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Art Briles took Baylor University's football program to new heights in eight seasons as head coach, but he made a disgraced exit this past week when the Board of Regents announced it would fire him.
some text Mark Wiedmer

Hooray for Baylor.

No, not our town's Baylor School, though the Red Raiders and Lady Raiders certainly deserve a hip, hip, hooray for their state-championship performances at this past week's Spring Fling in Mufreesboro.

No, this is about that other Baylor — the one out in Waco, Texas, that is the largest Baptist university in the world.

On Thursday, that Baylor quite rightly decided to part company with Bears football coach Art Briles for condoning, if not outright promoting, an atmosphere that resulted in several sexual assaults by his players against fellow students being handled with seemingly little regard for the victims or disciplinary action toward the players.

Wrote the Pepper Hamilton law firm after the school paid it to conduct an outside investigation: "(Baylor) failed to take appropriate action to respond to reports of sexual assault and dating violence reportedly committed by football players. The choices made by football staff and athletics leadership, in some instances, posed a risk to campus safety and the integrity of the University."

It seems like decades since the academic arm of any Power 5 conference school has been able to convince its trustees and administrators that athletics is undermining the integrity of the university. The general plan has been to sweep it under the rug and move on, hopeful the NCAA won't look too closely.

Neither stunning academic fraud (North Carolina), prostitutes in the athletic dorms (Louisville) nor fraud and payment of players (Syracuse) has resulted in a head coach's termination.

But it's that other phrase used by Pepper Hamilton — "a risk to campus safety" — that may have been the undoing of Briles, despite his 50-15 record over the past five seasons, two Big 12 Conference titles and two New Year's Six bowl appearances.

For when the parents of potential students start worrying about their children's safety, when other schools start using that as a recruiting tool against you, whether your potential Bear is merely a student, or a female student-athlete, all those Sunday morning victory headlines during football season have an incredibly short shelf life.

Keep in mind, too, that Baylor is not only a private school, but the shining academic star of the Baptist church.

True or not, the perception is that life's a little more sheltered and conservative at Baylor. A football team run amok with footballers given to sexual assault and dating violence hardly jibes with the school's mission statement to "educate men and women for worldwide leadership and service by integrating academic excellence and Christian commitment within a caring community."

The 60-year-old Briles appeared to care mostly about winning. Two former players are or have served jail time for sexually assaulting female Baylor students. A third has been charged with sexual assault. On a campus that's 58 percent female, the football team certainly seemed to consider itself, in the report's words "above the rules."

Then again, when Briles was reportedly making at least seven times more than former Baylor president Ken Starr's annual salary of $789,000, what else should we expect?

It is also interesting to note that Starr — who was forced to resign his presidency Thursday but remains chancellor — seemed much more interested in investigating former President Bill Clinton's consensual sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky than he was in looking into his football program's alleged sexual assaults, though he swears he didn't know about this until last fall, then soon recommended that Pepper Hamilton investigate.

Yet regardless of who knew what and when, it's clear that the Baylor Board of Regents was ready to put victims in front of victories as soon as it read the report.

Or as board chairman Richard Willis said: "We were horrified by the extent of these acts of sexual violence on our campus. This investigation revealed the university's mishandling of reports in what should have been a supportive, responsive and caring environment for students."

Left unsaid was the number of lawsuits and Title IX charges the school could face, and how those charges and lawsuits could challenge the $266 million the school paid to build its state-of-the-art, 45,000-seat McLane Stadium following the Bears outrageous (and unprecedented) success under Briles.

But can any of this trickle down? Can the mess that has become Ole Miss football one day cost Hugh Freeze his job?

Should Tennessee fans worry about Butch Jones' cozy relationship with the Knoxville police department now that the Baylor investigation cited a similarly chummy dynamic between Briles and Waco police?

Could even lordly Alabama be in trouble if former assistant Bo Davis tells the NCAA that whatever recruiting violations he apparently committed came with Nick Saban's blessing and knowledge?

Until three days ago, no one involved in major college athletics would have said Briles was about to be fired after turning the Bears from chumps to champs. But the Baylor brass, however belatedly, did just that.

Interviewed on ESPN that day, freelance journalist Jessica Luther — an Austin, Texas, resident who has written for Sports On Earth, Sports Illustrated and The Atlantic— was asked her thoughts on such surprising news.

"I'm in shock," she said. "You can't say enough about how major this moment is."

Not to disagree with her, but until or unless a coach such as Freeze loses his job for wrongs his players or assistants committed off the field rather than losses on it, the ousting of Briles will remain little more than a minor victory for right over might, however major it rightly feels today.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.

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