When a young person dies, most lament that in life, a child should be the one burying his parents instead of the other way around. But when you’re just in your early 20s and your parents and an aunt are taken away from you on a fall Saturday morning, the natural order of things seems much crueler. Baylor head coach Art Briles could’ve let the death of his parents and aunt during college destroy him. Instead, he’s had a wildly successful coaching career and lead Baylor to the Top 25 for the first time in nearly two decades. We look back on his tragedy and how he now honors his parents.
It was Oct. 16, 1976, and Art Briles was a split end for Bill Yeoman’s powerful Houston teams in the late ‘70s. He was just a sophomore, three years removed from the magical ’73 season when Rule High School – coached by his father Dennis – made a magical run to the Texas state finals with Briles behind center. Despite a loss in the final, the run had galvanized the sleepy central Texas farming town in a way we all think of Texas high school football in the movies or on television.
On that fall day in 1976, the Cougars were preparing to play SMU at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, just a hair under four hours from Briles’ hometown of Rule, TX. His parents, Dennis and Wanda, and his aunt, Elsie, were going to drive out to the game to watch Art play.
Despite the thousands of people who would come to watch Houston games on a weekly basis, Briles could always spot his parents in the crowd. He could always hear his mother’s voice calling his name on the sideline. This week, however, Briles didn’t spot his family. He never heard his mother’s voice.
In 2005, Briles told the AP: “I had an intuition something wasn’t right. Usually, you always know where the parents sit. My mother would always wave at me, but I didn’t see her that day.”
His parents and aunt never made it to the game. Halfway to Dallas, the Briles’ car hit an oncoming semi-truck that had veered out of its lane on U.S. 380. All three passengers in the car died from the impact.
Following Houston’s 29-6 win, the coaches told Briles what had happened. Word spread and the post-game celebration was muted. Players undressed in silence.
Briles finished the school year at Houston but then left school to return to Rule.
Said Briles in ’05: “I did leave because of that. I went through a six-month spell after it happened where I had to get myself together and decide whether I would fight or falter.”
After spending some time as a fork lift operator, Briles moved to Lubbock and enrolled at Texas Tech, where his future wife was attending school. He earned his undergraduate degree in 1979 and then got a master’s degree in education from Abilene Christian University. He never played football after that ’76 season.
In 2005 Briles said: “I just had the realization that not anything is going to happen unless you make it happen. You’ve got to pick a road to go down, and I chose one where I tried to build a positive legacy for my family’s name. I became determined to honor them in the best way I could.”
And Briles has done a fantastic job. He began coaching high school football in 1980 as an assistant and got his first head coaching gig in 1984 at the age of 28. He first became a Texas high school coaching star after landing at Stephenville High School, where he won consecutive state titles in 1993 and ’94 using a power running offensive scheme.
Then Briles helped changed the face of Texas high school football when he scrapped his run-oriented offense for a spread passing attack. He won two more state titles, another back-to-back combo, in 1998 and ’99.
He left the high school ranks for college in 1999 and worked as an assistant under Mike Leach at Texas Tech until 2003 when he took over at Houston. After five seasons and one Conference USA championship, Briles took over at Baylor in 2007. Taking the job at a a perennial Big 12 doormat didn’t faze Briles.
With stud QB Robert Griffin III running the show, Baylor has turned into one of the most prolific offenses in the FBS – currently ranked 23rd in points scored. After back-to-back wins over Kansas State and Texas, the Bears cracked the AP poll this week for the first time since 1993. And Baylor now has its eyes on the Big 12 South division title if they can win in Stillwater this weekend and topple Oklahoma at home on Nov. 20.
Instead of being crippled by the death of his parents and aunt, Briles has used it as motivation to succeed at everything he does.
Said Briles five years ago: “I’m extra sensitive now to people who care about people and I’ve become pretty determined to excel, to be able to stand on my own two feet and do a worthy job. That’s all any of us have.”