Baylor coach shaped by life in tiny Texas town

Updated: February 2, 2008, 9:02 AM ET
Associated Press

RULE, Texas -- The service was on a Monday afternoon in the football season of '76. No church in town could hold such a gathering, so the caskets were taken to the school, where classes had been canceled by order of the superintendent. The lids were shut.

Players from the state finalist team sat together in the auditorium. They could see an old teammate in the section for the bereaved. It was bad enough, sitting at funerals for their coach and his wife, who were teachers, twice-on-Sundays people of God and civic pillars in their community of 1,000. But it was that much worse for their quarterback, Art Briles.

In those caskets lay his parents.

Briles was 20 when his father, mother and aunt were killed. He was a scholarship football player at the University of Houston, and on the morning his family died, Briles was in Dallas, preparing to play Southern Methodist University.

He endured. He left college, returned to the land and people he knew, operated a forklift for a summer and peeled his soul from the dirt.

"I knew I had two paths," said Briles, a lanky man of 52 who still can't talk about his parents and aunt without long pauses, hard swallows and faraway stares. "You could wallow in despair and doubt, and whine and wonder. Or you could choose to move forward and live in honor of your parents and God. I decided I would look for a reason to prevail."

So he coached football.

He installed the wishbone in flat West Texas towns like his own. He moved to Stephenville and won four state championships. He coached five seasons at the University of Houston. The Cougars won games they didn't used to win. Briles never left Texas.

He still hasn't. In November, he became the 25th head coach at Baylor, a dusty relic of the Southwest Conference that last managed a winning season in 1995. When Briles addressed the public for the first time in Waco, he spoke of plans for conference championships and bowl games.

"I'm not intimidated by circumstances," Briles said a few days later. He pictured his parents and added, "Events in my life made me unafraid."

On that October day in the Big Country when they buried his parents, two clergymen read from the Bible. The pastor from the Baptist church, where Dennis Briles was a deacon and Wanda Briles was an alto in the choir, needed his colleague from the Church of Christ to assist him in committing their bodies to the old cemetery out past the cotton gin. It was like a wind kicked up and tore off the face of Rule.

John Greeson, the pastor at the Church of Christ, walked with Briles to the graves prepared for his parents. The sun shined on Rule. It was shirt-sleeve weather at the cemetery. Not much was said on that short walk through the grass, but Briles was like his father that way. They used words like currency and spent nothing on their burdens.

Suddenly, said Greeson, Briles asked the preacher, "Is this ever going to end?"


Football season used to begin in the summertime. Dennis Briles, a letterman himself at Rule in the early 1950s, summoned his players to the field behind the school, pointed in the direction of a fork of the Brazos River and mandated that the boys run all the way to the water. Then they had to run back.

The Rule Bobcats climbed ropes for conditioning. The ropes are gone now, but the poles remain, testaments to Coach Briles' belief that a football team needed to be conditioned to play as hard in the fourth quarter as it did in the first.

The Briles family -- Dennis, Wanda, Art and his older brother, Eddie -- had moved to Rule from Abilene. Wanda taught special education.

Dennis was the football coach, basketball coach, civics teacher and high school principal.

He was a man of his times and circumstances. He kept his hair short, wore modest clothes, measured his words, sat in the back at church, understood that kids were kids and believed the players on his football team should be an extension of all that is sacred about living in a small town. The Bobcats didn't just wear the name of their school on their dark blue jerseys. The word "RULE" implied everything those four letters mean.

"You were expected to act right and be right," Art Briles said.

Briles played quarterback for his father. Rule won nine games when Briles was a sophomore and nine his junior year. But the Bobcats lost a game each time, and their seasons were finished before the Class B playoffs began.

The fall of 1973 was different.

Rule tore through the season with not so much as an anxious moment. The Bobcats shut out five teams, including Prosper in the quarterfinals.

Art Briles broke two ribs in that game. He was sore when he and his 25 teammates limbered up before the title game in Weatherford. Carloads of people drove the 180 miles from Rule. They arrived to the coldest night they could remember. Spectators lit fires in garbage cans beyond the field to warm their hands.

Rule players and coaches looked across the field and stared. Their opponent, Big Sandy, looked like a battalion of college athletes. "They had an offensive team and a defensive team," mused Rob Kittley, a running back for Rule who also played defense. "At Rule, 'course, most of us never came off the field. We were just outmatched."

Mere numbers didn't flatten Rule 25-0. Big Sandy fielded a menacing linebacker named Lovie Smith, a future All-American at the University of Tulsa and head coach of the Chicago Bears. Bobby Taylor ran for 183 yards and scored all four touchdowns. His backup was David Overstreet, who played for the Oklahoma Sooners and the Miami Dolphins.

Two seasons after the Big Sandy game, Dennis Briles retired from coaching.

He was elected mayor and named Citizen of the Year in Rule. He kept his positions at the school and attended football games on Friday nights as a spectator. He had church on Sundays. But he left his Saturdays free.

He wanted to see his son's games when the University of Houston Cougars played near enough that he could drive.


On the morning of Oct. 16, 1976, Dennis and Wanda Briles rose early, pulled out of their driveway across the street from the school, turned right at the only stoplight in town and accelerated east on U.S. 380 out of Rule. Wanda Briles' older sister, Elsie Kittley, sat in the back seat of their Galaxie 500.

The sky was clear. The road was dry. The sun warmed the cotton fields of Haskell County.

They were traveling to Dallas to watch Houston play SMU at the Cotton Bowl. Their son was a sophomore split end for Bill Yeoman's Cougars, who already had beaten Baylor and Texas A&M to go 3-1 in their first season in the Southwest Conference. It would be Art's first game at that famous football stadium in Fair Park.

Seventy miles into their trip, the car passed Newcastle. Three miles farther, it crested a hill on the highway. A commercial truck on the other side of the slope drifted into the eastbound lane as it reached the apex.

The impact sheared the roof from the Ford. Its three passengers died instantly.

Two hours away, Houston beat SMU 29-6. The announced attendance was 28,204, with three empty seats that, in their vacancy, rerouted the coordinates of one player on the field who kept wondering through all four quarters why he never heard his mother shout his name.

The coaches informed Briles in the Cougar dressing room at the top of the tunnel at the Cotton Bowl. His teammates, delirious from their victory over the Mustangs, dissolved into whispers. They began to undress quietly.

"People just kind of sat there," said Cougar guard Mike Spradlin, a future assistant to Briles at Houston.

Jan Allison, Briles' high school girlfriend, met him at his parents' house when he got back to Rule. They walked directly to Dennis and Wanda's bedroom and sat on the end of their bed for a long time.

"Neither one of us really talked that much," she said.

They married two years later at the First Baptist Church in Rule. By that time, Briles had left the football team at Houston, where he couldn't seem to escape his new identity as the player whose family had died on the way to a game.


Through nearly 30 years in coaching, Briles never shared his burden. Everyone knew, but the story never came from the man who suffered it.

He never shared the specifics.

About their deaths, alone on a road.

About the suddenness. "One day you have a net," Briles said. "Next day, it's gone."

About the fact that Dennis and Wanda Briles aren't here to see what their youngest son has made of himself. Or the fact that his own three grown children -- Jancy, Kendal and Staley -- never knew the people their grandparents and great-aunt were.

"He carries that with him," said Spradlin, Briles' teammate at Houston that day at the Cotton Bowl.

Through tragedy came context. The past can elevate a man, haunt him or both. Briles sees that in the players he brings to Houston and, now, Waco. What did they endure? What makes them pause, swallow and stare off? Briles will look a freshman in the eye: Everybody's got a story.

"Most of the time, it's pretty personal."

His continues. The path led to Baylor. Something about the situation, Briles said, seemed scripted.

A Baptist university, a Texas school. A football program with a legacy -- beating Tennessee in the 1956 Sugar Bowl and LSU in the 1963 Bluebonnet Bowl, winning the SWC in 1974 and '80 under Grant Teaff -- but listless since.

"That doesn't worry me," Briles said. "I've been on the bottom of the floor."

Out in the Big Country, meanwhile, a town half the size it was when its team played Big Sandy in '73 waits to see what happens at Floyd Casey Stadium with the Baylor Bears. Some of the people who went to the funerals at the high school still live there. They work on the farms or in gas fields or not at all because they've retired and prefer to stay in the place they know.

Eddie Briles, Art's only brother, is a registered nurse. He and his wife, Teresa, live in Haskell, a few miles east of Rule, straightaway on 380 at the intersection with U.S. 277. When he drives over to Rule, Eddie Briles can see the trees that envelope the cemetery between the old Tower drive-in and the road.

Dennis and Wanda Briles share a headstone. They were buried right in the heart of the property.

"His intention is to make them proud of him," Eddie said of his brother.

"He's done that."

A class of 25 football recruits is expected to pledge Baylor on Wednesday, national signing day. Then they'll play next season for a coach named Briles, which means they'll climb ropes, run to rivers, lift a small West Texas town in 1973 and not even know it.

Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press

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