WACO, Texas -- Reminders of the worst day of Baylor coach Art Briles' life come every year like clockwork. Briles still shoulders much of the blame for the deaths of his parents, Dennis and Wanda, and his beloved aunt, Elsie "Tottie" Kittley, who was more like a grandmother to him.
"I think about them every day, every second," Briles said, while sitting in his dark office last month. It never leaves you."
At nearly every stop in his coaching career, from West Texas high schools to the University of Houston to Baylor, Briles has somehow molded perennial losers into winners. His family, close friends, former players and assistant coaches say Briles has an extraordinary ability to persuade others into believing that anything is possible, even for football programs that have never won.
"I was blown away by his ability to instill confidence in his players and the people he's around," said Texas Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury, who played quarterback for the Red Raiders when Briles was an assistant there from 2000 to 2003. If anything good came out of it, I think it's that I've learned to care and respect people differently than I would have."
Over the years, Briles rarely talked about the details of his parents' deaths, even with his three children. His wife, Jan, his high school sweetheart from their hometown of Rule, Texas, helped him cope and recover from the tragedy, but Briles seldom shared his sorrow or guilt with anyone else.
"Honestly, I've never mentioned it to anybody, other than maybe some players who have been in similar situations as I was trying to help them," Briles said. You don't like to talk about things that hurt."
The subject wasn't taboo in the Briles home; it was simply never discussed.
"He says he doesn't like talking about it," said Kendal Briles, who played for his father at Stephenville (Texas) High School and Houston and now works as Baylor's passing game coordinator and receivers coach. That was the extent of it."
Jancy Briles, Art's daughter, who works as the media relations coordinator for the Dallas Cowboys, barely remembers a time when her father spoke about her grandparents.
"Our mom would tell us today was the day they were killed or today was his dad's birthday or his mom's birthday, and that's why he was a little off or sad," Jancy Briles said. His way of handling it was moving on and honoring them."
For nearly 40 years, Briles kept his feelings and guilt about his parents' death bottled up inside. If they are that way, you're still going to make it and you're still going to be fine."
Courtesy of Triumph BooksArt Briles' parents, Dennis and Wanda, as well as his aunt Elsie Kittley, were killed in a car accident in 1976 as they drove to watch Art play in the Cotton Bowl.
After Art Briles stepped onto the Cotton Bowl field on Oct. Dennis and Wanda Briles had planned to make the 200-mile drive from Rule to Dallas to watch their son play for the Houston Cougars against SMU. Dennis, who coached Art in high school before retiring, worked as the principal of Rule High School and was the small town's mayor.
[+] EnlargeCourtesy of Triumph BooksArt Briles, right, played quarterback for his father, Dennis, at Rule High School.
Art tried to discourage his parents from coming to the Cotton Bowl because he wasn't sure how much he would play, if at all. A former standout quarterback at Rule High, where he led his team to the Texas Class B state championship game as a senior in 1973 (the Bobcats lost to Big Sandy High, which was led by future Chicago Bears coach Lovie Smith), Briles moved to receiver at Houston. It was another setback in an injury-filled college career; he broke his wrist in the final scrimmage before the 1975 season after redshirting the previous year.
When the Cougars returned to the field after coach Bill Yeoman's pregame speech, Briles looked into the stands again. But before Briles reached the door, Yeoman stopped him and pulled him into a small room, where he broke the tragic news he had learned only 30 minutes before kickoff: Briles' parents and aunt were killed in a car accident outside of Newcastle, Texas.
According to Briles' autobiography, his parents and aunt had left Rule in Dennis' beige Ford LTD about 8 a.m., but didn't make it even halfway to Dallas. Briles' girlfriend, Jan Allison, who would later become his wife, also had planned to go to the game with his parents, but she stayed in Rule for a friend's bridal shower during a weekend break from school at Texas Tech.
"If there's a shining light out of all of it, that's it," Art said. Wanda Briles was a special education teacher at the high school and was raised by her older sister, "Tottie," after their mother died during Wanda's birth. Art's aunt became more like a grandmother to him, taking him and his brother on annual camping trips to Colorado.
[+] EnlargeCourtesy of Triumph BooksAs a child, Briles went on camping trips to Colorado with his aunt "Tottie," who was killed in the accident along with Briles' parents.
"In Rule, everybody knew who the mayor was," said Texas Tech track and field coach Wes Kittley, a Rule native and one of Briles' closest friends. According to Briles' biography, he told Greeson, "Preacher, please tell me God didn't take my momma and daddy."
"No, son, God didn't do this," Greeson answered. Maybe he never will."
Greeson, who still lives in Rule, suspected that Briles was dealing with the tragedy as well as someone his age could. He didn't know that Briles felt responsibility for the accident, guilt he still lives with today.
"I do," Briles said. They were coming to see me."
As much as Briles' family and friends have tried over the years, they haven't been able to convince him that it wasn't his fault his parents and aunt died.
"I've always felt no blame for what happened," Eddie said. He still feels guilt about it and it's not going to change."
After Briles enrolled at Texas Tech, he never attended a Red Raiders football game. Art drove a forklift at a warehouse as a part-time job while finishing his bachelor's degree at Texas Tech, then took an assistant coaching job at Sundown High School after graduation. He moved to Sweetwater High School the next year and stayed there for four seasons.
[+] EnlargeTriumph BooksBriles became a hot coaching commodity at Stephenville High School, where he won four state championships before moving to the college ranks as an assistant at Texas Tech.
In 1984, Briles was named the head coach and athletic director at Hamlin High School, a Class 2A school located about 45 miles from Abilene. Briles inherited a team that had gone 12-1 the previous season and guided it to an unblemished record in his first regular season as a head coach. The Pied Pipers breezed through the first three rounds of the state playoffs before facing Panhandle High School in a state quarterfinal game in Childress. Briles realized his split-back veer offense wouldn't break Panhandle High's bigger and stronger defense, so he decided to spread out his offense when it got the ball back.
By using a shotgun snap in one-back or no-back formations, Briles figured he could counter his opponent's brute strength by getting the football to his faster skill players in open space. Hamlin High used a spread offense the next season, averaging 41.6 points and outscoring its opponents 416-26 in the regular season.
Briles' spread offense was born, along with much of the offensive philosophy he still uses today. On that cold, windy West Texas night, Briles decided his teams would play fast and score fast.
"I saw right then that we were going to go up against people that were better than us," Briles said. It was something we felt gave us an edge."
Eventually, Briles landed at Stephenville High School, a Class 4A school located about 70 miles southwest of Fort Worth. Under Briles, the Yellow Jackets, who hadn't reached the state playoffs since 1952, won Class 4A state championships in 1993 and '94 and 1998 and '99. In 1998, Stephenville High set a national high school record for total offense.
"He's a fighter," said Baylor offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Philip Montgomery, who also worked under Briles for six seasons at Stephenville High. "'No' is never the answer, and he's always going to find a way to make whatever he wants done work."
After Kendal Briles led the Yellow Jackets to a 16-0 record and state championship as a junior in 1999, Art wasn't sure there was much left for him to accomplish in high school football. In Lubbock, Briles was surrounded by many of college football's brightest young minds: California coach Sonny Dykes and West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen were among those on Leach's staff. One of the primary reasons Leach hired Briles was that he was well liked by high school coaches around the state.
[+] EnlargeJames D. Briles was so confident Welker could play at Texas Tech that he dubbed him "The Natural." He is a five-time Pro Bowler in the NFL.
Even though Briles wasn't coaching quarterbacks, Kingsbury still found himself lured to Briles' office nearly every morning for breakfast. They'd sit in his office for about a half-hour, discussing his philosophy for offense and for life.
"He's a guy that I've actually patterned myself after with his ability to relate to his players and motivate them," Kingsbury said.
Nick Florence, who was Baylor's starting quarterback in 2012, said Briles is also adept at figuring out what buttons to push to motivate his players. As Florence was preparing to replace 2011 Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III, Briles unexpectedly called him into his office before the season opener.
"I think you should grow a beard," Briles told him.
Florence didn't know what to think. It doesn't matter how you look."
Over the years, Briles learned to look deeper than the surface, to identify potential and talent where perhaps no one else saw it. " Big 12 blog Oklahoma blog »
On the recommendation of his former coach, Yeoman, Briles became the first former Houston player hired to coach his alma mater. The Cougars went 10-4 and won a Conference USA title in 2006 behind quarterback Kevin Kolb, leading the league in total offense with 446.1 yards per game.
After the 2006 season, Briles interviewed with Iowa State, but the Cyclones hired then-Texas defensive coordinator Gene Chizik. Iowa State wasn't the most attractive job in the country, but it was a chance for Briles to coach in the Big 12. When the Baylor job opened the next year, Briles eagerly threw his name into the hat.
"I didn't view it maybe the way many other people did," Briles said. I knew Texas well enough to know that Baylor is centrally located and you can go two-and-a-half hours in every direction and recruit every high school in the state. The Bears hadn't played in a bowl game in 13 consecutive seasons and hadn't had a winning season since 1995. In the Bears' first dozen seasons in the Big 12, they lost conference games by an average margin of 24 points and won more than two league games in a season only once, going 3-5 in 2006.
"Nobody wanted the Stephenville High job," Briles said. You have to go into it believing that you'll turn it around."
[+] EnlargeJoe Faraoni/ESPN ImagesThe Bears enjoyed a dream season in 2011, culminating in the school's first Heisman Trophy winner, Robert Griffin III.
Briles didn't exactly turn around the Bears quickly. After Briles left Houston, he persuaded Griffin to switch his commitment to the Bears. Griffin, from Copperas Cove, had previously committed to play for Briles at Houston. He came back in 2010 and led the Bears to a 7-6 record and their first bowl game in 16 years behind an offense that shattered 22 school records.
As a junior in 2011, Griffin became the first Baylor player to win the Heisman Trophy, leading the Bears to a 10-3 record, including their first-ever victory over Oklahoma.
"It's what we dreamed of," Griffin said. At a Nike coaching clinic last year, Briles said, "People do not pay money to come to a game and watch a slowdown offense. They will miss something if they leave the game."
This season, Briles has led Baylor to unprecedented heights -- the Bears are 7-0 and ranked No. They've scored 70 points in four games and might have scored many more if Briles hadn't pulled his starters in the second half of blowouts.
"We want to play as fast as possible," quarterback Bryce Petty said. Art Briles has taken us to the mountaintop again. That's where people want to be, looking out."
Make no mistake: Briles has been to the bottom of the valley, and it's not a place he wants to go again.