Interview with Art Briles.
Waco, Texas, in the offices of the Baylor football program.
12:03 Central Time.
Spencer Hall: Mike Leach said you have a pretty good power clean.
Art Briles: I used to.
SH: One-point-five times bodyweight?
AB: Naw, Leach is pumpin' it up. Just living every day, trying to be my best, just like we ask our players.
Briles is straight from central casting for a Friday Night Lights reboot: tall, saddle-tan, and wearing athletic gear and a Nike heart monitor fitness watch on his wrist. His office is decorated with black bear iconography and the NFL jerseys of Baylor players and those he's coached elsewhere. A Kevin Kolb Eagles jersey sits just opposite him on the wall, and a small, curvilinear black bear sculpture sits on the table between us.
He's got camp today and is clearly in some gear of coaching speed. Not high gear, but enough for him to have his Baylor baseball cap on already and to wolf down what appears to be a turkey wrap (no chips) at the start of the interview. Like most football coaches, he can do this and carry on a conversation at the same time without effort or dropping a crumb. From time to time, his eyes dart out to the office door to see who's passing by and to the big bay windows overlooking the practice field and indoor facility to note arrivals.
SH: You coached at a lot of different levels. Where do you start when you are working with fewer resources than the other team as a head coach?
AB: The mind. Without question. Everything's about your mental attitude, and how you approach it, and how you get to where you wanna get. You have to understand that the field may not be equal from a lot of different standpoints — resources, facilities, support, fan support — but all those things, if you let them filter in, you lose sight of your focus. Our focus has always been that we're gonna be the standard, we're gonna do what we do and do it as well as anyone does it, and we're not gonna have any excuses or comparisons along the way. That's our motto: no excuses, no comparisons, and no compromises.
SH: How do you get players to forget the previous down?
AB: The great thing about young people is that they have short memories. They're living in the now, the moment. If they can focus on a reality or a vision which is short-term, which might be having a great practice, or improving their body percentage, or making an advancement in the weight room or the 40, then that's a step in a positive direction. If 85 people are making positive steps, then we have a chance to have a pretty good football team.
We're just always focused on the now. I've always said "the past is last." We don't care what happened yesterday, we're gonna work towards what happens today and tomorrow and be the best we can be there. It's just grinding and enjoying the journey and expecting great outcomes.
Have you ever listened to a coach get into his motivational talk? Have you ever noticed how at the same time your brain might recognize it as being wildly, even blindly optimistic? And maybe even noted how a lot of it sounds like cliché? And even despite that, you find yourself nodding along somewhere in your head, and thinking yeaaahhh, that's totally it, dude. Let's do THAT. Let's LIVE. Art Briles does that thing really, really well, which is probably one very big reason why he's paid to be a head coach, and not just an offensive coordinator. It's nothing you haven't heard from a hundred coaches in a hundred postgame interviews, but it sounds great. Probably sounds even better to an 18-year-old who can run a 4.4 and catch a back-shoulder fade pass effortlessly.
SH: When you were at Stephenville High School, you were one of the first coaches to make a switch from the traditional run-first approach to a pass-first, spread offense. You were running… was it the wishbone or wing-T?
Four state championships from 1988 to 1999, all done in a town of 15,000 located about an hour and a half outside of Waco. Stephenville is between Fort Worth and Abilene on the east/west axis, Fort Hood and Wichita Falls from north to south, and is in the middle of nowhere in terms of theoretical football power. Art Briles' whole career hasn't had much to do with what is theoretically possible.
AB: Split-back veer.
SH: A pretty conventional high school offense. Why did you do that? Did people think you were crazy at the time?
AB: Actually, it started with my first college football job coaching in Hamlin in '84-'85. My first year there, we had a great football team, ran the split-back veer, went 13-0-1. In the second year, I saw that if you got deep in the playoffs, you're gonna face people with talent just as good or better than yours. So what I looked for was an edge, something different; so in '85 we went to the one-back, four wides and went 14-1.
When we got to Stephenville, we were always kind of based out of a split-back veer look. I played at Houston, played in the Houston veer, sat in meetings with Coach Yeoman. A lot of the terminology we use today is Houston veer-related, if you hear the verbiage.
At Stephenville, we definitely had to do something that gave ourselves a chance to get the opportunity to win football games. We weren't just gonna line up and beat people. We had to be a little unconventional, which we were. In 1990 we had a guy throw for over 3,000 yards, and then had a 3,000-yard passer every year over the next 10 years. In '98 we actually set a national record for total offense.
8,664 yards, a 15-1 record, and a state title. Poor, poor Joshua High School.
SH: When you switched at Hamlin, was that based on Dennis Erickson's single-back stuff from the time?
AB: It's funny you say that. It's just what we came up with. We weren't watching TV and going to other schools and saying, "Why are you doing this?"
I've always thought, you got who you got, so you better find something that fits who you got. I can't watch what the Dallas Cowboys and Washington Redskins do and say, "That looks good for us." It might look good for them because of the personnel they have.
We did things out of a desire of necessity. I had good people there — we were gonna win anyway — but I was trying to win a state championship. At Stephenville, it was out of necessity. It wasn't something I wanted to do; it was something we needed to do.
SH: Is it weird to see that kind of offense as the standard in Texas?
AB: I think it's encouraging, without question, because it got so many guys to play football. At Stephenville, I'd tell people, "I don't care if you block. Come out and play catch. I can find someone who can block. I need someone who can run and catch the ball. We'll worry about being tough later; I need to get you on the field and see if we got some talent."
SH: You think that's changed the kind of athlete you see on a football field?
AB: Without question. Now, it's a space league. That's why Texas is the most-recruited state in America. Because you've got undoubtedly great skill players, and then you've got QBs who can throw the ball and backs who can make plays in space. And then the defense, on the flipside, they've all got to play in space, too. So it's a space game. I like it.
SH: Last year, you did something unusual for those who've watched Baylor over the past few years. Against UCLA in the bowl game, with Nick Florence coming off a huge season, you passed the ball just 12 times.
Briles starts laughing the minute I say, "UCLA," because he knows where this is going already. He does that a lot -- not exactly cutting you off, but leaping a few steps ahead in the conversation because he knows where things are going, what you're going to say, and how to address, counter, and contextualize it. In conversation it's helpful; he's engaged, and clearly involved in the flow of the conversation, and doesn't shy away from direct answers to direct questions. In playcalling, it has to be terrifying.
AB: Isn't that ridiculous?
SH: Was that just what was working?
AB: We felt going into that game that UCLA were the Pac-12 [South division] champs, had lost to Stanford by three points, and were playing on their home court in San Diego. That's not Fort Worth. We're in their backyard. And they had a great national image. Our goal was to increase our national image out on the West Coast, because we're not out there much. Our goal was to get out there, play hard, be physical, win the game, and go home. That's all anyone's gonna remember, is who won the game.
We got in a position early where we got a good lead, and we sat on it, quite honestly. We sat on 49 points, but we sat on it. That's what that was all about. The only thing I feel bad about is that it cost Nick the No. 1 offensive leader in America. He was the leader all through the season, and he went to No. 2 after the bowl game.
Briles and Griffin. Jeff Zelevansky, Getty.
SH: You went from Robert Griffin III to Nick Florence, and Florence's numbers were comparable or better than Griffin's.
AB: Yeah, believe it or not.
SH: That kind of production goes back to Kevin Kolb, Case Keenum, and your quarterbacks back through your high school level. That's a really diverse group of guys, all with different skill sets. What's the thread that unites them physically and mentally? What do you look for first in a quarterback?
AB: Burn hot*, No. 1. You mentioned earlier being an underdog or having a chip-on-your-shoulder deal. I love those guys, I love those situations. I want a guy that burns hot and wants to prove himself. So if they've got the right mentality of a tremendous amount of confidence, a tremendous amount of wanting to prove himself, then we've got a chance to have a guy who can play if he's got the skill set to go with it.
There's a wide variety of skill sets. There's a lot of ways to get it right. Those people you just mentioned? The common factor is that they all burn hot, they're all very competitive, they're all multi-sport guys, and they're all highly intelligent. That's something we never overlook.
* I can't really convey the depth of his accent here, but "Texas as hell" comes close. It comes out like "borne hawt." The word "skin" comes out like "skeeeeyun," and "paper" is a full "payypurr" in emphasis.
SH: Is there a trait others might think is mandatory that you're not so big on?
AB: Arm strength is No. 1 there. We're about getting the ball out of your hand and making good decisions.
SH: You coach in the Big 12. The SEC has seven BCS titles and leans a lot on defense and in particular the defensive line. With the success of Texas A&M in the SEC and the hire of Malzahn at Auburn, do you think that a bit of that Big 12 style of football is bleeding over into the SEC?
AB: That's a situation where if I were sitting in the SEC, I'd say there's no reason to crack our blinds. What we're doing seems to be working pretty well. I don't think they're sitting as a conference and saying, "Well, those guys are doing that, we should do a little bit of that." I would be thinking "Hey, what we're doing's working pretty well."
Now, I wasn't surprised A&M did well in their first year in the league. They're coming in with a different style of play, and the thing about being in a big league like that is there is a tendency for everyone to be pretty much the same at the end of the day. They may have had a few variations, but A&M was different completely from first play to 85th play. They're gonna be a little bit different from their mentality to their formations to the philosophy standpoint.
That didn't shock me. Whether that continues with the adjustments made in the league? We'll see. Malzahn has been there before. He was there with Cam. They won a national championship. It's such a fine line, though. They had a lot of things happen when they won it in . They had an overtime game, etc.
Same thing last year with Alabama. If Stanford doesn't upset Oregon, if we don't upset K-State, there might not have been a championship for the SEC. I think there's a lot more parity out there than is realized. With the playoff system coming up in '14, it won't be a one-game victory.
SH: Do you think that's going to change the dynamics of how the system currently determines a champion? More variety, parity at the top?
AB: Well, there'll be four instead of two. I think it'll be different. I think the guy sitting at three like Auburn in 2004 stands a really good chance in that format. I think it will alleviate some of the doubt that's been created.
SH: When you look at an opponent when you're breaking down film, what are a few of the keys you look at --
AB: Oh, come on now.
SH: Okay, well ... if you're the casual fan, and you ... you want to skip this question, don't you?
AB: The reason I would like to is that we're a little bit unique in how we view film study from an opponent. We start in different areas than others, I think.
SH: I won't ask you to give away the company store.
AB: Thank you.
Phil Bennett, Briles' defensive coordinator and someone who's coached with and against him on defense, didn't give away the company store, either. He did have a lot to say about working with a coach who's so aggressive offensively:
"It's almost 100 percent we're gonna have to play more snaps. We're gonna have to play more guys. If Art can score 49 points, we can hold 'em to 39. That's the thing you look at. On defense you've gotta play good red zone, get some big takeaways, and do what we do. I might not have the numbers I had earlier in my career, but I'll win more games than I ever did before."
He also said his wife, when she found out he was interviewing with Briles, got excited and said, "Art will go for fourth down anywhere on the field!" Even defensive coaches' wives like Art Briles, this despite Briles being hot death for a lot of defensive coaches in the Big 12 and beyond.
SH: With RG3 in the pros, and with the way the NFL is currently adopting a lot of spread and zone-read concepts --
AB: 'Scuse me.
Briles ducks out to greet some visitors. There is schmoozing and accent and some backslapping and how's-your-mama'ing. If you spend enough time in Briles' orbit, you will get a nickname. Most of the Baylor football team has one right now. A short list of those follows:
- RB Glasco Martin - "Glass-pack"
- WR Clay Fuller - "RBI," thanks to his minor-league baseball experience
- LB Eddie Lackey - "Fast Eddie"
- QB Bryce Petty - "Pettybone"
- WR Tevin Reese - "Spinmaster" and "Sweet Feet"
- PK Aaron Jones - "Stork" (he has a long neck)
- CB Joe Williams - "Six Three" (because he's 5'11) and "Little Joe"
- S Sam Holl - "Thief" or "Sam T"
- TE Jordan Najvar - "Big J" and "Navajo" and "Niveman"
- WR/PR Levi Norwood - "Little No-No"
- All-American OL Cyril Richardson - "C-Note"
- WR Jay Lee - "Jay Leezie"
- CB Darius Jones - "Daddy D"
- DT Beau Blackshear - "Bo-Bo"
- LB Brody Trahan - "Bro"
He ducks back and picks up the conversation mid-sentence without a stop.
AB: You talking about RG3 running the zone read and all that?
AB: I think that's a tough question to answer. I think the difference between college and the NFL is that as an owner, you're talking about franchise and longevity as a quarterback. Collegiately, you're talking about a two- to four-year window -- usually one to three, more realistically, for a QB. You can survive in the short term.
Whether you can do it for a seven- to 10-year period, well, I think then you're looking differently at the mentality of your quarterbacks. You're not going to invest a whole lot of money in a guy and then on third-and-three get someone in there to run the zone read. You're not paying a guy $20 million a year to do that.
I think time will tell. I'm interested because I know our guy, I know RG3. I know he's very dynamic. One of the hard things about that position that I mentioned earlier — and I talked to Robert about it before the season last year — I said you cannot let your competitive nature dictate how you play the game. The thing about the NFL is longevity and staying in the league for a long time. You're the face of the franchise, and for you to help that team you've got to stay healthy.
That's a fine line. For those guys at that position, or any position really, they're all ultra-competitive. And you put 'em in a stadium with people in the stands and yards that have to be made or stopped depending on what side of the ball they're on, that's the first thing on their mind. It's not what's going to be happening in 2016, it's what's happening that second.
SH: He didn't even run the ball that much by college standards last year. But he did do it a lot by NFL standards.
AB: That's a lot. I've always said, you wanna see grandmomma get out of her seat, sack the QB. On both sides. Quarterback's grandma and the linebacker's grandma, they're both hollerin', but for different things.
SH: When you recruit at Baylor, what's the pitch?
AB: Our pitch now is just reality. We're centrally located in the best state in America for high school football. That's just a reality. We've got I-35, which carries 44 million people a year up and down it. It's one of the hottest highways in America from San Antonio to Dallas.*
Fact: we're putting a $235 million stadium on the Brazos River that 44 million people are going to see a year that's gonna represent Baylor University for generations to come. We're one of the only schools in America to have a stadium on a river and on a major highway. Lot of people have beautiful stadiums, but you gotta drive to 'em. This one's in your face. That's a fact.
And then we have production on the field over the short recent history, and the great thing about young people is that if they're 17 years old, then what happened in 2012 is recent. That's a good thing for us because our recent history is pretty doggone good. We deal with guys in the now. And we have as good an academic institution as there is in the United States of America.
*There's always speculation about coaches like Briles leaving a smaller school — and in the Big 12, that's certainly Baylor — and going elsewhere, somewhere bigger off I-35 with larger budgets, a bigger national presence, and maybe an easier pull in terms of recruiting by name alone. I have no empirical evidence to back this statement up, but listening to Briles wax poetic about the power of I-35 and talking a bit further down about beef brisket, I don't ever see him leaving the state of Texas. He's too married to the state from an emotional perspective, not to mention the fit he himself helped develop between speedy Texas high school talent and the high-powered offenses in the state.
He could always leave Baylor, sure, but it won't be for a school outside the Lone Star State's borders, and not anytime soon, judging from the looks of the construction cranes behind his shoulder across the Brazos River. This could all change in an instant, but that's certainly how it feels on June 2, 2013.
Baylor's new stadium concept.
SH: How are you doing in learning the curve on being a coach in the Facebook/Twitter/Instagram era? How has that changed things?
AB: I've learned to let some things go in one ear and out the other. I'm not always believing everything I see or listening to everything I hear. Just like a 47-year-old man might get on the Internet and punch Send when they didn't mean to, don't think it's not happening to a 16- or 17-year-old. I'm not going to overreact when I hear something that isn't complimentary to them or to our university. I've never been a panic guy. Let's get face to face with each other, shake hands, hug necks, and then get on with it.
SH: Does Texas have the best barbecue in the nation?
AB: Everyone's wondering who's gonna be No. 2.
SH: And brisket is the king of barbecues?
AB: I'm a little biased, but yessir.
SH: And your favorite place?
AB: Now, that's where you might get me in trouble*. That's where social media's gonna catch up with me. I've got many. If its last name is Texas, I'm eating there. It's good.
*This is the only time in the interview Briles looks genuinely uncomfortable.
SH: Okay, well ... how about a sentimental favorite, or some place that most people might not know about?
AB: I'm trying to think of one in Houston that might get me off the hook.
SH: Name one way out in West Texas that won't get you in trouble.
AB: Joe Allen's Bar-B-Q in Treadway, Texas. There you go. If you want better than good, that's where you go.
SH: You're not a sauce man?
AB: Yes I am. Leave the mild on the counter. Gimme the hot.
SH: Big Red soda with that?
AB: Not really a Big Red soda guy. Stains shirts.
SH: Big 12 stadium with the most intense atmosphere?
AB: Right when you said it I thought Manhattan, Kansas. You want to stand next to someone and not be able to hear them, walk your ass into Manhattan, Kansas.
SH: Your non-Big 12 stadium environment you enjoyed the most? You've played Alabama, for instance, in Bryant-Denny Stadium.
AB: Almost beat 'em, too. We're on their goal line, 27-21, and we're in no-back and their linebacker, I mean, he's still got a piece of my wide receiver's skin lodged under his fingernails. First place that comes to mind is Oregon. They're active, and they're vocal. They're hungry.
SH: If I ask you about a play you can't forget or think about a lot?
AB: There's 4,000 of them. If I had to talk about one, the pass from RG3 to T-Dub sticks in my mind because it was so monumental. I mean, I could go on and on, but the thing I've always talked to our players about is that there are five plays in the first half that determine the outcome of the football game. It doesn't have to be in the last 30 seconds of the football game. That's the great thing about sports. That second-and-two stop, or that fourth-and-short conversion at midfield in the second quarter win the game, too.
SH: Last book you read?
AB: A Neil Young autobiography. I'm a big music fan. I like people who are lyrical, because for me that's creation. You're making something out of nothing.
SH: If I looked on your iPod --
AB: Whew. There's a lot of everything. Just a while ago I was playing "Always" by Stevie Wonder. I grew up on Motown and Earth, Wind & Fire, and then got into Jimi Hendrix, the Allman Brothers, the Eagles. Now I'm kind of more on a soft rock feel. I love Amos Lee. Seen him about six or seven times.
SH: Favorite movie?
AB: Not a huge movie guy. Don't really have that kind of time. Some old Clint Eastwood movie, I don't know.
SH: TV show?
AB: Dateline, 48 Hours, everything that's real. I don't watch anything that isn't real.
SH: Do you have a hobby? This is always a dangerous question for coaches. Most don't.
AB: Is sitting on my back porch with my wife a hobby? When I get dead time that's all I do.
Briles hops up, shakes hands, and bounces out to the lobby, down the elevator, and out into the sunshine of a Sunday afternoon in June.