Unpredictably tough assignment awaits new Baylor AD Mack Rhoades

Mack Rhoades can't be entirely sure what he's walking into as Baylor’s new athletic director, but he'll be tasked with leading the program out of a mess.
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DALLAS — Someone asked Mack Rhoades how he could be comfortable taking over as Baylor’s athletic director knowing he still didn’t know everything about the scandal that took down Baylor’s president, athletic director and football coach. “Blind faith?” Rhoades said. “Is that what you’re asking?” 

Baylor’s new athletic director couldn’t answer some of the toughest questions Monday at an introductory press conference that piggybacked off Big 12 Media Days. What was he supposed to say? He wasn’t at Baylor for the sexual assault scandal. He was running Houston’s athletic department. Then he was running Missouri’s. As of Monday, he still hadn’t set foot on Baylor’s campus since taking the job last week. At least he had a sense of humor about the job ahead of him. “We love a Fixer Upper,” Rhoades said Monday, name-checking the addictive HGTV show that stars Baylor alums and Waco residents Chip and Joanna Gaines. Of course, Rhoades knows he’ll need more than shiplap to shore up an athletic department in need of serious structural repair.

Interim Baylor president David Garland had an equally difficult time answering tough questions Monday. While he has served as interim president of the school before (2008-10), he was back in his role as dean of Baylor’s Truett Seminary for the time examined by law firm Pepper Hamilton that produced the findings that led Baylor’s board of regents to fire coach Art Briles and begin the processes that resulted in the departures of president Ken Starr and AD Ian McCaw. Garland has tried since taking the job to explain the actions of a board of regents with which he holds little sway. So neither Garland nor Rhoades could give a satisfactory answer when, after referencing transparency, they were reminded that Baylor hasn’t been transparent at all through this process. Actually, Garland did offer one decent answer. I asked if he understood why people wouldn’t trust a school that got in trouble for covering up horrible things when people from that school keep suggesting we should just trust them even though they aren’t offering any specific information. “Well, yes,” he said. 

• Big 12's Bowlsby reveals gross lack of understanding amid Baylor scandal

But what is Garland supposed to say? He didn’t have anything to do with the scandal. He’s only the punching bag Baylor’s board has put forth to take the body blows as the school tries to begin moving forward from a dark period in which males in general—it wasn’t only an athletics issue, though the football team played a major role—were routinely given preference over the women who had accused them of sexual assault. Garland didn’t get a vote on whether Baylor would release Pepper Hamilton’s findings. He wasn’t the one who ordered Pepper Hamilton attorneys to deliver only an oral report so all specific information regarding the scandal would be protected by attorney-client privilege. Garland said the reason Baylor hasn’t released more than the scathing-but-probably-sanitized “Findings of Fact” is because the survivors interviewed in the investigation were guaranteed confidentiality. That might be noble if it were the real reason for the secrecy, but common sense tells us it isn’t. Unfortunately, that lack of transparency hangs over everything Baylor does now, even as school officials try to correct the issues and fix the broken systems that caused the scandal in the first place.

Into this situation walks Rhoades, who spent 15 months at Missouri before decamping for Waco. (Don’t worry. He promises he’ll get there for a visit on Tuesday morning. He assumes the job full time on Aug. 15.) Rhoades said Monday that he looked at Baylor as an opportunity rather than an escape from an uncertain situation at Missouri. He said he wasn’t running from Columbia but rather running to Waco. Certainly Rhoades must understand that on the surface, it appears Missouri has some serious issues if its AD considers Baylor a better opportunity.

The move makes sense when viewed from Rhoades’s perspective, though. Rhoades will get more money at Baylor and be granted as much time as he needs to help the Bears out of the hole they dug for themselves. He’ll work at Baylor for a still-to-be-hired president who didn’t hire him, but as one of The New Guys, Rhoades will be afforded security and great freedom to shape the department the way he wishes. At Missouri, Rhoades was about to work for a new chancellor who might have wanted to bring in his or her own choice as AD. Also, as terrible as what happened at Baylor was, there is a playbook for recovery based on how schools have dealt with similar scandals. There is no playbook for the student unrest Rhoades dealt with at Missouri. The football team threatened to strike last year. Something similar might happen again this year. Rhoades might have been venturing into uncharted territory. Charted territory, more money and years of job security give Rhoades a potentially more stable situation at Baylor.

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Still, Rhoades will face some difficult tasks. He must rebuild trust in a department tarred by scandal. On Monday, Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby said Baylor had sullied the reputations of its fellow conference members. “We’ve sullied our own reputation,” Garland would say later. Rhoades must ensure the department handles every case of violence against women properly, and the school is helping him by taking the determination of punishment in such cases out of the hands of coaches and athletic administrators and putting it in the hands of the recently beefed up Title IX office. “We’re going to have to do the right thing,” Rhoades said. 

What will guide him to do the right thing? “I’ve got three unbelievably beautiful daughters,” Rhoades said. “If you’re asking where is my motivation, there’s my motivation.” It should be noted that a person doesn’t need to have daughters to know how to treat others with basic human decency, but if thinking of his daughters helps Rhoades decide what the right thing is, it’s a perfectly fine method.

While less important on a real-world scale, Rhoades also must decide relatively quickly what to do with the football program. Jim Grobe is Baylor’s acting head coach, and all of Briles’s assistants remain in the program. (Facing questions about this Monday, Garland insinuated that the current assistants were not among the coaches—the plural form was used in the Findings of Fact released by Baylor—accused of trying to manipulate sexual assault cases.) It seems unlikely that the Briles staff will be kept on beyond this season. So who, exactly, is recruiting on behalf of Baylor for the class of 2017? It remains in the best interests of the current assistants to keep recruiting for Baylor now. Bailing on that part of the job would be akin to professional suicide, because no coach wants to hire an assistant who quit recruiting. “Who knows what the future holds?” he said. “They’re going to want to coach again, whether it’s Baylor or somewhere else.” Unless he plans to keep Grobe, Rhoades also must identify a coach who can lead Baylor out of what will most assuredly be a mess following the departure of half of the 2016 recruiting class and a 2017 recruiting cycle that will be essentially over by the time Baylor makes a hire.

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There also remains the possibility that Baylor could be hit with NCAA sanctions. Not for the scandal. The NCAA probably learned its lesson after it went outside its usual process to punish Penn State and had to abandon those penalties or risk getting embarrassed in court. But if NCAA investigators find that anyone on the Briles staff broke recruiting or extra benefits rules—which the NCAA does have a process to deal with—sanctions will come. The NCAA enforcement staff has heard plenty of complaints about Baylor from rival coaches upset with the Bears’ rapid rise. Whether there is any proof remains to be seen. But Rhoades will have to be prepared as he seeks a coach.

Given the situation he inherits, Rhoades will have to be prepared for any number of surprises. He knows that. “In any job, you get on campus and you uncover more things,” he said. Rhoades will step on Baylor’s campus Tuesday morning for the first time as the Bears’ athletic director. Hopefully, he’ll be prepared for what he’s walking into.