Art Briles is gone, but the Baylor football program — toxic as it is at the moment — continues. While working to clean the stain off the program and university, Baylor regents must consider its future, both in the near and long-term. The Bears will still field a team this fall, and Briles indicated in a text message to his now-former players the rest of the staff will stay on for this season. But as fall turns to winter the remainder of the current staff will be gone and a new coach will be hired.
USA Today‘s Dan Wolken reported Thursday BU regents judged the program as solid enough to survive without Briles, and that was part of the reason they pushed their two-time conference champion coach out the door.
Baylor regents felt the program had advanced enough to attract quality candidates and not revert back to the Big 12 cellar dwellers.
— Dan Wolken (@DanWolken) May 26, 2016
With defensive coordinator Phil Bennett reportedly staying on as an extended interim head coach, recent precedent indicates the short-term projections for Baylor football are not good. Ohio State followed a 12-1 mark in Jim Tressel’s final season with a 6-7 season under interim Luke Fickell, and Arkansas fell from 11-2 in Bobby Petrino’s final season to 4-8 under John L. Smith. Baylor went 10-3 in 2015 and has won 36 of its last 43 games. To think two months ago that the 2016 Bears could suffer a similar nosedive would be, in a word, shocking.
While 2016 could be rough, precedent also indicates Baylor could rebound nicely in the long-term. Ohio State, Penn State and Arkansas each made solid-to-spectacular hires in replacing coaches after scandalous ousters. However, Baylor is not Ohio State or Penn State, and the Buckeyes’ and Razorbacks’ scandals did not involve the cover up of multiple and repeated felonies.
Sadly, Baylor has recent a recent example on which to rely: itself. Just 13 years ago Baylor’s men’s basketball program fostered a disgraceful scandal in which former coach Dave Bliss responded to one Bear murdering another by instructing his players and assistants to paint the deceased as a drug dealer in order to cover up NCAA violations. The Bears fired Bliss and his replacement, Scott Drew, has turned the once-moribund program into an NCAA Tournament fixture.
Had Briles left Baylor under any other circumstances, the question in Waco would be which of its favored sons to anoint as his successor. Briles’ son Kendal remains on staff as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, and Philip Montgomery, a Briles lieutenant dating back to the Stephenville days, is in the process of getting Tulsa’s program off the ground in his first head coaching job.
But the circumstances are what they are, and Baylor would foolish to the point of negligence to pluck an apple from a tree it is trying to uproot.
There is another former Briles assistant well-positioned to return in Syracuse head coach Dino Babers. Baylor’s interest in Babers would be obvious: he is a former Briles assistant with a proven record of running the system to success as a head coach and, crucially, far enough removed from the program to avoid branding as a “Briles guy.” Babers left Baylor after the 2011 season and has since gone 37-16 in four seasons as head coach at Eastern Illinois and Bowling Green before landing the Syracuse job last winter.
The question would be if Babers is interested in Baylor. Babers has been in coaching for more than three decades spread across 15 different jobs, and spent only four of those seasons under Briles at Baylor. It stands to reason Babers’ loyalty to his former boss extends to his offensive system, not necessarily his place of employment. Baylor is a better job than Syracuse and Babers is a life-long job hopper, but he could be understandably reluctant to leave an ACC job after one year for a program working to remove a significant stain and bracing for a possible NCAA investigation (more on that later).
If Montgomery is politically untouchable and Babers is uninterested, Baylor could turn to the next closest things to Briles that aren’t Briles himself. Both North Carolina head coach Larry Fedora and SMU head coach Chad Morris are former Texas high school coaches with long histories of putting up points through innovative spread offenses. But each Fedora and Morris will assuredly have their eyes on what could be weighty seasons at both Texas and Texas A&M. Because of that, Baylor will have to spend its fall uncomfortably rooting for each of its longtime bunkmates in hopes of ensuring the Longhorns and Aggies do not join them on the market.
To some extent, the type of coach Baylor hires could be out of its hands. Pepper Hamilton brought up numerous Title IX failings throughout its summary, and the terms “Title IX” “failure to monitor” and “NCAA investigation” regularly share headline space.
Athletics director Ian McCaw managed to keep his job and will be involved in the hiring process — with, certainly, plenty of oversight from new president Dr. David Garland, the Board of Regents and Baylor boosters. McCaw faces a significant climb ahead of him:
He must convince a prospective hire (and his representatives) that Baylor managed to remove the rotten core of the program while not removing him personally.
He must convince a new prospective hire the NCAA will not hang over the program like a black cloud into the next decade.
And he must convince a new hire that Baylor can continue to succeed on the field at a Briles-like clip while simultaneously divorcing itself from the horror that came off of it.