Hue Jackson wanted to hire Art Briles, and so he did. It is a simple answer for a complicated situation.
Jackson was allowed to hire Briles as his offensive coordinator at Grambling State—though make no mistake, there are multiple people who had to O.K. this on both the athletics side and the university side. Briles and Jackson’s working relationship goes back to at least 2016, when Jackson—then the head coach for the Cleveland Browns—brought Briles in during training camp and the regular season as a guest coach just months after Briles was fired by Baylor following an investigation into his and the school’s handling of a number of sexual assault allegations. Whenever Jackson decides to speak publicly of his decision to hire Briles, you will undoubtedly hear the typical brushing under the rug of Briles’s transgressions. Jackson already did that in ’16, when he said of inviting Briles in, “We’ve all been knocked down, including myself” to the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
Jackson’s boss, athletic director Trayveon Scott, told ESPN in part about Briles, “I think the guy just wants to coach and lead men.” But no matter how much contrition Briles may say in the aftermath of this hiring does not change the fact that the last time he led men he presided over a culture with rampant sexual violence toward women, including a former student’s lawsuit alleging at least 52 acts of rape committed by 31 football players from 2011 to ’14. And yet here he is, allowed to lead men again.
An NCAA investigation of the Baylor scandal cleared Briles of violations of the organization’s bylaws, but the report offered a scathing assessment of the coach’s failures:
“In each instance, when the head coach received information from a staff member regarding potential criminal conduct by a football student-athlete, he did not report the information and did not personally look any further into the matter. He generally relied on the information provided to him by his staff and likewise relied on them to handle problems. His incurious attitude toward potential criminal conduct by his student-athletes was deeply troubling to the panel.”
“The head coach failed to meet even the most basic expectations of how a person should react to the kind of conduct at issue in this case. Furthermore, as a campus leader, the head coach is held to an even higher standard. He completely failed to meet this standard. However, there is no linkage between this conduct and Level I or II NCAA violations.”
Grambling State is aware of the above—it takes at most two Google searches to find out that information. Scott told ESPN he spent 10 days vetting Briles. The university knows, but those in power whose opinions trumped any dissension in the ranks simply do not care.
The school has offered no explanation or defense of hiring Briles beyond confirming reports and reportedly does not plan to beyond a sitdown between Briles and a reporter on local television. Sports Illustrated reached out to Grambling president Rick Gallot on Thursday to ask, “How does Grambling plan to ensure that women students will be safe on a campus with football players that Art Briles will recruit?” He has yet to respond.
It helps to understand how Grambling sees itself in the broader landscape of HBCU football. Simply put: Grambling is the bully. With 15 Black national titles, including a Celebration Bowl victory, and 26 SWAC titles overall, the Tigers are the bellwether. This is the program of Eddie Robinson, the legendary coach who won 408 games (third most of any NCAA coach in the history of the sport) and Doug Williams (the first Black Super Bowl–winning QB, who also coached Grambling to a Black national title and multiple SWAC crowns). Few programs have a prouder history that spans multiple decades of success, although the team has been middling since its 2017 Celebration Bowl berth.
In Jackson, who was hired in December, Grambling has taken a swing at its own Deion-ification. You can say what you want about how Sanders has gone about his business, but the results are clear from the 11–2 season, Celebration Bowl berth and signing of the nation’s No. 1 recruit, Travis Hunter, right out from under Florida State’s nose. A celebrity coach in Jackson who comes with panache and—most importantly—NIL connections to help level the playing field in the race for player acquisitions is, on its face, a blueprint replicable by other schools. Jackson comes with NFL bona fides and brings his own connections there as he’s represented by Roc Nation Sports, the agency founded by Jay-Z that is making its own push into the NIL space.
With Briles calling the offense, the Tigers will probably score plenty of points and maybe win plenty of games. If he’s lucky, Briles may get to use an HBCU as a reputation rinser to get back to the FBS level in a few years. It’s all part of a Faustian bargain that Grambling’s leadership did the calculations on and decided was worth it.
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