That holy ghost in Baylor head coach’s guilt and grief

Right now, Baylor University coach Art Briles is one of the hottest leaders in college football, the creator of the hottest offense in around. Last night, the No. 6 Bears clawed the No. 10 Oklahoma Sooners to the tune of 41-12, even while losing three of their top four players on offense to injuries of various kinds.

Yes, I am a Baylor alum, one who a decade-plus ago thought my alma mater faced certain gridiron doom if it stayed in the Big 12.

Crazy things are happening. GetReligion readers who follow sports will have noticed that.

Meanwhile, what can we make of ESPN’s important story about the amazing personal story behind Briles and his work? This feature includes some fine work, even if — surprise, surprise — it offers no major insights into the obvious faith issues at the heart of this story.

So what is the heart of this story of God, grief and eventual glory (in terms of success on the field)?

The first act of the drama is, of course, right at the top where it should be.

WACO, Texas – Reminders of the worst day of Baylor coach Art Briles’ life come every year like clockwork. There are a few dates on the calendar — his parents’ birthdays, their wedding day, holidays and, of course, the anniversary of their tragic deaths — that tug the painful memories from the back of his mind.

Briles, 57, has never forgotten how much his life changed on Oct. 16, 1976. Nearly four decades later, the deep emotional wounds still fester because he never allowed them to heal. How could they? 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. “I can sit here right now and know that tomorrow is the anniversary of it. It never leaves you.”

It was a car wreck on a Texas highway. His loved ones were driving a long way to the Cotton Bowl on the chance that the 20-year-old Briles would be able to play wide receiver for the Houston Cougars, after fighting hard to win a fight with an achy knee. They didn’t make it after a collision with an out-of-control tanker truck. It could have been worse: Briles’ girlfriend, and eventual wife, almost made the trip with them.

Frequent GetReligion readers can probably sense where this is going: theodicy.

So who or what is to blame? God, man or the sickness of a fallen creation?

Briles blamed himself, and still does. That brings us to the key moment in the ESPN piece:

Briles and his older brother Eddie faced the final rites together.

The funeral was Monday, only two days after their parents and aunt were killed. The memorial service was held at the high school gymnasium in Rule because none of the local churches could accommodate the overflowing crowd. More than 450 people packed the gym with the three closed caskets.

As Art and Eddie made their way to a nearby cemetery to bury their parents and aunt, John Greeson, pastor at the Rule Church of Christ, walked with them. 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. “It was a bad, tragic accident.”

Then Art replied: “When’s all this going to end?”

“I think Art was asking me when the funeral would end, but my thought at the time was that he was asking me when he was going to get over all that happened,” Greeson told ESPN.com. “I told him it was going to take time and he’d have to allow God to help him. We don’t get over it in a day or a week or a year. 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.

The family has not been able to convince Briles that the accident was not his fault. He quit playing football after the accident, but decided to follow his father into coaching.

So what is the missing act in this drama?

As it should, this story focuses on the stunning cloud of guilt that has lingered in this man’s life. However, the story shows — again and again — that it has not crippled him.

Something is missing.

I think that it’s crucial that the faith element of the story vanishes after that remarkable dialogue after the funeral. The pastor’s voice vanishes. The faith-shaped hole is even more obvious, in light of the fact that Briles coaches at the world’s largest Baptist college or university, a place where many players (even while winning a Heisman Trophy) openly talk about the role faith has played in their lives and college careers.

Simply stated: What role has Christian faith played in the grief and glory in this coach’s life?

Readers only receive this hint. Read carefully, as he talks about the aftermath of the tragedy:

“It was kind of a hopeless time, to say the least,” Briles said. “It kind of jolts the soul and spirit, you know? All of the sudden, you look down and there’s not a net anymore. When you’re falling, you’re falling. One day everything is good and then the next day you’re wondering where you’re going for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Fortunately, I’d been raised right long enough to understand that there’s a purpose in life.

“Very easily, I could have gone down a wrong path with alcohol or an undriven lifestyle. But I decided I was going to try to live nobly for my parents’ name and honor. 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.”

What, pray tell, is the purpose in his life? In this case, that’s a crucial part of the real story. Why leave it out?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.


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