It all starts with the offense. At Baylor, of course it does. The Bears' record-breaking attack is not only what spearheaded their rise from college football's basement to the penthouse, but it's the mindset that powers the entire program.
Like its offense, Baylor is unique. The Bears' aren't concerned with how everyone else thinks, and they're not particularly interested in borrowing from anyone else. The Baylor way works just fine, thanks. Like its offense, the Baylor program is its own think-tank. Baylor is very loyal in and of itself. If he doesn't already, Art Briles will have a heathy, 40-foot tall coaching tree by the next decade. And like its offense, everything inside the Baylor program begins with Art Briles.
Of the dozens of people earning their living as a coach inside Baylor's Simpson Center, only one is referred to solely as Coach. He sets the tone for the entire organization, and he gets his entire staff to see the world through his eyes. Most importantly, he has rendered the 110 years of (mostly forgettable) Baylor football prior to his arrival irrelevant. What Baylor was not prior to 2008 doesn't matter anymore. With a new football facility, new practice fields, a new indoor facility and brand new stadium, it's as if Baylor football didn't have to exist before 2008. The only thing that matters is what's happening right now.
To get the most accurate picture of Briles and his staff, we didn't talk to Briles or his staff. Instead, I traveled to Waco to speak with the people that know the Bears' staff the best: their graduate assistants.
Mike Anthony: seventh year in the program, second as quality control
Jordan Shoemaker: third year in the program, third as a graduate assistant
Kevin Park: sixth year in the program, first as a graduate assistant
Andrew Walsh: second year in the program, first as a graduate assistant
Dominique Zeigler: sixth year in the program, second as a graduate assistant
FootballScoop visited with these five coaches for more than two and a half hours on Thursday morning. We'll break everything into bite-sized chunks over the coming days. Part I is below.
FootballScoop: How did you get this job?
Anthony: I played at Kilgore High School, I didn't play college ball. I did my undergrad here and I graduated high school in '08, so the year that Coach got here was my first year and I knew the quality control coach here they had before, so I interned during my whole undergrad and then I got a job when I graduated. So I’ve been here six years.
Shoemaker: I played at the University of Houston, my first two years there I played under Coach. When I graduated I saw Coach Clements at a football clinic in Fort Worth and then a couple months after that he called me and offered me the GA spot. No, not a huge interview process. When I came in I talked to Coach, of course he remembered me and it kind of started up from there.
Walsh: I actually was coaching high school ball in Mississippi at a small school about a half hour north of Oxford. I was a teacher there, and coach, and did my undergrad at Ohio State as an athletic trainer so not necessarily coaching but was involved through athletics. My wife was looking for doctorate programs and I wanted to get in the college ranks and knew I was probably going to intern to get in. Baylor was the only program that accepted us both and Mr. (Collin) Shillinglaw was one of the few people that actually responded to my emails. Any place that my wife I applied I was emailing like, “Hey, do you need an intern or a volunteer? I’d be happy to come help.” Mr. Shillinglaw replied and said I could help out here. That was around August of 2012 so I interned around here the last two years and then got a GA position here in January.
Park: In 2009 I walked on at Baylor. I played football here four years, got my finance degree and earned a scholarship my senior year. I played defensive line. When I first came to college I just wanted to be rich. They asked what I wanted to do and I said, “I just want to be rich.” They said, “What’s your major?” And I said, “Put me in a major that makes me rich.” So they put me in finance. I did real well, and then life happens and I realized it’s not all about the money. I got a couple job offers, and Coach Acuff and a couple other coaches kind of put it in my ear, “If you don’t want to go make a lot of money, come be a coach. You’d be a good coach.” So I started thinking about it and decided I want to. I talked to Coach Bennett after my senior year, interned for a year. This spring our defensive tackle GA was done, he went to Navarro, and then I had 15 practices to see if I could do it, to coach the defensive tackles.
FS: Kevin, what was it like to walk on the field an essentially be a position coach from day one?
Park: It was exciting and nerve-wracking. Your mindset really has to change from being a player. Some of the guys I played with, I now coach. You had to set it from the beginning, that I’m now your coach, this is how it is. I’m going to get after you, I’m going to demand your respect. You have to kind of set that tone. That was different. It’s stressful just because you never know. I didn’t know if I had the job or if I didn’t. It was bittersweet in the fact that it was amazing. There’s no doubt in my mind what I want to do now. I loved it.
FS: I'd imagine that had to be pretty exhilarating to be handed your own position from the get go. What kind of work were you putting in when you weren't on the field?
Park: I don’t have a family. I don’t have a wife. Football is all I’ve got right now. I’d stay up here and watch film with Coach Bennett. I was blessed enough to have great mentors, I’ve been in this system for a while. I played under Briles since 2009, played under Coach Bennett, played under Coach Acuff, so what I didn’t know, they would help me out. Coach Bennett would stay after with me after practice, we’d watch film and he’d slow it down and really break down what he wanted. We’d go watch my drills on film. There’s a difference between telling them what’s wrong and coaching to fix it.
FS: Explain what you mean by that.
Park: That was my biggest challenge. We’ll just say, taking the wrong step, underneath yourself or wide or whatever. Instead of telling them, “You need to take a better first step”, you’re telling them, “Get everything pointed forward, get your heels out, balance your weight.” Because then they’ll look at you like, “How do I fix it? Why is this happening?” You have to explain the why.
FS: Andrew, you're the only outsider on the GA staff. Do you feel fortunate to land this job without any connections to the program?
Walsh: I definitely feel blessed. I definitely think that there was God’s lead in it because it’s not common to just show up at a place, especially a D-I place, know nobody, and get in. I do definitely think it’s not the norm.
FS: Let's talk coaches. What kind of interaction do you get with Coach Briles?
Park: We have good interaction with him but he’s a busy man. I loved Coach Briles as a player, and I love him more as a coach. I’ve learned so much from them. They’re watching, they’re helping you out, giving pointers. Their interaction is just as good, if not better, than when I was a player.
Walsh: He's got a sense of humor, but it's quiet. It's subtle.
FS: How does he differ from Kendall Briles?
Anthony: They’re pretty similar guys, honestly.
Shoemaker: It’s pretty crazy how similar they are. It’s father and son.
Anthony: Differences, I think just because of the nature of their positions it’s easier to get closer to Kendall. I don’t know that that’s a natural difference, you know what I’m saying. They’re not entirely different people.
Anthony: You see a lot of it. Some of their reactions to stuff.
Shoemaker: How they talk to you.
Anthony: They’re both pretty quirky guys. They’re both pretty funny. They know how to make you feel like you’re it.
Shoemaker: They’ll make you comfortable. Nothing’s ever awkward with them.
Anthony: Really since I’ve worked here, since I interned as an undergrad I’ve never felt uncomfortable. They both make you feel like you’re their best friend. They’re both full of stories. They talk a lot. They’ve got funny stories.
Shoemaker: They play the same music, old country. If we’re in the staff room and it’s quiet, you’ll hear someone’s iPhone got off
Anthony: And all of a sudden it’s music on.
FS: What about your offensive coordinator, Philip Montgomery? What's he like?
Shoemaker: A genius.
Anthony: He’s super intelligent. He’s really meticulous, organized, pretty much everything you want an offensive coordinator to be. I think as far as our staff goes, he’s probably the organizational cement of it.
Shoemaker: Big time.
Anthony: He puts everything together, that kind of guy. Super calm.
Shoemaker: I’ve never seen him lose his cool.
Anthony: He’s got a great perspective on everything. He knows if that didn’t work it’s not the end of the world, let’s figure out on the next play what we can do to get better.
Shoemaker: He’s another guy that you know will do anything for you, too, which is awesome.
FS: Moving on down the line, what does running backs coach Jeff Lebby bring to the table?
Anthony: You can really say the same about him. Lebby’s really good at making you feel like you’re his guy.
Shoemaker: He’s probably the most, I’d say, of making you feel like you’re the man.
Anthony: For me, he’s kind of broken me in because he was a GA when I got here. So really I worked pretty much directly for him the first three years I did anything until he moved up. He’s a people person. He’ll do anything for anybody. He always wants to make sure you’re taken care of. And he’s the same way with his players. All of them will battle for him. They all love him. And it seems like the ones that come in with the wrong mindset or something like that, he always sways them. Lache’s a perfect example. He didn’t play early, he wasn’t ready to play. I don’t know that he necessarily understood that but once he’s around Lebby he didn’t question it. He knew his time would come.
Shoemaker: That happens in their real life, not only football, but their outside life as well. If they’re not doing good in their outside life, it’s crazy how he’s gotten them to handle their mess ups and stuff.
FS: Jordan, I know you work most closely with offensive line coach Randy Clements. What's that like?
Shoemaker: It’s fun. It’s crazy how creative he is whenever it comes to putting stuff together for the O-line and everything really.
Anthony: He’s one of the most creative people I’ve ever met.
FS: What do you mean by that?
Shoemaker: It’s his personality.
Anthony: He’s really quirky. He’s just got a completely different outlook on everything, to me. He’s a guy that, if we’re sitting in there and everybody’s looking at something and you ask what you see, you’ll get eight answers that are the same and his will be the opposite end of the spectrum.
FS: Do you mean, like, if everybody's thinking X, he's thinking Y?
Anthony: Yeah, there’s some truth to that.
Shoemaker: I wouldn’t say X and Y. He’ll always have in addition to the thought that can make it better. Just a small little touch up to something, and everybody sees it and is like, ‘Oh.’ He’s usually the first to point out little stuff like that.
FS: Let's switch gears to defense. I had a chance to spend some time last year with defensive coordinator Phil Bennett and was very impressed. Is he the same guy behind closed doors?
Park: Coach Bennett is amazing. What you see is what you get. There’s no fakeness in that man. He will 100 percent tell you how he feels, he’ll love you, he’s extremely loyal, but he’s going to tell you how he feels and you’re going to know exactly where you stand.
FS: What about Coach Acuff?
Park: The best way I can describe him is, his light switch was turned on and broken. It never got turned off. There is no off switch. He’s a great coach. I’ve learned a lot from him. Both of them are great mentors. But Coach Acuff is on, it’s broken, and it just got left on.
FS: Andrew, I know you work most closely with the secondary. I heard Coach Norwood speak at the AFCA Convention in January and came away extremely impressed. He struck me as a guy that every coach would want to have on their staff regardless of what openings they did or didn't have. What's he like as a coach?
Walsh: He loves the game, he’s passionate about the game and he’s passionate even more so about the players. He’ll coach to win but he’s going to coach with love. He’s going to get what he wants, but he’s not necessarily the one that you see yelling on the sidelines. He gets what he wants out of a quiet intensity. It kind of reminds me a little bit, his personality, of Tony Dungy’s books on quiet leadership and jus having a strong presence with who you are and letting that influence the players. That’s a lot of what he coaches. He loves what he does and he’s passionate about it.
FS: What about cornerbacks coach Carlton Buckles?
Walsh: He knows how to relate with the corners very well. He played corner at LSU for Coach Bennett so knows exactly how Coach Bennett works with the defense, he knows exactly how Coach Bennett works with the skill guys on defense. He’s a great guy to them. He stresses technique a lot with them, which is everything at corner when you’re 1-on-1 with a Big 12 speed receiver. If you have your footwork off, you’re screwed. He’s really good with technique, getting that across. He’s put out some good corners.
FS: What does linebackers coach Jim Gush bring to the staff?
Parks: He’s a lot like Coach Bennett in the fact that our staff works extremely well together. Everybody’s extremely knowledgeable. Coach Acuff’s light switch is always on. Coach Gooch and Coach Bennett have been around each other since the Kansas State days. Their X’s and O’s are bar none, there’s nobody better. Coach Bennett can coach every single position on this defense. Coach Gooch knows exactly what he wants. You know exactly how he feels and in our defense, the linebacker sets everything up. Everything runs through them. Coach Gooch’s ability to relay that to where they can understand is really impressive. That’s something that I didn’t see when I was playing that I see now. When you’re playing you just see them line up but when you’re in the meeting room you see how hard it is to get everybody lined up all the time, adjust to whatever we do, tempo, and so Coach Gooch is really good at relaying that knowledge and getting them lined up and getting them set.
FS: Finally, what do you think of strength coach Kaz Kazadi?
Zeigler: I’ve seen a lot of strength staffs over the years and he’s by far the best that I’ve seen personally. They’re trained so well in the summer, the heat isn’t really an issue.
Anthony: He’s imperative to what we do.
Zeigler: Especially on our side of the ball.
Tomorrow, we'll cover the Baylor GA's game day, game week and off-season responsibilities and explain how "mind-melting" helps form the Baylor offense.