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Keith Strudler: Riches To Rags To Riches

This isn’t a story about Mike Rice. But it kind of is. Rice is the former Rutgers men’s basketball coach who was fired and publicly rebuked after it was revealed that he physically and emotionally abused his players – most memorably by hurling a ball at them and hurling homophobic slurs at them as well. This led to his release and what many assumed to be his exodus from coaching. Which has been somewhat true, as Rice is far removed from the big time college ranks from which he was removed.

But, as documented by the New York Times, Rice is still in basketball, serving as both a high school coach at the Patrick School in New Jersey and of an AAU program in the state that includes several top college recruits. That puts him back on the periphery of the college game, where no one thought he’d ever be. And, perhaps in more time, Mike Rice might find himself back on the sidelines of an actual Division I college program. It’s kind of like the sports equivalent of Marion Barry getting re-elected mayor of Washington DC.

Redemption stories aren’t all that uncommon in the sports coaching landscape. Larry Eustachy lost his job at Iowa State in 2003 for drinking with undergrads at frat parties. And a year later, he was hired as head coach by Southern Miss. Now he’s at Colorado State making over a million dollars a year, which to be fair, was about the same he made 13 years ago. Bobby Petrino is perhaps the most notable riches to rags back to riches story in college sports. Petrino was fired as head football coach of Arkansas in 2012 after getting in a motorcycle accident with a recent former Arkansas volleyball player and current staffer in athletics riding on the back. At which point it was discovered Petrino was having an affair with said staffer who was not only his employee, but also engaged and some 25 years his junior. Months after leaving Arkansas, Petrino was hired by Western Kentucky, then a year later as head coach at Louisville, which oddly is where Petrino coached until he went to the Atlanta Falcons of the NFL in 2007. So who says you can’t go home again?

I bring this up not simply to recount past transgressions of coaches gone wild, but rather as a segue to Art Briles, the former head football coach of Baylor University. Briles was fired in 2016 despite historic success at Baylor, a deeply religious private university in Texas that had struggled to keep pace with the massive state universities in their conference – like Texas and Oklahoma. Under Briles, Baylor changed that narrative; but he also stood accused of ignoring, covering up, and perhaps privileging several rapes on campus by his players, and of creating a culture of sexual assault. This sad story has resulted in former players in jail, the athletic director and the president Ken Starr – yes, that Ken Starr – losing their jobs. And, eventually, it forced football mastermind Art Briles to the sidelines as well.

Which lead us to last week, when news surfaced that the University of Houston was considering hiring Art Briles as their new head football coach, less than a year removed from perhaps the second worst scandal in college football, allowing Penn State all time winner status. It seemed the university board chairman felt Briles got a raw deal at Baylor and would be worth a look. It clearly didn’t get that far, since Houston’s AD released a statement that Briles would not be an official candidate for the job – a sentiment apparently driven by Houston’s president. So at most, it’s sound and fury, something more than a rumor but less than a reality. We’ll never know just how close Briles came to an interview; whether this was a renegade booster mouthing off or test balloon. Either way, it’s over now.

But the larger question is, does Art Briles deserve another shot – if not now, then ever? All the aforementioned redemption stories share one truism. They were all great coaches. Which means that many, if not most programs will allow a second chance. Obviously, there’s an ocean between someone who got drunk at a frat house and someone that condoned sexual assault. But, as Briles was never accused nor convicted of a crime, should he ever be allowed back on campus – any campus?

My personal feeling on Art Briles is no, although admittedly I don’t have any info other than what’s been reported. I’m guessing at least a few athletic administrators disagree – or will in the future. We’ll find that out as time passes. I tend to believe that college coaches should, like other college employees, be held the school’s mission statement – which usually has nothing to do with bowl games of conference titles. So while I believe in redemption, that shouldn’t come at the cost of your soul.

That’s not a redemption story entirely about Mike Rice. But in some ways, it certainly is.

Keith Strudler is the director of the Marist College Center for Sports Communication and an associate professor of communication. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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