University of Southern Mississippi Interim Director of Athletics Jeff Mitchell met with Head Football Coach Jay Hopson in person on Friday, Feb. 1, then followed up via text message the next morning regarding the prospect of Southern Miss hiring former Baylor Head Coach Art Briles to fill the team’s vacant offensive coordinator position.
Shortly after 11 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 2, Mitchell emailed Hopson saying, “I want us to communicate openly and honestly even when we disagree,” according to emails obtained by Stadium via a public records request. “Regarding the prospect of hiring Coach Briles as OC, I can’t get to a place to support it.
“The simple fact that he’s the subject of a current NCAA investigation and that we’re still on probation from our basketball infractions years ago leads me to firm conviction about this matter. This is the right thing to do, and it is in the best interests of the University.
“Please go in another direction for your OC hire. I will, of course, be glad to discuss more.”
The email was one of more than 80 emails that Stadium obtained via public records request. The emails provide a behind-the-scenes look at the thought processes of Southern Miss’ fans and decision-makers, the latter of whom released conflicting statements regarding the school’s ultimate decision to not consider Briles as a candidate to be its football team’s offensive coordinator.
University of Southern Mississippi President Rodney D. Bennett and Interim Director of Athletics Mitchell released a joint statement on the morning of Wednesday, Feb. 6, that read, “We have met with Art Briles regarding a position with the Southern Miss football program. Following that meeting, we informed him that he is not a candidate. The University will have no further comment on this matter.”
“Although I respect the decision of Dr. Rodney Bennett, I disagree with it,” Hopson said, later continuing, “I have interviewed Art Briles for an assistant position @ Southern Miss & I believe he is a man who deserves a second chance. He is a man that seemed sincere & humble in his interview & personally he committed no crime. He may not have acted in the the proper protocol, but that would be my JOB at Southern Miss!
“He was interviewing for an assistant position, even though I believe he will he a Head Coach at a Major Program in the near future. However, I believe he is a man who does love the Lord and deserves a second chance. He has been banned from employment in college football for 3yrs and has been punished. I understand both sides have opinions, this is just mine!”
According to reporting by SB Nation, the decision to interview and potentially hire Briles as offensive coordinator was borne by Hopson and his coaching staff exclusively; the coach did not consult university officials.
Southern Miss recently hired former Arkansas State offensive coordinator Buster Faulkner to fill the same position with the Golden Eagles, according to FootballScoop.com.
On April 8, 2016, the NCAA announced that its seven-member Division I Committee on Infractions had found that former Southern Miss Head Basketball Coach Donnie Tyndall had acted unethically and failed to promote an atmosphere for compliance when he directed his staff to engage in academic misconduct.
*The University of Southern Mississippi was hit with multiple penalties, including a three-year probation period, beginning Jan. 30, 2017 through Jan. 29, 2020, which Mitchell referenced in his email to Hopson on Feb. 2.
*According to the NCAA, the repeat-violation legislation, known as the “death penalty,” is applicable to an institution if the following conditions occur within a five-year period:
*Following the announcement of a major case, a major violation occurs and
*The second violation occurred within five years of the starting date of the penalty assessed in the first case. The second major case does not have to be in the same sport as the previous case to affect the second sport.
*Penalties for repeat violators of legislation, subject to exemptions authorized by the committee on the basis of specifically stated reasons, may include any of the following:
*The prohibition of some or all outside competition in the sport involved in the latest major violation for one or two sport seasons and the prohibition of all coaching staff members in that sport from involvement (directly or indirectly) in any coaching activities at the institution during that period
*The elimination of all initial grants-in-aid and recruiting activities in the sport involved in the latest major violation in question for a two-year period.
*The requirement that all institutional staff member (sic) serving on the NCAA Board of Directors; Leadership, Legislative, Presidents or Management Councils; Executive Committee or other Association governance bodies resign their positions. All institutional representatives shall be ineligible to serve on any NCAA committee for a period of four years and
*The requirement that the institution relinquish its Association voting privileges for a four-year period.
Southern Miss still has roughly 11 months until it gets off probation, and as Mitchell noted in his email to Hopson, “the simple fact that [Briles is] the subject of a current NCAA investigation … leads me to firm conviction about this matter.”
Briles was suspended with intent to terminate by Baylor in May 2016 after the university’s Board of Regents hired the outside counsel of Pepper Hamilton, LLP in the fall of 2015 to conduct an independent, external review of the university’s response to Title IX and compliance issues.
The investigation found that Baylor had a “fundamental failure” to implement Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 and the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013. Additionally, Pepper Hamilton, LLP “found specific failings within both the football program and Athletics department leadership, including a failure to identify and respond to a pattern of sexual violence by a football player and to a report of dating violence.”
One lawsuit alleges that 31 former Baylor football players between 2011 and 2014 committed at least “52 acts of rape,” according to the Dallas News.
Briles was granted an extension in December to respond to the NCAA’s notice of allegations, which he received last September, according to the Star-Telegram. The newspaper reported that even though Baylor and Briles will have two separate defenses against the notice of allegations, both parties are granted an extension if the other receives one.
The NCAA’s response to its investigation will reportedly conclude in April. So while Briles was fired from his position at Baylor, he may still face further punishment from the NCAA.
Southern Miss’ recent history of NCAA infractions committed by members of its basketball coaching staff and the NCAA’s ongoing investigation into Baylor and Briles provides an important lens for this story.
At 4:30 a.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 5 – the day before Southern Miss publicly announced that Briles was no longer a candidate – a “Daily Top 5” email from a local newspaper, the Hattiesburg American, arrived in President Rodney D. Bennett’s inbox.
In a customized newsletter introduction, the email read, “Hi, Rodney. Here’s your Daily Top 5!”
The first headline was in bold font: “Could a former Baylor football coach with controversial past land a job at Southern Miss?”
Even when Bennett was presumably sleeping, he couldn’t avoid the Briles-to-Southern Miss speculation and controversy.
That email wasn’t unique, either. The night before, Mitchell received a nightly round-up email titled “The Night Cap” from a site called College AD that informs college administrators of the latest headlines throughout college athletics. Under a section titled “The Day’s News,” the third headline was “Southern Miss interviews Art Briles.”
Hopson’s interview of Briles was making not just local, but national news, and Southern Miss’ leadership was acutely aware of it.
In an email from Assistant to the President Houston Ernst to Jeff Mitchell, Ernst wrote, “Just FYI, this was included in the D1 ticker this morning.” Below it was a quote from sexual assault survivor and activist Brenda Tracy, who released a statement regarding Southern Miss’ potential hire of Briles, “You’re basically saying you don’t care about your students and their safety. There is literally no other way to look at this.”
The blurb also noted that Southern Miss’ Committee on Services and Resources for Women had sent a letter the previous night that opposed the potential hire to Mitchell and Provost/SVP for Academic Affairs Steven Moser.
The start of that letter read, “The Committee on Services and Resources for Women has recently been made aware of the consideration of Art Briles as a candidate for the offensive coordinator position in USM’s football program. Based on Mr. Briles’ affiliation with Baylor’s football team during a time when some members were implicated in a number of sexual assaults and the promotion of a rape culture while he held a position of authority, we are adamantly opposed to the University of Southern Mississippi’s hiring of Mr. Briles.
“His presence on campus would undermine the mission of our committee to improve the status and lives of women. In fact, we believe that, based on his tenure at Baylor, USM’s hire of Mr. Briles would go against several of the University’s values.”
A Sexual Assault Prevention Ambassador also sent Mitchell a letter on the morning of Tuesday, Feb. 5, which stated hiring Briles would be “asinine.”
“Hiring this man means USM not only supports this man’s past, but also means that USM does NOT care about survivors of sexual assault,” the ambassador wrote, before concluding the letter with, “We need to change the rape culture within the athletic department, not feed it.”
It wasn’t just on-campus advocacy groups that expressed their dissent of Briles as a candidate for Southern Miss’ offensive coordinator position but members of the school’s faculty as well.
Mitchell was forwarded an email from one Southern Miss professor who serves as a member of the Southern Miss Faculty Senate, which exists to “provide for the faculty both a forum and a voice and so allow it to assert for the general welfare of the university its distinctive viewpoint and principles,” according to the university’s website. The forwarded email included some of the dialogue from members on the Faculty Senate regarding the potential for Briles to be hired by the university.
“The optics on this at least are really bad,” one faculty member wrote. “I’m all for giving someone a second chance but this is someone who has not been exonerated completely even if he has a letter from Baylor backtracking on their previous denunciations of him. We’ve already had our own NCAA troubles.
“Is there really no one else that we could hire for this position?”
The faculty member continued, “I hope the administration understands that this does not make USM look good even if we might win a few more games.”
That’s where the crux lies in regards to Briles as a coaching candidate.
Southern Miss supporters who wanted the university to hire Briles emphasized his on-field success at Baylor and his reputation as an offensive innovator. Those who opposed Briles being hired cited the well-being of Southern Miss students, especially female students, the school’s reputation and the tone the school would set for victims of sexual assault, in light of how Briles’ tenure at Baylor ended.
“Please do not sully the reputation of our athletic department and our university (and I can assure you, that will happen),” one fan wrote to Mitchell, “in search of a potential very, very short-term gain on the football field.”
On the field, Baylor won at least 10 games in each of Briles’ final three seasons in Waco, including a pair of 11-2 seasons and Big 12 championships in 2013 and ’14. The Bears peaked in the top five of the AP Top 25 poll in each of those years and Baylor finished No. 5 in the final College Football Playoff rankings in 2014, nearly making the inaugural playoff.
Baylor hadn’t made a bowl game in the 12 seasons before he was hired. In Year 4 under Briles, they went 10-3 with an Alamo Bowl win, finishing No. 13 in the AP Top 25 poll.
Former Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III won the Heisman Trophy in 2011.
Briles had turned a Big 12 cellar-dweller into a nationally relevant program and that appealed to many Southern Miss fans, who endured an 0-12 season in 2012 and saw the Golden Eagles’ win total decline from eight in 2017 to six last fall. Their offense ranked 90th nationally in points per game at 26.2.
Similarly to many college football conversations, this story involves message boards where passionate fans of specific schools can find their online community to discuss their team.
“Please do not cower down to the vocal minority on this one, I know they are loud but they do not represent the majority of the fan base,” one graduate of Southern Miss wrote in an email to Mitchell, the interim A.D., while expressing his support of Briles. “I would venture to guess those of loudest opposition never attend our athletic events anyway.”
The fan cited a Southern Miss message board as proof that most fans supported hiring Briles.
“[247Sports affiliate] Golden Eagle Pride board poll is currently at 88% Yes and 12% No on this hire with 280 people polled so far,” he continued. “These are real life fans.”
The fan wasn’t alone in citing poll results from message boards. Another fan wrote to Mitchell, “I am a member of two Southernmiss message boards (sic) and the combined vote is 90% yes and 10% against for making this hire.
“I have seen and heard the back lash on social media sites from people who couldn’t tell you where Hattiesburg is located. I know DR. Bennett is feeling the heat. This is Hopson hire to make. (sic) The football program needs a shot in the arm and Art Briles is just what we need.”
A third fan emailed, “Multiple online polls showed the alumni support the hiring. (One at 69% another at 90%) Please don’t let a vocal minority influence your decision.”
Many supporters of hiring Briles noted the buzz his name had already generated, the potential rise in season ticket sales and the need to create excitement around the program.
One fan emailed Mitchell saying the situation “exploded in your face.”
“We know that our football program desperately needs a dose of interest generating excitement,” he wrote. “We need to increase attendance. Winning games, and not only that but winning with wide open, fast paced, high scoring offense, provides a formula for achieving those goals. Art Briles is clearly established at running just such an offensive system.”
He concluded with, “The potential benefits outweigh the risks.”
Among the emails Stadium obtained, which were sent to President Rodney Bennett, Interim Director of Athletics Jeff Mitchell, Coach Jay Hopson or Executive Assistant to the Head Coach Andrew Sims between Jan. 28 and Feb. 6, 2019, 31 expressed support for hiring Briles and 19 were against the hire.
Twenty-eight men and three women supported the potential hire, while 11 men and eight women were against the potential hire.
“If even one incident arises, we won’t be able to feign ignorance,” wrote a fan who was against hiring Briles. “We, as a university, are responsible for his actions, no matter what sort of clauses we use to avoid liability. Even if we manage to avoid any financial damage from lawsuits, public perception of us as a safe campus for parents to send their students to would be irreparably damaged. Public perception of our integrity would be irreparably damaged.”
A common theme – on both sides of the potential Briles hire – was the threat of pulling financial support to the university and its football program, or providing greater monetary support if Briles was hired.
One fan concluded his email to Mitchell that supported the hire of Briles with one final note, “PS. I will buy 4 season tickets instead of 2.”
On the other side, one fan wrote to Bennett and Mitchell, “As an alumnus of The University of Southern Mississippi, I regret to inform you that if former Baylor University Head Coach Art Briles is hired as USM’s Offensive Coordinator, my wife and I will not be renewing our Football Season Tickets or our Eagle Club Membership.
“Furthermore if he is hired, we will not be renewing our support of Southern Miss Football until he has left the position.”
Many fans listed their years of owning season tickets or their contribution levels to Southern Miss’ Eagle Club, a scholarship fund that’s part of the Southern Miss Athletic Fund, in an effort to curry favor.
One email that simply read “Hire Art Briles” in the subject line without anything in the message’s body was forwarded to Mitchell from an assistant to the president, who noted “FYI.” The original sender is employed by a technologies company that brought in well over $100 million in revenue in a recent year, according to Inc. 5000.
Brett McMurphy’s reporting indicated that “big donors” wanted Southern Miss to hire Briles as offensive coordinator.
After Bennett and Mitchell released their statement that Briles was not a candidate for offensive coordinator, one fan emailed Bennett, “I am withdrawing my support financially for Southern Miss athletics until Dr. Bennett is removed or until Coach Briles is hired.”
Another wrote, “Based on your decision to not give Briles a second chance, one that would have profound impact on the football program actually succeeding. I will no longer be purchasing season tickets in any sport at Southern Miss. You are failing Southern Miss. We expect more.”
However, Bennett and Mitchell had their share of supporters after releasing their joint statement.
One email supporting the university’s decision to not consider Briles a candidate simply read, “Dr. Bennett, you have my fullest support in your decision on the non-hiring of Art Briles.”
It was signed from “an avid female USM fan.”
Another read, “We applaud the decision not to hire Art Briles. We are glad that someone is looking out for ALL the students of Southern Miss!!”
“I am proud to work at a university that values student safety,” read another.
One concerned parent expressed gratitude to Dr. Bennett for “thinking more about the well being of my Freshman daughter, than who is walking the sideline on the football field.
“Briles may not have done anything, but that may be the problem.”