MOUNT VERNON, Texas -- The parking lot of the Dairy Bar on Highway 37 was filled with three-quarter-ton pickups.
Inside, at the "Table of Knowledge" -- so indicated by the sign hanging from the ceiling -- several men in blue jeans and work shirts, a few in cowboy hats, ate lunch and discussed the business of the day. Interrupted by a reporter, they didn't have any problem offering up opinions about their town becoming national news for who it hired to lead the Mount Vernon High School football team.
First of all, they don't know the new coach from Adam. Might not recognize him if he walked in right now with his ball cap on. But they know everybody deserves a second chance. Says so in the Bible. And none of them want to be involved in any story. Don't want their names in there.
The sentiment was the same up and down Highway 37 and off Main Street downtown, at the Dairy Queen or the Brookshire's grocery store. Residents said they were worried about their own jobs or feeding their cattle. But overall, they thought it was fine if that coach wanted to come to this little town and start over. They're not even sure how it happened, just that this was a decision made by their elected officials.
That coach, of course, is Art Briles, who was fired in 2016 after an investigation into sexual violence at Baylor University. The investigation was sparked by the August 2015 conviction of football player Sam Ukwuachu for sexually assaulting a female Baylor soccer player. (Ukwuachu's conviction was overturned on Thursday.) Law firm Pepper Hamilton found at least 17 women who reported being sexually assaulted by 19 football players amid wider findings of failings at Baylor. The fallout led to a series of Title IX lawsuits and the eventual resignation of Baylor president Ken Starr and athletic director Ian McCaw.
Social media instantly carried news of Briles' new job far and wide on the Friday night before Memorial Day weekend. A Yahoo! headline said Mount Vernon "sold its soul." The Austin American-Statesman called it "misguided" and said the board "whiffed" on the hire.
And Mount Vernon found itself the object of national scorn for the school board's decision to offer a lifeline to a disgraced coach.
Brenda Tracy, sexual assault survivor and founder of #SetTheExpectation, a nonprofit that works to combat sexual and physical violence through education and direct engagement with coaches and players, said this week that "the attitude is they're willing to win, no matter what, is all that's emanating for me right now from Mount Vernon. It's disheartening that these communities still exist where football is above everything."
Mount Vernon Independent School District superintendent Jason McCullough told ESPN the school district believes it has done its homework and is confident it has the right man.
"During our due diligence process, we found the problems at Baylor University to be systemic, university-wide, and well beyond the scope of any one program or department," he said. "While that does not in itself excuse any one individual, we did find it notable that Coach Briles expressed remorse over the systemic shortcomings at Baylor, including his program's part in them, and his desire to learn from the mistakes of the past."
The overwhelming feeling among the town's power brokers is that this was an unbelievable opportunity -- a chance to help a coach who was clearly wronged, in their opinion; a lucky break for a small town to get a legendary coach who had been made a scapegoat by the Baylor board of regents.
"A school district has an opportunity to hire someone like this to coach your kids? I don't know how you could turn that down," said Tom Ramsay, 79, a former five-term state legislator whose name adorns the section of Highway 37 that runs in front of Mount Vernon High School and who had four children who went to Baylor. "I'm impressed with his character."
At the May 24 school board meeting where the hire was announced, citizens gasped and cheered as board members pumped their fists and smiled at the crowd.
"Soon as I finish here, I'm in Mount Vernon, and we're not looking back," Briles told the school board from Italy, where he was coaching, via Skype. "We're moving forward. ... Plan on being a champion, because that's what we're gonna be."
McCullough told KWTX-TV in Waco that he was excited, that "I really didn't think someone of his coaching pedigree would be willing to say yes to Mount Vernon, Texas." Pepper Puryear, the longtime pastor at First Baptist Church, celebrated the news on Twitter on the night of the hire, saying, "It's a great day to be a Tiger!"
"In Mount Vernon, which is the only place it really counts, he'll be well-received," Ramsay said.
The Texas trinity -- football, religion and politics -- is in alignment here.
"In a little town like Mount Vernon," Ramsay said, "most people feel the same way about everything."
Shannon Ostertag originally discovered this little town 100 miles east of Dallas via an internet search.
Four years ago, Shannon and her husband Greg -- yes, that Greg Ostertag, the 7-foot-2 retired basketball player from Duncanville, Texas, who went to a Final Four at Kansas and played 11 seasons in the NBA -- were looking to settle down in a Texas town with rural farmland, fewer than 3,000 people and a good school system.
They fell in love with Mount Vernon. There was only one problem.
"The town was a big 'But...' because [the downtown] was just closed up and worn down and boarded up and falling apart," said Shannon, who's from San Diego. "It was sad."
What started out as Greg's retirement plan turned into a new career. Shannon went to work in the historic town square, which features a stately courthouse at one end and a plaza with a gazebo in the middle, and started the couple's renovation efforts with a downtown coffee shop. Then they set their sights on M.L. Edwards & Co., established in 1916, and gave that 11,000-square-foot space new life.
"It started out as buying a building," Greg said. "Then it turned into buying a town."
They got M.L. Edwards listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Then, working with the city, the entire downtown district became listed on the National Register.
The Ostertags invested millions of dollars and many beads of sweat working to put this city on the map.
"Our investment emotionally, physically and financially has been for long-term gains," Shannon said. "We want to save this town for future generations to enjoy. When something like [the Briles hire] happens, and it's for a short-term gain, and you have to hear things and read things like Mount Vernon being the 'moral basement of education,' I take offense to that. This town has a lot of really good people in it."
At a table in the back of M.L. Edwards, Greg talked about how his adopted town can move forward, in between visits from old-timers complimenting him on his new gray calves he has bred or seeking his advice on how to get a tractor tire replaced.
"Sports is what brings a town together," Greg said. "[The Briles hire is] something that needs to be talked about publicly. I think people on both sides need to be able to voice their opinion. It's going to be like a Democratic and Republican thing. It's in the town. We still all get along. At the end of the day, we're all still Mount Vernon Tigers, and we all still get along and say hi to each other."
But that's not as easy as it seems, says Lauren Lewis, a Mount Vernon native who moved to Austin for 10 years before returning home in 2016 and has been a vocal critic of the hire.
"Everyone is afraid to say anything because they're going to be ostracized or their businesses aren't going to be supported," said Lewis, who was the only resident to speak against the move at the first MVISD school board meeting since Briles was hired. "It feels like a horrible message to be sending to our youth."
The concerns of Tracy, the sexual assault survivors' advocate who was a vocal critic of Briles at Baylor, are even deeper.
"They're deliberately indifferent to Briles' history," she said. "They're completely set up to be another Baylor. That town has basically made it impossible for survivors to be safe or to report. Mount Vernon has sent a very clear message that football rules."
The announcement of Briles' hire on the eve of a holiday weekend was a shock, even to locals.
"It was kind of like a bomb going off," Lewis said. "We found out like everyone else at 6 p.m."
The superintendent's initial news release never mentioned the word "Baylor" and stated Briles "brings with him a wealth of not only football experience but also life experience." It also touted that 85-year-old former Baylor coach Grant Teaff said Briles "never incurred a single recruiting infraction during his time at the collegiate level."
The real issue, of course, was in the Baylor board of regents' findings of fact, which noted that "football coaches and staff took affirmative steps to maintain internal control over discipline of players and to actively divert cases from the student conduct or criminal processes," which "reinforced an overall perception that football was above the rules, and that there was no culture of accountability for misconduct."
In response to a libel lawsuit filed by Briles' former director of football operations, Colin Shillinglaw, against Baylor and several members of its senior leadership, regents responded by alleging Briles and his staff created a disciplinary "black hole" into "which reports of misconduct such as drug use, physical assault, domestic violence, brandishing of guns, indecent exposure and academic fraud disappeared." The regents' response also included damning comments from Briles, such as his response to an accusation of gang rape by a female student-athlete who alleged that five football players raped her at an off-campus party in 2012. "Those are some bad dudes," Briles responded to the accuser's coach. "Why was she around those guys?" While Briles told the coach he should have the woman notify the police, Pepper Hamilton attorneys found that no one, including Briles, notified police, judicial affairs or anyone outside of athletics about the incident.
"Contrary to some people's belief," the response said, "Briles was not a 'scapegoat' for the University's larger problems -- he was part of the larger problem."
Briles' supporters cite a $15.1 million settlement as well as a May 23, 2017, letter obtained by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram from Baylor's general counsel, Christopher W. Holmes, to Briles that read, in part, "at this time we are unaware of any situation where you personally had contact with anyone who directly reported to you being the victim of sexual assault or that you directly discouraged the victim of an alleged sexual assault from reporting to law enforcement or University officials. Nor are we aware of any situation where you played a student athlete who had been found responsible for sexual assault."
Briles, who earlier this week declined comment for this story, had never lived or worked outside of Texas before taking the job in Italy and was desperate to return home. ("I'm not going to learn Italian," Briles told the Baylor Line Foundation. "I'm going to teach them Texan.") Mount Vernon, meanwhile, has a career playoff record of 20-25 with no state title game appearances. Its head-coaching job had recently come open in mid-May after Josh Finney, who was 19-5 in two seasons with the Tigers, returned to his hometown 17 miles down the road to coach Winnsboro, one of Mount Vernon's biggest rivals.
In 114 seasons, Baylor won 10 games five times. Briles was the coach for four of those seasons. At his last high school job, in Stephenville, Texas, he went 135-29-2 in 12 seasons and won four state titles between 1993 and 1999. The allure proved too irresistible, according to Ramsay.
"For what he's done for high school football and for college football, he deserves another chance," he said.
The Tigers' new coach will return to the sidelines this fall at Don Meredith Stadium, named for Mount Vernon's favorite son, the first player ever signed by the Dallas Cowboys, who later became a beloved Monday Night Football announcer alongside Howard Cosell. The modest facility has aluminum stands that seat about 3,000, one concession stand and a track around the field. It's a humbling contrast to Baylor's $266 million, 45,000-seat McLane Stadium, which Briles' success helped build in 2014, the same year the Bears finished No. 7 in the AP poll, the highest finish in school history.
No, Mount Vernon won't go the way of Hamilton, Ontario, up in Canada, where the Tiger-Cats of the Canadian Football League announced they were hiring Briles, then quickly reversed course in August 2017 after the outrage came swiftly. It also won't be Hattiesburg, Mississippi, where Southern Miss coach Jay Hopson interviewed Briles for his offensive coordinator job in February of this year, only to be blocked from considering him for the job by the school president and athletic director amid an outcry.
So, why Mount Vernon?
On a public Facebook post on May 24, Mount Vernon's Michael Landon Ramsay, a Baylor graduate who has a "Sic 'Em Bears" overlay on his profile photo, was asked whether he had any influence on the Briles hire.
"This is absolutely unbelievable," Ramsay responded on Facebook. "Actually I had no influence however my cousin did because she used to work for him and actually called him in Italy about coming to Mount Vernon Texas."
McCullough declined to answer specific questions about how he connected with Briles, saying only via email that "Coach Briles expressed interest in the head coaching vacancy through a local acquaintance." Several members of the school board, including its president, didn't return phone or email messages from ESPN.com. And the town mayor, Teresia Wims, said in an email that "the city of Mount Vernon was not involved and had no foreknowledge of the hiring."
But folks in town knew to ask a Ramsay about the hire: On the streets of Mount Vernon, you don't have to look far to find the Ramsay name.
Directly across from the high school, across the highway named for Tom Ramsay, is the Law Office of Landon W. Ramsay. Landon's dad, Lanny, was a judge here in Franklin County from 1971-75, then became a justice for decades in the Eighth Judicial District overseeing Franklin, Delta and Hopkins counties. Will Ramsay, Lanny's other son, has been the district attorney for the Eighth District since 2013.
Landon and Will are Baylor men. Both graduated from Baylor as undergrads and then from Baylor Law School. And Leigh Anne Ramsay, Landon Ramsay's wife, is listed in Baylor's football media guide from 2014-16 as assistant director of campus recruiting under Briles, a position generally responsible for things like coordinating recruits' visits, organizing visiting players' schedules for game days and other special events.
At that same time, Landon worked as a prosecutor at the McLennan County Criminal District Attorney's Office in Waco. Michael Landon Ramsay -- of the Facebook post -- is a cousin of Landon's. Leigh Anne, Landon and Will Ramsay did not answer queries from ESPN about Briles' hiring.
"If he did what he was accused of, it would be a big problem in our family," Tom Ramsay said. "But we don't think he's guilty of anything."
Tax forms filed by Baylor in 2016 revealed Briles was paid about $6.19 million per season, which would have made him the highest-paid coach in the Big 12. Briles' two-year contract at Mount Vernon will pay him $82,000 a year as football coach and athletic director.
That penance isn't good enough for Lewis, who remains appalled that Briles will be walking the halls of the high school, which has about 450 students.
"I don't feel like he's coming here to pay the price," Lewis said. "We're paying the price for his redemption. We're going to be used as a stepping stone to restart his career. And the superintendent thought it was a good idea for Mount Vernon to be that stepping stone."
McCullough certainly has seen steady support, after the initial announcement and during the onslaught from outsiders in the past month.
"I believe our community is going to support this decision, and we are going to wrap our arms around this," McCullough told KCEN-TV in Austin. "I do not foresee us walking away from Art Briles."
"Art Briles, to me, forfeited the privilege of coaching," Tracy said. "I just don't think, based on what happened, he should coach again. The idea of having Briles with young, impressionable kids is ludicrous."
McCullough said he understands the scrutiny and is willing to face the discussion.
"This is a small town. My door is always open and, chances are, you'll bump into me or a school trustee at a school function, church or the grocery store on a pretty regular basis," he said. "We take great pride in our community and in our schools, and we strive to be responsive and maintain an open flow of information with this community."
Tom Ramsay agreed and thinks the town can patch things up.
"I really think honestly that Mount Vernon will pull together," he said. "I've never seen it not pull together."
A few assistant coaches are in place and already at work getting ready for the season. Briles' Italian league team finished its season this past Saturday, clearing the way for his arrival in Mount Vernon. But Lewis thinks the damage has already been done.
"When I was a kid and we'd travel, anytime anyone would ask my dad where we're from, my dad would say, 'Do you know 'Dandy' Don Meredith?" Lewis said. "It was a source of pride. I just can't imagine any father in an elevator now saying, 'Do you know Art Briles?'"
She said the message to those who are at odds with the administration has been, "Get over it. Get with it. It's happening."
Right now, there's one thing the pro-Briles and anti-Briles contingent can agree on: It's absolutely unthinkable that, in 2019, Art Briles would be a high school football coach in this small town.