Friday, November 30, 2007

Art Briles goes to Baylor

Over the course of this fall's college football season, I had planned to write regular updates and thoughts about the University of Houston Cougars. Of course, other than an entry I wrote after the first game of the season, that simply never occurred. Now the regular season is over; the Cougars have ended their season with an 8-4 record - one win better than what I predicted last August - and are heading to their fourth bowl game in five years: the Texas Bowl, here in Houston, against an as-yet-unnamed opponent, on Friday December 28th.

However, all of that has been overshadowed by the fact that, as of yesterday, the Cougars are without a head coach. Art Briles, who has been at the helm of UH football for the past five seasons, has moved up the road to Waco, where he will become Baylor's new head football coach.

Briles's base salary at Baylor will be $1.2 million but he could earn as much as $1.8 million with incentives. Considering that to be a doubling of the $900,ooo he was paid here in Houston, you really can't begrudge the man for wanting to go where the money is. Given the money, the fact that Briles, a west Texas native, probably feels more comfortable in a place like Waco, and the fact that his relationship with UH Athletic Director Dave Maggard was widely reported as being strained, it isn't a surprise that Briles decided to make his move.

Needless to say, the University of Houston faithful are pretty angry right now. A quick perusal of UH message boards, or even the comments of Michael Murphy's blog, will show that fans feel angry, shocked, and betrayed by Art Briles. Some are upset that he'd leave Houston for Baylor, a Big 12 bottomfeeder whose inclusion in that conference at the expense of Houston over a decade ago is still a source of resentment. Others are angry at the timing of his decision, leaving his players to fend for themselves with a bowl game one month away. Others are mad at what they perceive as his dishonesty: he claimed he was "still proud to be a Houston Cougar" and that no contract details were discussed upon returning from his interview with the Baylor AD Tuesday night, only to be flashing the Bear Claw at a press conference in Waco less than twenty-four hours later.

I, however, can't say I'm too broken up about Briles's decision. I never expected Art Briles to be at the University of Houston forever, although I figured that when he left UH it would be for Texas Tech, his alma mater and the place where he previously coached as an assistant. To be sure, his decision to take the Baylor gig - a job with a recent history of being a coaching graveyard - was a bit surprising to me. I also could have done without the timing of his decision, but I realize that is the nature of the college football coaching business. But I'm not very upset about the loss of Art Briles, because, quite frankly, I think the time was right for both him and the University of Houston to move on. He had taken the UH football program as far as he could take it. It's now time for somebody to come in and take the program to the next level.

Art Briles is a good guy and a decent coach who certainly deserves credit for turning the football program around. Before he got to Houston the Cougars had enjoyed only two winning seasons out of the previous twelve; since Art has been at the helm the Cougars have had four winning seasons out of five. After five years in Houston, however, the limitations of his abilities had become apparent. Consider:

Briles compiled a 34-28 record over his five seasons at Houston, which is a decent average and is certainly better than what the Coogs were accomplishing before he arrived. But, of those 34 wins, only six came against teams that finished the season with winning records. Other than perhaps the victory over Oklahoma State last season, the Cougars did not notch any significant upsets or score any "signature" wins. Under Briles, the Cougars never managed any bowl victories, he never managed any top 25 appearances, and he led the team to only one conference championship in an extremely weak Conference USA.

Of course, it's unfair to expect for Briles to take a team that was once the dregs of the college football world - Houston had an 0-fer season as recently as 2001 - and turn it into a perennial top-25 program in only five short seasons. But there were times, under his leadership, where the Coogs underperformed against lesser opponents as well, losing games they had no business losing: Rice (3-8) in 2004, SMU (5-6) in 2005, Louisiana-Lafayette (5-7) last year (all three games were played in Houston, by the way). The Cougars frequently allowed games to be closer than they should have been (this season's 56-48 nail-biter against Rice being one such example). Sometimes the team suffered humiliating blowout losses to schools that were not exactly powerhouses: the 13-42 drubbing at the hands of 7-4 Kansas in the 2005 Fort Worth Bowl, for example, or the 7-56 pounding against Tulsa earlier this season with the division championship on the line.

Aside from the wins and losses, Briles's teams were frequently sloppy on the field. Throughout the five years of Art's tenure, the Cougars were plagued with the "unholy trinity" of turnovers, penalties and lousy special teams play. These frustrating problems never really seemed to improve over time, and ultimately cost the Cougars games (such as the home loss to East Carolina earlier this season, wherein the Cougars had two chances to win with field goals in the final minutes of the game but missed them both). Sloppiness was oftentimes evident in other areas as well: tackling, clock management, center-to-quarterback exchanges. All of Art's Houston teams had a rough, unrefined, work-in-progress feel to them: they had just enough physical talent to beat almost anybody, but made just enough mental mistakes to lose to almost anybody.

This is not to suggest that Art Briles is a horrible coach. He is not, and he deserves appreciation for coming out ahead in the win-loss column and giving Houston fans something to cheer about again. Because of Art Briles, University of Houston football is at least something approaching relevant once again. But it's time for the Coogs to take the next step, and that next step probably wasn't going to happen with Art Briles at the helm.

Is Art Briles is really worth up to $1.8 million per year? That's Baylor's problem now. The Bears, of course, have not had a winning season since 1995; being the Big 12's lone private school, they are a small fish in a big pond and their abysmal 11-85 in-conference record since they joined the Big 12 in 1996 proves as much.

Based on what he accomplished here in Houston, Art Briles clearly thinks he can do what all of Chuck Reedy, Dave Roberts, Kevin Steele and Guy Morriss thought they could do: turn around Baylor's moribund football program. But it's not going to be easy, especially since there's a huge difference in the level of competition he will be facing. His divisional foes will be Texas, Oklahoma and Texas A&M instead of Rice, SMU and Tulane. Briles has his work cut out for him, and if the problems that plagued his teams here - the penalties, the turnovers, the poor tackling, the lousy special teams play, the overall sloppiness - rear their ugly heads on his Baylor teams, his stay in Waco could be short. As Richard Justice notes, Briles's ability to win at Baylor "may hinge on his ability to understand that discipline and toughness aren't his strong points. He must hire a staff that will make players accountable." If he can't do that, then he has essentially committed career suicide.

As for the University of Houston: Dave Maggard's task right now is to find the right person to take Cougar football to the next level: bowl wins, upset victories, top 25 appearances. It's not an easy task by any means, but the Houston program has moved up in stature such that many qualified applicants are showing interest. If nothing else, we have Art Briles to think for that.

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