What Art Briles Brought To The Town That Never Asked For Him

What Art Briles Brought To The Town That Never Asked For Him
Illustration: Elena Scotti (G/O Media), Photo: AP/Kesley McKinney
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MOUNT VERNON, Texas – There had never been a line like this before. Not here, at least. It was ridiculous, obscene. The first people in line queued up just before 4:30 p.m. They stood there, up against the closed ticket window, huddling underneath the small awning as it poured rain, and then, when the rain stopped, they waited patiently in the brutal east Texas humidity. By the time the windows rolled up and the tickets were available for purchase an hour later, the line had grown to contain at least 200 people, all standing with stadium chairs, and all gossiping.

They were there to see a high school football game, which—no matter what you’ve heard about Texas high school football or how many episodes of Friday Night Lights you’ve watched—is an absurd thing to happen in this town. They weren’t standing outside a 6A stadium that’s home to a football team that will produce college recruits. They were waiting to watch a football team that would consistently underthrow passes, that would play boys in pads that look too big for them, that would miss easy extra-point kicks. This is 3A ball. Sure, it was a rivalry game, and it turned out to be a nice night by the time the lights buzzed to life and the opposing high school received the kickoff at 7:30 p.m. But that is not why people from two small towns turned out in droves.

They came because the stakes are high this year. This game wasn’t just about whether you’re from Winnsboro or Mount Vernon. This game wasn’t even about the fact that Winnsboro stole Mount Vernon’s head coach at the end of the last school year. No, this game, like every game this season, like every damn conversation in Mount Vernon this summer, was about Art Briles.

From the minute the school board voted him in, Art Briles has been a point of contention. No one wanted to talk on the record. They’ve been there, done that. ESPN came, did you know? The Los Angeles Times was here, too. People will talk, sure, but you can’t use their name. Everyone has a lot to say. Or really, everyone has the same thing to say, and they’ll get it all out in a tight five minutes, as if they were handed a flyer with talking points.

Here is what the people of Mount Vernon have to say: Art Briles is the football coach. What happened at Baylor is unclear. He deserves a second chance. We are Christians here; we believe in forgiveness. I wasn’t crazy about the idea at first, but the football team is undefeated.

Or at least, they were undefeated when I was there to watch the Sept. 20 game against Winnsboro. Last Friday night, the Mount Vernon Tigers lost 47-16 to the Jefferson High School Bulldogs. Mount Vernon got rocked. Several people texted during the game describing the play as “brutal” and “not even close.” The mood in the stands, they said, was “frustrated” and “somber.”

The loss had everything to do with Briles, just as the wins that came before it and the crowds filling up a historically sleepy high school football stadium had everything to do with him. It wasn’t a loss born out of any strategic or coaching failures, but of a standard-issue high school sports scandal discovered within the aftershocks of Briles’s sudden arrival in town. It was a loss that helped clarify what exactly Art Briles’s relationship with Mount Vernon is, and what both parties stand to reap from their union.

Mount Vernon, Texas—anyone will tell you—is more than just the town where Art Briles coaches. Briles, they say, is from Baylor, but this is the home of “Dandy” Don Meredith. Drive over there, by the Baptist church, and you’ll pass his childhood home. There’s a sign in the front yard to honor him.

Art Briles is only here, a dozen people tell me, because Mount Vernon needed a coach. You see, they lost a good coach last year. After going to the playoffs, longtime Mount Vernon head coach Josh Finney transferred to their rival school, Winnsboro, where he grew up, and the Mount Vernon team was in a bind. That’s why the attendance at the Winnsboro game was so high. Nobody could resist the drama of watching their new, controversial coach take on their former, beloved coach. At the merchandise stand, T-shirts hung up for sale. One had a play drawn on the front of it, another had Briles’s photo on it. Both shirts had the coach’s name in all capital letters: BRILES.

T-shirts displayed for sale at the Mount Vernon versus Winnsboro game.
T-shirts displayed for sale at the Mount Vernon versus Winnsboro game.
Photo: Kelsey McKinney

Snagging Briles as a head coach seemed like a no-brainer from a football perspective. “Are people excited about Briles? Absolutely,” Erin Gordineer, a Mount Vernon resident and parent said. “When you can give your kids the best available coach why wouldn’t you be excited?” Successful D1 college coaches don’t just fall into the laps of 3A high school programs, and that makes Briles something of a dream hire. Especially if you’re able or willing to forget a few things.

Briles arrived in Mount Vernon with a record and a stain. At Baylor, he went 65-37. He was also the head coach of a program where the Board of Regents reported that 19 rapes were committed by 17 football players from 2011 to 2016; where a woman who claimed she was raped by a Baylor football player settled a lawsuit that alleged 52 acts of rape carried out by 31 players; where documents provided by Briles in 2018 showed that he and “multiple senior Baylor administrators knew about a serial sexual assault assailant” within the football program in 2011, but did nothing about it; where the full report about Baylor, created by a law firm hired by the university to investigate what exactly happened and who exactly was responsible for the fact that many of these crimes were never reported law enforcement, was never released to the public.

Which of those things matters more?

Does it matter more that Art Briles built 4A Stephenville High School from a non-competitive program into one that won four state championships in the ‘90s, or that one of his players there was accused of raping a fellow student in the spring of 1991, and that when confronted by the victim’s father, Briles said, “What do you want me to do?” and continued to play him?

After Briles was fired as Baylor’s head coach in May of 2016, he was considered for jobs with the Cleveland Browns, the Houston Cougars, the FAU Owls, and the Southern Miss Golden Eagles. He was hired at none of those programs, and ended up taking jobs in Canada and Italy.

On May 24, the same day as the high school graduation ceremony, while many members of the community were otherwise occupied with celebrating the class of 2019, the Mount Vernon ISD Board of Trustees approved a two-year contract for Art Briles.

Inside the Franklin County Community Discussions Facebook group, a debate has been raging since the minute Briles was hired. Articles about what happened at Baylor have been linked, spurring dozens of comments. A few people argue that hiring Briles was a morally corrupt decision. They say this isn’t good for the town and it certainly isn’t good for the kids. Brian Ball, who describes himself as a town disruptor, says, “Hiring Art Briles is just about the stupidest thing this town could do. It just really shows that what Mount Vernon wants is to win football games, and they don’t care what it takes or who it hurts to do that.”

Some people don’t seem to care. “I don’t know what the big deal is, he’s just a coach,” a woman named Kerstin told me at the Franklin County Genealogical Society. “If it brings good people to our town and increases our property value, I’m good with that.” Inside the Facebook group, for every negative comment about Briles, there are two positive ones. JV cheerleaders told me they think he left Baylor because “something unfair happened, but I dunno what.”

Only one woman, Lauren Lewis, was at the school board meeting to speak out against the hire. “The message it’s sending to the young women in this community, and the young women at Baylor and sexual assault survivors everywhere, it’s just ugly and so embarrassing,” she said. Several survivors of sexual assault who live in Mount Vernon expressed similar sentiments to me. Quietly, in their homes, they tell their friends and their kids that Briles’s employment is painful to them. But speaking out on this topic puts a target on your back. “I can’t possibly forgive him,” one of them said, “he hasn’t even ever said he’s sorry.”

At the only press conference given by Briles since the season began, a reporter asked him if he felt like he owed anyone an apology. “If you’re asking about Baylor, that’s been addressed in a statement,” Briles said. The statement given to reporters by a publicist hired by the school district read: “What the public has been led to believe about Coach Briles is flatly false.”

“After a thorough due diligence process and several earnest conversations, we believe our students will benefit greatly from his skills and experience,” Superintendent Dr. Jason McCullough said at the school board meeting. No further information on what the “due diligence process” looked like has been made available. As of publication, Dr. McCullough did not respond to request for comment or questions sent by Deadspin.

One unanswered question is how exactly Briles ended up in Mount Vernon. He’s not from there, he has no apparent personal or sentimental attachment to the town, and for all that he’s done to tarnish his career and reputation, 3A high school football is closer to the bottom of the barrel than most people might have expected him to scrape. People in town say the girls basketball team is just as beloved as the football team.

Briles did not end up in Mount Vernon by accident. Multiple sources confirmed that initial contact with Briles was made by Leigh Anne Ramsay, who now lives in Mount Vernon with her husband and kids, and worked for Briles at Baylor as Assistant Director of Campus Recruiting. She connected Briles with her husband, Landon Ramsay, who attended Baylor law school and worked as a district attorney in Waco until 2018 before moving back home to practice law in Mount Vernon. After Briles was hired and people started wondering whose idea it was to bring him to town, Leigh Anne Ramsay deleted all of the information off of her personal LinkedIn page. Landon and Leigh Anne Ramsay did not respond to requests for comment.

What Art Briles Brought To The Town That Never Asked For Him
Photo: Tony Gutierrez (AP)

There is no “just hired” in Mount Vernon, people tell me on background. This is a small town. People know each other, and they know each other’s business. It’s not small enough for everyone to know everything, but its certainly small enough that word about the high school planning to hire Art Briles should have gotten around before the school board voted him in.

Despite the narrative that this is just another Texas town obsessed with winning football games over everything else, people from Mount Vernon assured me that football isn’t that big of a priority to them. The stands, they promised, have never been this full. The tickets for Friday home games have never sold out during pre-sales. This is something rare. This is something new. This isn’t a town that wanted to win above everything else and begged for the people in charge to bring them a coach who could do that. It’s a town that had to decide what it thought after they’d already been told who the new coach would be. The line in the sand was already drawn: Were you with Briles, the Baptist church, and the school, or were you with the national media?

The press, many people in Mount Vernon want you to know, is the problem here. According to Briles’s supporters, no one in town has a problem with his hiring (this is false), the reports of protests have been overblown (fair), and there is absolutely, positively nothing to see here.

“I assume you’ll be honest, not like The New York Times,” a local named Donny said to me in the genealogical society. “You’ll see that we just want to win.”

Briles’s supporters speak of redemption. Doesn’t everyone, they ask, deserve a second chance? Isn’t it the Christian thing, the right thing, to do to let him try again? But it was already clear what Briles gets out of a job at Mount Vernon high school: He gets a safe harbor, a chance to prove himself, a launching pad that could possibly send him back into a tier of coaching more fitting of his record. His contract at Mount Vernon is for two years, but the talk around town is that the lease he signed is only for nine months, the length of one school year.

Before the Winnsboro game, people in town warned me. The team looked really good this season; too good, maybe. Mainly, they said, watch the brothers.

In the first five plays of the Winnsboro game, only three players touched the ball. It was a trend that would carry for most of the game. Mount Vernon wasn’t running particularly complicated plays, and they weren’t on the whole that much better than their opponents. They just had, as many dominant teams at the 3A and 4A and even 5A levels do, a couple of star players.

Those stars were a pair of brothers, the starting quarterback and running back, who had conveniently moved to Mount Vernon from Colorado right around the time Briles was hired. Last Tuesday, both players were ruled ineligible to play for Mount Vernon after the University Interscholastic League (UIL) determined that they had moved to Mount Vernon for “athletic purposes.”

When I visited Mount Vernon in late September, the two brothers were thought to be in the clear. Someone had previously reported them to the UIL for violating residency requirements, but the district executive committee voted in favor of Mount Vernon. Three members of the committee voted, three abstained, and one member wasn’t allowed to vote because of a conflict of interest. The UIL’s latest ruling supersedes the initial decision that found the brothers to be eligible.

“I’m real skeptical,” a mother of a Winnsboro player said to me while the brothers thrashed her son’s team. “Smells fishy to me.”

What Art Briles Brought To The Town That Never Asked For Him
Photo: Kelsey McKinney (G/O Media)

On the Mount Vernon side, the narrative was different. Listen, they said, those boys were just ruled innocent. Anybody telling you otherwise is out looking for trouble. When I asked if there was trouble to find, everyone said no, of course not. No trouble here.

Still, their names were on everyone’s lips. Who moves all the way from Colorado, everyone asked, to live in Mount Vernon?

UIL has very strict rules about when a high school student can transfer and how. Recruiting is strictly prohibited by UIL Texas rules, but so is transferring schools for athletic purposes. The eligibility rules state that the district executive committees should look closely at players who are transferring to play with a specific coach. For the boys in question, that coach was Lynx Hawthorne.

Hawthorne played for Briles at Baylor as a wide receiver from 2013–16 and briefly in Italy. He wears his curly black hair tied in a low bun at the base of his neck, which makes him easy to spot. At both the varsity and JV games against Winnsboro, he was almost always within 10 feet of Briles. He stood in the huddle. He listened. He spoke with a few players after Briles left the field.

Hawthorne does not officially work for the Mount Vernon school district, but in early reports about Briles’s move to the town, he was described as an assistant coach. Hawthorne moved into a trailer park inside the school district’s borders, people in town say. He spoke with the media after Mount Vernon’s first football practice. He is also married to a cousin of the two brothers from Colorado.

At the first hearing in September, the boys were ruled eligible because their parents and Dr. McCullough claimed that Hawthorne would not be coaching, and was instead in town to film a documentary. (Several sources confirmed that there is a documentary crew in Mount Vernon, and that they have not gotten permission from parents to film the students. One source said that there is some animosity within the Mount Vernon high school administration because “all Briles seems to do is sit in his office and film that documentary.”)

At the second hearing, though, the district executive committee overruled their previous decision with a 6-0 vote to disqualify the brothers. Not only had Hawthorne been seen on the field wearing a headset during a scrimmage this year, he’d been seen talking to players, and was clearly coaching. On top of that, the brothers listed an inaccurate address on the UIL’s form for athletic transfers. The brothers, according to multiple sources, live in the same RV park with Hawthorne. On that transfer form, WFAA reported, the address listed for the brothers belongs to the owner of the RV park, Randy Wafford, who did not respond to request for comment.

According to the UIL, Mount Vernon’s football program will not have to forfeit any of their previously won games because the brothers had been ruled eligible at the first hearing. Mount Vernon claimed in a statement that the brothers moved to Mount Vernon for “employment reasons.” They will appeal the ruling, and the case will be reviewed by the State Executive Committee.

“I hope they are eligible to play and that UIL clears them,” Jennifer Marie Holland, a Mount Vernon high school parent, says. “It would be devastating to my son not to be able to participate in band. As a mom, my heart breaks for the kids.”

What do the people of Mount Vernon have to gain from all of this? Briles landed in this town like a meteor, and he brought with him not only constant scrutiny and media attention, but complicated moral and ethical questions that everyone in town had to sort out in their own way. There was always a silver lining to point to, though, even in a town that’s not exactly football-crazed: Art Briles was going to win a lot of games.

Everyone I spoke to that considered themselves a supporter of Briles brought up the fact that he was undefeated, over and over again. But now that his two unfairly acquired star players have been declared ineligible, he has lost, and he has brought a fresh scandal to Mount Vernon.

Acquiring two star players under shady circumstances is not on the same spectrum of moral failures that cost Briles his job at Baylor, but there are echoes to be heard. Just like at Baylor, Briles has given his program the image of one that is willing to behave unethically in order to win games. Just like at Baylor, Briles’s specific role in the scandal is hard to pin down.

It’s Hawthorne, the guy who played for Briles at Baylor and in Italy, who is a direct link to the brothers from Colorado, and right now there’s no evidence that Briles personally recruited them to Mount Vernon. Briles didn’t even appear at either hearing about the boys’ eligibility. He wasn’t required to be there, and so he didn’t go. He also declined to comment on this story.

“The thing is, you would think if Art Briles was really here for redemption, if he really wanted to clear his name, he would run a 100 percent squeaky clean operation,” Brian Ball says. “But he didn’t. He’s been here a few months and things are already a mess.”

Maybe Mount Vernon High School will come up with a reasonable explanation for how two stud football players from Colorado ended up in Texas, living near and playing for a former Baylor football player who is married to their cousin, and the brothers will be reinstated. Or maybe they won’t, and Briles won’t even be able to deliver on the promise of winning a lot of football games in a town that’s never cared all that much about football. Whatever happens from here on out, the people of Mount Vernon should have an easier time understanding what exactly the arrival of this disgraced football coach has brought them.

It brought them a guy willing to grab a helping hand, and to let everyone believe that it was offered only in the name of redemption. It brought them a guy desperate to relaunch his career, so much so that he was willing to execute, or at least not ask any questions about, a scheme to bring him two star players he didn’t deserve. It brought them constant unwanted attention, and now it has brought them a scandal. It brought them Art Briles, and all that he’s ever been.