As the winless Hamilton Tiger-Cats returned to the field Tuesday looking to regroup after a much-needed week off, they found themselves in the middle of an international incident with the team’s decision to hire controversial coach Art Briles, a move the franchise’s owner called a “large and serious mistake.”
Hamilton CEO Scott Mitchell took responsibility for bringing in the 61-year-old Briles, who was fired last year as head coach at Baylor in the wake of a sexual assault scandal that included members of the football team. Less than 12 hours after hiring Briles on Monday morning, the Ticats reversed the decision amid pressure from the CFL and a serious backlash from fans, sponsors and the media.
“We want to apologize to our fans, corporate partners and the Canadian Football League,” owner Bob Young said in a statement. “It has been a difficult season and we are searching for answers.
“This is clearly not one of them. We have listened, we are reviewing our decision-making processes and we will learn. We will go on. We want to thank our fans, partners and the CFL for their help and support.”
At a hastily called news conference Tuesday, Mitchell shouldered the blame for hiring Briles.
“It was a poor decision, in retrospect, that we shouldn’t have made,” he said. “Everything we do demonstrates great community will, everything we do in the community we’re very very sincere about it and I think, clearly, we missed the mark in terms of the message we were sending.
“Obviously I’m responsible for the bad decision. I think we got wrapped up a little bit too much in the inner sanctum of football discussions and forgot about very important things like our standing in the community and how this reflects upon the franchise.”
Hamilton (0-8) raised alarm bells when it announced the hiring of Briles as an assistant to new head coach June Jones. The move was widely criticized on social media, drawing the ire of fans and media on both sides of the border.
Briles was fired in May 2016 by Baylor 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 review also led to the departures of school president Kenneth Starr and athletic director Ian McCaw.
“There’s a lot of people, for good reason, that support Art Briles personally,” Mitchell said. “We heard from dozens of those people who spoke to coach Briles’ ethics and standards and personality.
“I think at the end of the day we probably got caught being too myopic in the coaching world and not thinking about the franchise and the message we were sending to the public.”
There were no upset fans at the club’s practice Tuesday at Tim Hortons Field and no clear-cut indication any were giving up their season tickets in protest.
Briles has acknowledged making mistakes and apologized for some “bad things that went on under my watch.” He has also pushed back against some accusations made against him and his program in lawsuits and made clear he wanted to return to coaching.
Mark Lanier, Briles’ laywer, didn’t immediately return a telephone message Tuesday.
It’s been a hectic week for Hamilton, which promoted Jones to head coach after Kent Austin, their vice-president of football operations, removed himself from the job. Jones joined the Ticats following their embarrassing 60-1 road loss to the Calgary Stampeders on July 29 and they’ve dropped three more games since.
The Briles situation is a blow to the CFL, which was riding high on its wildly successful Diversity is Strength campaign. Commissioner Randy Ambrosie even spoke to CNN about the program, which was originally scheduled for launch this fall but was moved ahead following the violent protests in Charlottesville, Va., earlier this month.
Jones said Tuesday he’s been friends with Briles for 40 years but declined to address the situation further. However, Jones doesn’t believe the controversy will be a distraction for his team, which hosts the Toronto Argonauts on Monday in search of its first win of the season.
“What I’ve found is these type of things bring the team closer together,” said Jones. “Even though they (Ticats players) don’t even know who he (Briles) is, they know I’m about football and trying to get them to be the best they can be and I think that matters.
“Thinking it out through (Tuesday), this is really an emotional thing for me, a very personal thing. Catch me another day, I don’t want to break down right in front of you.”
Ticats’ quarterback Zach Collaros said he was never consulted by the organization regarding the hiring of Briles and only learned about the situation Monday.
“For the players, we were on a bye week so we didn’t even know what was going on,” he said. “Obviously, I’m against violence against women so that’s all I really have to say about it.”
Briles accumulated a 99-65 overall record as an NCAA head coach at Houston (2003-07) and Baylor (2008-15). He guided the Bears to Big 12 championships in 2013 and 2014 and coached the program’s only Heisman winner, quarterback Robert Griffin III, who is on Hamilton’s negotiation list.
Briles’ arrival wouldn’t have assured the Ticats of landing Griffin but it would’ve given them an intriguing starting point.
“To be quite honest . . . certainly everything was considered,” Jones said.