MOUNT VERNON, Texas -- In a small East Texas community, a few blocks from a quaint town square, Art Briles is coaching football again on American soil.
He is some 200 miles and seemingly a lifetime away from Baylor, the school he led to the doorstep of the College Football Playoff five years ago and the school that fired him three years ago in the wake of a sprawling sexual assault scandal he has insisted he handled correctly. After going to Europe when job opportunities in the Canadian Football League and a Mississippi college dried up, Briles is back — sort of.
He will be under the Friday night lights in Mount Vernon, population 2,750, and on humble fields in a handful of otherwise quiet, Class 3A towns into early November.
"I'm a football coach. That's what I've always done, so that's what I do," said Briles, 63. "This right here is as important as any job as I've ever had. That's the way I've always treated any job. ... I treat it like it's the only job I've ever had. I'm not thinking beyond this."
Most residents knew nothing about the possibility of Briles becoming coach until the school board unanimously approved his hiring in a special meeting on the Friday night going into Memorial Day weekend. That was only a couple of hours before the high school graduation ceremony at Don Meredith Stadium, named after the former Dallas Cowboys quarterback and "Monday Night Football" announcer who is easily the town's most famous native son.
Some saw the announcement on Facebook and thought it was a prank by one of the graduating seniors.
"The town had no clue," said Jeff Briscoe, a former city councilman and four-year Tigers quarterback who along with his wife have two downtown businesses, a gym and a funky resale/consignment shop in what was a vacant building just two years ago. "I didn't like how it was real secret."
The hiring drew criticism nationally, overshadowing a Reader's Digest feature around the same time touting the town square and residents, who include retired NBA player Greg Ostertag and his wife, Shannon. They have spent more than $2 million to spruce things up in town, including the purchase and restoration of a more than century-old general store that now has retail and meeting space around a bistro.
A few weeks after Briles got a two-year contract for $82,000 a year, about 60 people filled the room for a school board meeting. Only three of them addressed superintendent Jason McCullough and the seven board members about hiring Briles and only Lauren Lewis spoke against it.
"I thought I was going to be in a long line of people and my two cents would just be a drop in the bucket," Lewis said.
One of the others was a former Baylor regent and longtime Briles supporter who came from out of town to specifically address the board. Lewis, who returned to her hometown with her husband about three years ago after living for a decade in Austin, said people later thanked her for speaking out when they would see her in the post office or bank.
"This is a kind, loving, welcoming place, and I think that they tried to put that spin on it, this is a redemption story, we're going to be able to help this guy," Lewis said. "But there's no redemption without remorse."
To understand why people who've never met Briles might feel that way requires an understanding of what happened at Baylor.
Briles was fired in May 2016 after an investigation by a law firm found that over several years the school mishandled numerous sexual assault allegations, including some against football players. The Pepper Hamilton investigation also led to the departures of university president Kenneth Starr, who was demoted and later resigned, and the resignation of athletic director Ian McCaw, now the AD at Liberty University in Virginia.
The investigation led to 105 recommendations for the school to reform its Title IX process and the world's largest Baptist university is still waiting for the outcome of an NCAA investigation into the case.
It was a humiliating ending for Briles, a legend in Texas coaching. He was a high school coach for 21 seasons, among those credited with introducing versions of the spread offense to Texas high school ball, before becoming a Texas Tech assistant in 2000, and later the head coach at Houston and Baylor. He won four state championships in a seven-year span at Class 4A Stephenville, about a two-hour drive from his tiny hometown of Rule in the Texas Panhandle.
Briles, who received $15 million from Baylor to settle his contract, got a "lot of no's" when trying to get back into coaching before his first real opportunity, a semipro team in Italy with players ranging in age from 16 to 43, many who openly smoked and drank after late-night practices.
And then Mount Vernon's previous coach left in May for his alma mater. Briles, then still about 5,300 miles away in Italy, was initially contacted by a woman living in Mount Vernon who had worked with him in Baylor's football office. Briles is now in a "Texas Treasure" town just off Interstate 30 about 100 miles east of Dallas and about 80 miles from the Arkansas line.
"I think we're lucky to have him and I'm going to support him 100 percent," said Tom Ramsay, the 79-year-old, cowboy hat-wearing former state representative whose real estate office is on the town square. Ramsay, a farmer and rancher who used to be on the school board, said he had never met Briles before, though he had four children who went to Baylor.
"He's took some licks," Ramsay said. "Think about what he's been through. Let's just say 99 percent chance that he's innocent, has he paid a price for that one percent? Yeah, sure has. I think it's good to be able to be in a position to give him, not necessarily another chance, but give him another swing. It might not be the last chance."
When Mount Vernon opened practice the first Monday in August, Briles said he would be content if this was his "last dance" in coaching. Still, he seemed to perk up and sounded enthusiastic when asked if he would like to coach in college again. He has not spoken in depth with any reporters since he arrived in July.
He has had limited time to prepare for Mount Vernon's season with an entirely new staff, including five of his former Baylor players, and a significant change from a mostly option-running team to the pass-intensive schemes Briles has used for so long. The Tigers play their first two games on the road, opening Friday night at Bonham about 80 miles away. The home opener Sept. 13 against Canton will also be Mount Vernon's homecoming. The Tigers have never won a state championship, even when Meredith was there in the 1950s.
Susan Reeves is the publisher of the Mount Vernon Optic-Herald, the community newspaper that has been published since 1874 and owned by her family since 1952. She quickly came out in support of the school board's decision, and believes most of the community feels the same way.
"The people in town are truly excited and looking forward to seeing what will develop," said Reeves, whose father graduated high school with Meredith. "I probably only know of six or seven people that have been outspoken."
Some parents are even talking about the benefits of having such a well-known coach: Possible scholarships and exposure for their young athletes, both in football and other sports.
McCullough, a former coach and teacher in the district who returned as superintendent a year ago, anticipated some of the negative reaction, especially on social media from outside town. He said the response he has gotten locally has been genuine excitement about the upcoming season.
"What my hope and desire is, that he's going to come here and fall in love with this place, and the kids and our community, and that he would want to stay long term," McCullough said. "But I also know that, no different than you or I, we don't know what's going to happen tomorrow. ...
"I'll take him for the time that we've got him," he said. "He'll invest in our kids and our community, and we're going to be excited about it."