Division I student-athlete to later forging a successful career as a football coach, Briles has learned from every experience along the way, both the good and bad.
He knows he can't please everyone. And he won't win every game or challenge before him. But that certainly won't stop him from trying.
"His positive outlook on life is incredible. It's raw and real," says youngest daughter Staley, who helps run the family-run yogurt shop, Oso's (Spanish for bear), located less than a mile from the Baylor campus in Waco. "He always sees the best in everyone. He has had everything taken away from him, so he strives every day to be his best and truly treats every day as a gift."
* * *
John Greeson is the Church of Christ pastor in Rule, Texas. He's in his late seventies and has known Art for more than 40 years. Ahmad Dixon is a 22-year-old senior at Baylor who grew up in Waco and surprised a lot of locals by signing with the hometown university. Bob Warner is a retired coach who taught Briles in elementary school and is playing golf to stay busy as he approaches 80. Jason Bragg was a star player at Stephenville in the early 1990s and helped Art win his first two state titles. Donnie Avery was an inner-city recruit at Houston who nearly quit school because he had trouble balancing class, football, and being a new father until his head coach convinced him not to give up. Avery is now a six-year NFL veteran.
Different people. Different backgrounds. Different cultures. Different relationships. Yet all of them say Briles is one of the most competitive human beings on the planet. In some way, some form, some fashion, through the years he has displayed the same consistent characteristic to his closest friends, mentors, teammates, and players.
As a football coach, having a competitive nature on the sideline is a given. In fact, Art rarely loses his cool anymore. There are always exceptions, but he's usually level-headed and stoic during even the most intense game situations.
These days, his will to win perhaps comes out more when away from the playing field, particularly on the golf course. Art doesn't necessarily crush the ball off the tee but has more of a smooth drive that glides, barely lifting 25 feet in the air. He's got a crafty short game, and his hand-eye coordination allows him to sink a few long putts here and there. He's a high-80s player, which is good enough to compete with just about everyone with whom he shares a round.
During a two-man scramble one Father's Day with Mike Lebby, who coached with him at Sweetwater and has remained a good friend to this day, the duo was actually winning the tournament midway through the back nine. Around the 15 hole, Art and Mike parked to hit their shots, and Mike went to the back of the cart to pull out a club. Art was in the middle of the fairway about to approach his ball when screeching brakes interrupted the quiet of the course, followed by Mike's loud screams. Art ran over quickly to see just what had happened.
A careless driver rammed Mike in between their carts, bringing the oversized man to the ground. Mike was having trouble getting back to his feet and knew something was wrong with his knee, likely needing medical attention.
Art responded with the only questions he knew to ask.
"Dang, 'Lebb' ... can we finish? Do you think we can still win this thing?" Art pleaded. "You've been playing your ass off. We've got to go win this thing."
And Mike tried to give it a go, but with no power in his legs, his shots started to falter, as did their hopes of winning. First place slipped away with Mike limping through the round. He eventually did need surgery to repair torn ligaments. To this day, Art is still disappointed they didn't win that Father's Day trophy.
A few years earlier, Art was playing in another two-man scramble with Mike Copeland, a longtime coach in Stephenville who was the only holdover from the previous staff when Briles got the job in 1988. Copeland was born with just one arm, but still manages to be extremely athletic. The last thing Copeland considers himself is handicapped, which is one of the things Art most admires about his longtime defensive coordinator.
The only handicap Copeland talks about involves his golf game. For years he was a 6-handicap and he can still play a competitive round now in his sixties.
But during a tournament in Stephenville one year in the late 1980s, they were just about to tee off when a female tournament official noticed Copeland and told him he could play from the ladies tees if he so desired. Although extremely offended, Copeland was used to that kind of reaction from strangers and kindly responded that he'd be fine and could play from the regular tee box like everyone else.
Art was shaking his head. What nerve. He couldn't believe ...his playing partner would do such a thing.
"God almighty, Copeland. What are you doing? We would've won this thing."
But you don't have to be within earshot of Art Briles to know when he's ready to tee off on the golf course. He receives plenty of double takes from his attire alone. He'll wear his hat backward, have double wristbands on both arms over his long-sleeve shirts and wear Neumann football gloves that his receivers and defensive backs use in practices and games.
"People would look at him and say, 'Is this guy serious?'" Lebby said. "But he is always serious when it comes to playing golf or really anything competitive. He just wants to beat you. He takes everything seriously."
His competitive drive isn't always about playing sports, but also watching them. Before he became as well-known as he is now, Art got a rush out of getting into sporting events without paying. Whether in a side door at a basketball game, or the end gate on a football field, or maybe even an underground tunnel at a sports arena, Art would find his way into the game. The funny thing about it all is that, being a high-school coach and athletic director for many years, he could've likely gotten into anything he wanted to by simply showing a badge or his ID.
And it wasn't just sporting events, either. Once flying to Houston with coach Randy Clements for a coaches convention, the ever-impatient Briles thought the hotel shuttle that was supposed to pick them up was taking entirely too long. They could've called for a cab, but that would've been an unnecessary expense.
So Art waved down a man in a small pickup truck with a camper on the back. The man had just dropped off relatives at the airport and was somewhat surprised to have a complete stranger getting his attention. Art kindly asked the man if they could get a ride to the hotel, which was only about two miles down the road. The driver agreed but told them they'd have to get in the back of the truck.
So, wearing a dress shirt and slacks, Randy and Art climbed into the back, sitting on a spare tire as they bounced around holding their luggage in their hands.
Art looked over at Randy, who wasn't quite sure about this idea, but was going along for the ride.
"This is the type of stuff that drives my wife crazy!"
They made it to the hotel in a matter of minutes, shook hands with their unexpected chauffeur, and walked into the hotel.
"We saved time, for sure," Randy said. "We got our pants dirty ... but we saved time."
* * *
Ask him his two favorite loves and undoubtedly family and football top the list — in that order. But what's third?
That's an easy one, actually. From his earliest memories of listening to Motown hits by the Temptations and Marvin Gaye while attending junior high in Abilene, to downloading a few of the new rap songs that his players work out to in the weight room, Art Briles is inspired by music. Always has been.
To this football coach's ears, music is more than just rhythmic noise. He appreciates the artistic talent involved, both in the musicians' skill to play instruments or sing vocally and, more importantly, in having the creativity to write the songs. Art doesn't just hear the music but listens to the lyrics. Even back when he was rocking out to Bob Dylan or Eric Clapton or especially Jimi Hendrix, Art always found a way to relate to the writing. In the late 1960s, he knew every word off the album from the latter's Electric Ladyland.
He uses music for inspiration but also to reminisce.
"I let music take me back sometimes," Art said. "It lets me remember what I was doing when I heard a particular song."
When Art got to Rule in the early 1970s, there weren't many FM stations in the remote region. But at night, he could pick up KOMA out of Oklahoma City. Just lying in bed, he would sometimes fall asleep listening to the likes of Stevie Wonder, Al Green, and Pink Floyd.
When he hauled hay as a summer job once in a while in high school, Art jammed to eight-tracks of Cream, Elton John, and Earth, Wind, & Fire, one of his favorite bands.
After Briles went off to college at Houston, he actually had some early aspirations of becoming a DJ, although his girlfriend and future wife, Jan, discouraged that idea. But living in the big city for the first time, Art and some of his teammates would work major concerts. That's how he was able to see Dylan, Willie Nelson, Joan Baez, Neil Young, Isaac Hayes, and Led Zeppelin.
The Beatles were on top of the charts throughout much of his youth, and like many of his peers, Art was no different in his admiration. He respected how they were able to evolve through their music, both culturally and lyrically.
In the early 1980s, when his coaching career really started to blossom and his family started to grow, as well, music didn't seem to play as big a role in his life. Coincidentally, Art wasn't really fond of '80s music either, but his interest picked back up as his kids got older and the music scene changed in the 1990s. He was a big fan of Creed, a band he saw live several times.
More recently, one of Art's favorite musicians has become Amos Lee, who has a classic sound of easy listening rock with a mixture of jazz and folk.
"He kind of throws me back to the Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix days, with the slow, soulful singers," Art says of Lee. "I've seen him six or seven times, and I've gotten to meet him. But I really like the old-school sound that you hear a lot today."
He even found a way to combine his love for music with his competitive nature. At Stephenville, he emphasized the importance of the weight room to not only strengthen his team physically and mentally, but to also build camaraderie between the players and coaches. Coach Briles would often crank up the radio during their workouts, a practice that wasn't taking place around other high school programs in that era. Art implemented lifting groups where the coaching staff would work out with the players, and he'd oftentimes see who could name the song on the radio first. "Who you got?" he'd ask when a new tune came on.
It was also very common for Art to be in the middle of a bench press and shout out, "Five, six, seven ... Led Zeppelin ... eight, nine, 10!" One of his best players at Stephenville, all-state quarterback Kelan Luker, reminded Art of himself back in Rule. Luker knew he was a bit different than the rest of the players and didn't mind it. He was quirky at times and a little distant from his teammates. But he had a love for music that Art understood.
After leading Stephenville to a state title in 1998, when they set several passing and scoring records, Luker went to SMU for three seasons, but his heart just wasn't in football. He quit the sport to play bass guitar for the band Submersed, living his dream for seven years. He still recalls one of his favorite shows occurring in Houston, where he played in front of Briles and many of the current Houston coaches who had also been in Stephenville.
Whether he was listening to a famous recording artist worth a million bucks, or one of his former players bouncing around from gig to gig, Art just appreciated musicians and their ability to entertain.
* * *
One of the most common questions asked about Art Briles has nothing to do with football or his family or even music, for that matter. Of all things, what many fans want to know involves his attire.
It never fails, when Briles' name comes up, the question is raised: why does he always wear long sleeves?
The query is a valid one, too. Football isn't always played in the colder temperatures of November and December, and considering Art has never lived outside of the state of Texas, he knows all about the heat. But over the last decade or so, you can't find many, if any, pictures from his Houston or Baylor days when he's on the sideline or at a practice wearing short sleeves. Even if it's over 100 degrees at 3:30 in the afternoon, Coach Briles will likely be sporting a Dri-FIT long-sleeved shirt.
So what's the reason? The speculation has been humorous, ranging from the coach having multiple tattoos to scars or burns that he's trying to hide. His older brother, Eddie, has his own theory, though, after living with him for more than 16 years, remembering Art kept his front bedroom like a sauna.
"He's cold!" Eddie said. "He's wearing long sleeves because he's cold."
The real reason has more to do with wanting to sweat. While others would rather beat the heat, Art prefers to take his daily run in the middle of the afternoon. He would rather wear long sleeves and get in a good sweat.
And, more simply, he just prefers the look.
"It's really just a trend thing," Art said. "I've always liked sweatshirts and I love to sweat. The heat doesn't bother me. There's really no reason [for the long sleeves], other than I just feel more comfortable."
* * *
If Art Briles meets you once, he remembers you. If there's another meeting, he probably likes you. And if he likes you, you'll have a nickname.
Excerpted from Art Briles Looking Up by Nick Eatman. Copyright © 2013 Art Briles and Nick Eatman. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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