Baylor’s Art Briles: Diehard Texan and what else?

Try to imagine national-level journalists writing about how a coach does or does not fit into the culture of Notre Dame University without mentioning Catholicism.

Try to imagine sportswriters writing about how a coach does or does not fit into the culture of Brigham Young University without mentioning the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Now try to imagine sportswriters writing about how a coach does or does not fit into the culture of Baylor University without mentioning the fact that it is the largest Baptist academic institution on the world? Without mentioning whether or not the coach is a man of faith?

What if the coach in question was a man whose life pivoted around a tragic, soul-crushing event in which, as a young man, he lost both of his parents in a tragic car crash as they were driving to see him play? What about it, ESPN?

What if the man in question — in the midst of an amazing Big 12 championship season that could make him the national coach of the year — also lost his beloved brother in yet another tragic accident?

Would it be possible for journalists in yet another national-level newsroom to skip the religious element of that story?

Well, Washington Post folks, what about it?

It appears that Briles veered onto the elite radar at the Post, in large part, because of his more-than-a-mentor relationship with Robert Griffin III and a rumor, that lasted for a few days, that the professional football team in Washington, D.C., might want to pull him inside the Beltway as a head coach.

Thus the Post team dedicated nearly 2,300 words to Briles the other day in a long and very ordinary football-coach profile.

That’s a lot of ink.

So what did the Post editors decide is the crucial element of the Briles story, the main reason that he is such a great fit for Baylor and its unique cultural and educational challenges?

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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:

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The return of Baylor football, minus all that Baptist stuff

Way back when I was in college, soon after the cooling of the earth’s crust, the always confident folks at the University of Texas (rivals in the region would use a different adjective) fired an interesting salvo at a key rival.

The marketers for the Tea Sippers created a burnt orange and white car window decal that simply said “The University.”

The message was clearly targeted at the humble Aggies over at Texas A&M University in their semi-military fortress. There was, you see, only one university of Texas and it was in Austin, not in College Station.

And in Waco?

While that hubbub lingered, someone at my alma mater had an interesting idea. They created a green-and-gold decal for the much smaller university on I-35 that said “Thee University.”

In other words, Baylor University answered to an authority even higher than the folks who ran higher education in the Lone Star State. That “thee” move was clever, since there was no way for Baylor people to deny that the school’s image was completely dominated by the fact that it was the world’s largest Baptist school. There was a reason that people liked to call Baylor — as a tribute, or with a touch of venom — “Jerusalem on the Brazos.”

After all, it’s hard to play truly Texas-worthy football when you’re a rather bookish Baptist school, the kind of place where just as many players, or more, frequent Bible studies as often as they do the local watering holes (ask for a Big O). Right?

Maybe not. Right now, the Baylor Bears are on a bit of a multi-year roll, riding the waves still rippling from that remarkable Heisman Trophy run (and pass) by Robert Griffin III, a church-going do-gooder who was as skilled in the classroom as on the gridiron.

So, how does anyone try to tell the Baylor story without mentioning the whole “Jerusalem on the Brazos” angle?

Ask the folks at ESPN.

To my shock, the world’s most powerful multi-media sports empire recently ran a lengthy piece on Baylor, Griffin and head football coach Art Briles without mentioning the word “Baptist” or the word “church.” How about “Christian”? How about “faith”? That would be “no” and “no.”

But what about the history and identity of the program?

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Spot the ghost: An X factor for QB Russell Wilson?

While things are not going very well in his second playoff game with the Seattle Seahawks (writing at halftime), it’s pretty clear that the amazing success of the undersized, yet tough as nails, quarterback Russell Wilson has been one of the National Football League’s most amazing stories this year.

The Washington Post produced a profile of the rookie the other day, which ran within days of a similar story — the latest of many — about another amazing rookie, Washington’s Robert Griffin III.

In both cases the stories tried to explain the amazing leadership skills possessed by these two young men, the almost supernatural ability they have to remain calm and to lead others.

The bottom line: What’s so different about these guys, I mean, other than the fact they are African-Americans, academically brilliant and have unusual levels of talent? Might the X factor have something to do with their backgrounds and, well, the way their lives revolve around their families and their faith?

Consider this part of the Post take on Wilson:

Wilson is undersized. He speaks in cliches. He talks about faith and family. He doesn’t hit the town with teammates, and many nights he’s in bed by 9 p.m.

“He’s always serious, even when we’re not supposed to be serious,” Seattle fullback Michael Robinson said. “That’s a good thing.”

“He’s pretty much all work and no play,” tight end Anthony McCoy added.

I don’t know about you, but this passage seems to be suggesting that there is a moral component to Wilson’s early success. And that “faith” reference? Might there be a follow-up question there?

Nope. Apparently not.

The story does, however, do move on to do a pretty good job of sketching out the importance of his heritage:

Russell Wilson’s family tree is rooted in special. His grandfather was president of Norfolk State University, and his grandmother was a college professor. His uncle went to Harvard Law School and is an accomplished Washington attorney, and his father studied law at Virginia and practiced in Richmond. …

Wilson attended the Collegiate School in Richmond and played football there for Charlie McFall. Though his talent was undeniable, football seemed to have a ceiling. Tom Holliday, N.C. State’s associate head baseball coach, first saw Wilson play baseball as a junior and he had no doubts. “He was a major league baseball prospect,” Holliday said. “He was probably a football player who could maybe make football work because he was so athletic. But you could see a future in baseball.”

Wilson attended N.C. State and played both sports. Several members of his family had competed collegiately, including his father, Harrison Wilson III, who played football and baseball at Dartmouth. In fact, Harrison III attended training camp and played in the 1980 preseason with the San Diego Chargers, reportedly one of the last players cut.

Wilson’s father was a guiding influence but he became sick midway through Wilson’s time at N.C. State. Still, he followed Wilson’s exploits from afar.

Harrison Wilson III died in 2010, about the time his son was drafted to play major-league baseball. Losing his father seemed, at a crucial moment, to have further fueled the son’s drive to push for excellence.

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Bear QB after RGIII keeps the vague faith

As we roll through the semi-holy football season of minor bowls, I am happy to report that The Los Angeles Times team noticed that the Baylor Bears had another winning season and, apparently, are playing in some game out on the West Coast.

This means that the Times needed to produce a feature story about the Baylor team or one of its stars. That’s in the bowl-season handbook, I am sure.

Anyway, those who follow college football — this includes two or three GetReligion readers — surely know that the Bears were, for a completely logical reason, not expected to do very well this season.

Why is that? Well, because You Know Who won the Heisman Trophy last year and then ascended to instant NFL stardom with that team that (for Texans and, in my case, prodigal Texans) shall not be named up in Washington, D.C. I mean, how is the Baylor team supposed to survive without Robert Griffin III?

This is the angle that the Times team jumped on. How would you like to try to follow the RGIII act in Waco, Texas? Thus, here is the logical opening:

SAN DIEGO – Nick Florence didn’t need this.

The Baylor quarterback already had his degree in economics. He was a fall semester from earning his MBA. Life could have been so simple. Instead, he embraced a difficult job. A really difficult job.

A year ago, Robert Griffin III was the first player from Baylor to win the Heisman Trophy. There are weekly reminders, with Griffin having an exceptional rookie season with the Washington Redskins.

Florence was next up in Waco, Texas.

“I never told him that he shouldn’t expect to be Robert,” Baylor Coach Art Briles said. “But I put it out there that everyone else shouldn’t expect that. I think, arguably, he had the toughest position to fill in America, following a guy who won the Heisman and is as dynamic as Robert is on and off the field.”

The thing is, Florence has come close to matching that.

At this point, the story finds many football-related ways of noting that Florence’s Baylor career has been the essence of self-sacrifice and quiet achievement, while RGIII was the man out front. Now, he had one year of eligibility left and, lo and behold, he has managed top put up Heisman-like numbers on the field.

This would not, however, require the attention of GetReligion. Later in the story, Florence gets to speak:

“I happened to follow a Heisman Trophy winner,” Florence said. “That had nothing to do with who I am.”

Florence knew what he faced when he came to Waco from Garland (Texas) South Garland High in 2009. Griffin, considered one of the nation’s top high school quarterbacks the previous year, was the Big 12 Conference freshman of the year. Florence anticipated a waiting period.

“Football is a huge part of my life, but it is not my entire life,” said Florence, who has been named to the dean’s list three times. “I felt this is where I was supposed to be. Faith is a big part of who I am. The education was good, the community would challenge my faith and I would still get to play football.”

You see, Florence had to become the quarterback at the world’s largest Baptist institution of higher learning. A key part of his story — as with RGIII — is linked to his religious faith and the ways he has expressed that in service and in campus life at Baylor.

You can’t tell Florence’s story, including how he gracefully handled following Griffin, without mentioning this religion element.

So the Times saw the logical story. The Times team even included one quote that pointed to the obvious. The bear minimum? You bet.

But that’s that. Nothing to see here, in terms of who Florence actually is as a person and a football player. It’s time to move along.

Yahoo! asks Robert Griffin III a rather obvious question

The big news here in Washington, D.C., (other than the mysteries of the U.S. Supreme Court) is that (a) the knee of quarterback Robert Griffin III is strained, not broken, and (b) that The Washington Post team survived another weekend covering a superstar who keeps talking about the fact that he apparently believes in a God who hears prayers and plays some meaningful role in the lives of real people.

So blame Twitter, of course, along with press conferences in which players get to say whatever is on their minds (and hearts).

Team spokesman Tony Wyllie said later Sunday evening that Griffin underwent an MRI exam and “everything is clear.” Griffin did not tear his anterior cruciate or medial collateral ligaments, Wyllie said. He called the injury a knee sprain and added that Shanahan will provide further details Monday. It remained unclear whether Griffin will be able to play next weekend.

Griffin wrote on Twitter: “Your positive vibes and prayers worked people!!!! To God be the Glory!”

Sports fans here in Beltwayland are certainly in full swoon mode, which the Post team tried to capture last week in a piece that ran with the headline, “Redskins’ Robert Griffin III maintains focus amid increasing frenzy.” This being Washington, it’s hard to write about a figure this charismatic without connecting him to politics, in one way or another.

I mean, check out this near-messianic language:

… (The) Redskins’ rookie quarterback was the subject of a CBS “Sunday Morning” segment that credited him with uniting politically polarized Washington, quoting some high-profile elected officials. On Monday night, Griffin played in his second nationally televised game and led the Redskins over the New York Giants for Washington’s first three-game win streak since 2008. (The victory also marked the Redskins’ sixth of the season, meaning they will at least finish one game better than last year’s 5-11 record.)

Following the game, analysts such as Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young, fellow Super Bowl-winning passer Trent Dilfer and former Super Bowl-winning coach Jon Gruden raved about Griffin’s play, which ESPN highlighted over the next 48 hours.

On Tuesday night, Griffin attended his first Washington Wizards game. Sitting courtside in owner Ted Leonsis’s seats, he stole the spotlight from the home team’s players, who upset LeBron James and the defending NBA champion Miami Heat. When the long-suffering Wizards pulled off the upset, fans and commentators wondered tongue-in-cheek if it was Griffin’s aura that had caused their good fortune.

“It’s humbling. You never go somewhere expecting people to chant your name,” Griffin said, referring to the response he got at the Verizon Center Tuesday night. “… It just means you’re really doing something for the city.”

How do reporters avoid Godtalk when dealing with a young Christian man who insists on saying things like this?

On Wednesday, a representative from the Pro Football Hall of Fame came to Redskins Park to collect the jersey and cleats that Griffin wore while he set the record Monday.

“Everyone wants to be in the Hall of Fame, so, we’re in there,” Griffin said after uncomfortably enduring the brief transfer ceremony of his memorabilia to the possession of the Hall of Fame official. “But I have a long career, prayerfully, and this is only the first step. It’s an honor to have my jersey and my cleats, although they’re very dirty, in the Hall of Fame.”

Following the “Monday Night Football” broadcast, Gruden gushed over Griffin, saying he his skills, and the plays the Redskins are running for him, have changed the pro game.

Griffin’s response: “I don’t think it’s me by myself, necessarily … God has blessed me with speed, and good decision-making, so [coaches] allow me to go out there and trust me even in crucial situations to throw the ball and run the ball or whatever it is. When a coach buys in and the whole team buys in, you can have what we’re doing.”

What is interesting, however, is the degree to which the Godtalk that is at the heart of Griffin’s life and persona has not been explored in major D.C. media at the level of information and facts. You know, journalism.

Thus, I was happy the other day when one of my former students — the digital comet named Chris Moody — was able to land a few moments to talk with Griffin on behalf of Yahoo! News. While the quarterback was extremely cautious about what he said, Moody asked some specific questions and learned at least one interesting fact that I don’t think has previously made it into print.

Here’s a clip or two from that Q&A interview, which begins, of course, with politics:

Yahoo News: When you cast your ballot for president, what were some of the most pressing issues that were on your mind?

RG3: For me, I always told my fiancée and my family that money would never change the way I viewed politics. For me, it wasn’t a money issue. It was about overall what each candidate presented, but I can’t disclose who I voted for.

YN: Why don’t you like to talk about who you voted for?

RG3: There’s a couple things you don’t talk about in life, and that’s race, religion and politics. I try to make sure I don’t talk about politics at all.

Religion does, however, show up later in the interview, along with the answer to one very specific question. However, Griffin remained very cautious, perhaps knowing that even general comments on specific faith issues — such as biblical authority — could be interpreted as commentary on political specifics:

YN: You grew up in a Christian home and went to a Baptist university. Have you found a home church in the D.C. area?

RG3: I go to a church in this area, but I haven’t necessarily found a home church yet. I’m still in the process of finding that.

YN: Where do you attend?

RG3: I go to Cornerstone [Fellowship Church.]

YN: Has your faith shaped the way you view politics or policy?

RG3: It shapes everybody’s view. To me, you don’t directly relate it, but my faith makes me who I am. When it comes to that, my beliefs are not strict to only what the Bible says. I’m influenced by. … You probably can’t point out exactly what it shapes, but it does shape you.

Looking at a digital search, it would seem likely that the congregation to which RG3 is referring is Cornerstone Fellowship Church in Frederick, MD. Looking at it’s website, and statements of faith, this appears to be a modern evangelical, charismatic/Pentecostal congregation, which would be consistent with the congregations Griffin has attended in the past back in Texas.

In other words, stay tuned. In this town, questions will eventually be asked.


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