Roots and Thorns in Waco, Part 1

NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 10: (L-R) Coach Art Briles and Robert Griffin III of the Baylor Bears poses with the trophy after being named the 77th Heisman Memorial Trophy Award winner during a press conference at The New York Marriott Marquis on December 10, 2011 in New York City. (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)

News item 1: Art Briles outduels Texas to get a commitment from 4-star wide receiver Robby Rhodes.

News item 2: Art Briles and Scott Drew are potential factors in the decommitment of Ricky Seals-Jones from Texas.

Question: How long do Art Briles and Scott Drew figure to be thorns in the side of Texas football and basketball programs?

Even before the two news items above, there wasn’t a question about their thorniness. The recently concluded academic year was only the third since World War II where Baylor swept all meetings in the Big Two: football (one) and basketball (two). Unlike those other two times, the 2011-12 sweep was more about Baylor’s recent athletic surge than the Texas ineptitude that was in play in 1954-55 and 1997-98. See the SI piece by S.L. Price.

The 97-98 sweep coincided with a sentimental farewell tour of John Mackovic and Tom Penders, who rode off into the sunset minutes ahead of the posse. In 54-55, Ed Price’s football program had already begun its trajectory toward a 1-9 record in 1956. As for what happened in basketball, no one is really sure. We just know that archeologists are attempting to use insects trapped in amber to establish the missing link between Slater Martin and LaSalle Thompson.

College football and basketball are much more "coach-driven" than their professional counterparts. Exhibit A is Bill Snyder who apparently is the only person in 100-plus years to breathe life into Kansas State’s carcass. Exhibit B is a collage of pictures of Jimmy Johnson (Dallas = winner, Miami = loser) and Bill Belichick (Cleveland = loser, New England = winner).

So back to the original question: How long do Briles and Drew figure to be thorns in the side of Longhorn football and basketball teams? Unlike Mackovic and Penders, the Briles-Drew tandem doesn’t figure to depart in lock-step. However, I tried looking at a variety of factors that might yield any hints of things to come. The remainder of this post is about Briles. I’ll share a similar look at Drew in the near future. After four seasons, Briles appears to have several things going in his favor to be the next Grant Teaff. As for how many years that will translate into, my first question is "Does Briles really consider Baylor a destination job?" If so, a follow-up question is, "How long can he keep Baylor fans satisfied?"

Destination Job? The only way to know if a coach is at a "destination job" is if he turns down a job that ESPN Gameday crew is convinced he’ll take. Les Miles to Michigan? Dan Mullen to Florida? Herbstreit and Fowler were packing the coaches’ bags while Corso warmed up the moving van. I’m not sure Briles has come to that crossroad yet. Others can weigh in on how serious any of these talks were, but Briles’ name was floated in media reports in the last year for jobs at Arizona State, North Carolina State, Texas A&M, Ole Miss and a few other lesser lights. Nobody would call those schools NCAA royalty, but they would at least made Lane Kiffin call his agent or Bobby Petrino’s nose twitch.

Several things make Briles attractive. Resurrecting Baylor ranks up there with Gary Barnett’s miracle at Northwestern back in the 90s. Another is his ties to Texas recruiting. Not only is that attractive to teams in Texas or bordering states, but schools far away can look at the success Hayden Fry had at Iowa and Gary Pinkel is having at Missouri by supplementing so-so talent pools with sleepers out of Texas.

Also impressive is his record for player evaluation and development. Since Briles arrived in 2008, the Bears have gone 4-8, 4-8, 7-6, and 10-3. It’s easy to attribute Baylor’s rise on the magnificence of Robert Griffin III. However, a popular theme on Barking Carnival is the value of talent evaluation and player development. As has been pointed out before, Briles’ four Bear teams have placed 12 players in the NFL draft, including five in the first round. If you look at ESPN’s top 150 recruits for seasons 2006 through 2011, you’ll see Baylor only signed 3 of the 900 players ranked. We all know that recruiting services pander to schools with large followings, but the tables below show how well Baylor has done compared to the original Big XII:

ESPN Top 150 2006-2011 NFL Draftees 2009-2012
Doing More With Less Baylor 3 12
Missouri 3 11
Nebraska 7 17
Texas Tech 0 6
Doing Less with More Oklahoma 33 23
Texas 56 17
So-So Colorado 5 7
Texas A&M 11 8
Blips on the Radar Kansas State 1 4
Kansas 0 3
Iowa State 0 2

Following last season, Briles signed an extension that takes him to $2.5 million annually, more than double the $1.2 million rate of his first deal in 2008. If he can string together a couple of more winning/bowl seasons, the bidding from potential suitors could go through the roof. Still, until an Ohio State or a Southern Cal or an LSU dangles an offer, it’s hard to say he’s been fully vetted on whether Baylor is his final destination.

How Long Can Briles Keep Baylor Satisfied?: Longevity in college coaching is measured entirely against fan expectations. Fred Akers’ 86-31-2 record was good enough to get him 10 years at Texas but not an 11th. At Baylor, John Bridgers only needed to go 49-53-1 to last 10 years (1959-1968). If Baylor fans are shaped by anything other than the Teaff era, Briles is in great shape. Before Briles, Teaff was the lone ray of sunlight that existed after Bob Woodruff (3 seasons) and George Sauer (6 seasons) guided Baylor to a 57-31-5 record (.613) between 1947 and 1955. Check out the other guys:

Coach Years Seasons W L T Pct.
Sam Boyd 1956-1958 3 15 15 1 .500
John Bridgers 1959-1968 10 49 53 1 .481
Bill Beall 1969-1971 3 3 28 0 .097
Chuck Reedy 1993-1996 4 23 22 0 .511
Dave Roberts 1997-1998 2 4 18 0 .182
Kevin Steele 1999-2002 3 6 27 0 .182
Guy Morriss 2003-2007 5 18 40 0 .310
Art Briles 2008-2011 4 25 25 0 .500
Non-Teaff Totals 34 143 228 2 .386
Teaff Totals 1972-1992 21 128 105 6 .548

A few things stand out:

  • Including Briles, those six coaches combined to coach 21 seasons, an average of 3.5 each. Already Briles has RAISED that average.
  • Since 1968, Teaff is the only coach to stay on campus longer than a fifth-year senior.
  • Only Sam Boyd and Chuck Reedy were .500 or better . . . yet neither coached more than four years.

Does this mean Baylor is SEC-style trigger happy? . . . You know, like Ole Miss where Billy Kinard had a 20-14-1 record but was fired after the third game of the 1973 season for losing to Memphis State? . . . or like Arkansas where Jack Crowe was forced to "resign" after losing the opener to the Citadel? Not necessarily.

Once Baylor got to the Big XII, it ceased being competitive, regardless of who was heading the program. The Bears only won six conference games in their first nine years in the conference. Three years, they were winless. The other six, they went 1-7. Of those six wins, the 2004 Texas A&M Aggies were the only team Baylor beat with a winning record (7-5). The Bears' 29-game conference losing streak from 1998 to 2001 is a record that may never be broken. But Briles still might be in great shape even if just measured against Teaff.

As noted in the table above, Teaff’s 21 year record was 128-105-6. It included two outright Southwest Conference championships and one co-championship. His teams also went 4-4 in eight bowl trips. Even though he had 9 losing seasons, he never had more than two in a row. But who are we kidding? With message boards, Twitter, sports talk radio and everything else, fan impatience is at an all-time high. Would Darrell Royal have survived the three-consecutive 4-loss seasons in the mid-2000s? Who knows?

The one thing that can offset the increase in fan restlessness is when there is a personal connection between a coach and fan base. There was a Richard Justice blog post last November about Briles that mentioned a late-Saturday night conversation between writer and coach when Briles was coaching Houston. It was going to be a very short night for Briles because, "We don’t miss church." A man of that ilk is likely to be embraced more tightly at Baylor than, say, a Dana Holgersen or Mike Price.

Texas Hexes: Oh . . . and one more thing that "might" be endearing . . . I’ll defer to Baylor fans on how big of a deal it is. Both Briles and Teaff have shown a penchant for tweaking Texas’ nose. Certainly for Teaff, his record against Texas was most impressive:

1946-1971 Pre-Teaff Baylor 3-22-1 vs. Texas

1972-1992 Teaff-Era Baylor 10-11 vs. Texas

1993-2007 Post-Teaff Baylor 1-14 vs. Texas

Both Briles and Teaff stopped long streaks of futility.

  • In 1974, Teaff’s miracle on the Brazos halted an 0-16-1 streak against Texas.
  • In 2010, Briles’ first win over Texas ended a 1-16 streak against Texas.

Four of Teaff’s wins were real kicks in the groin. The 1974 upset saw the Bears come back from a 24-7 halftime deficit to win 34-24 and propel a march to the Cotton Bowl. In 1978, Teaff’s worm-eating pep talk ignited his 2-8 Bears to ambush ninth-ranked Texas 38-14. Even more decisive (and mind-boggling) was Baylor’s 50-7 win in 1989 between two teams that finished with identical 5-6 records. And finally, the 21-20 Bear win in Teaff’s final season is best known for its Bizarro-world officiating.

Whether Briles can match that array of upstart acts remains to be seen. However, a 2-2 record vs. Texas with back-to-back wins of 30-22 and 48-24 are a good start. And there’s also his rookie campaign vote in the coach’s poll. In 2008, Texas, Oklahoma, and Texas Tech finished the season tied for first with the South Division championship going to whichever team had the highest BCS ranking. In the coach’s poll, which contributed to the overall BCS ranking, there were six Big XII coaches with a chance to weigh in on how they felt about the Horns and Sooners. Briles saw enough in the Bears’ 49-17 home loss to Oklahoma and 45-21 road loss to Texas to join two other Big XII coaches in voting Texas No. 5. The other three coaches had Texas either 1 or 2. Serving on Briles’ staff in 2008 was his son, Kendal, who played at Texas for two years before transferring to play for his father at the University of Houston. (Anybody know how Kendal would've voted?)

Educated Guess: My gut says Briles spurns all comers and gets to call his shot on when he leaves Baylor. And it will be 8 to 10 years from now. Briles is 56 so unless he wants to coach until he’s 74 so he can pass Teaff for the longest tenure in Baylor history that seems about right. However, if Texas, TCU, Tech, OU, and Oklahoma State decide they want to run him out of Dodge before that, I'm on board. What do you think?

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