NORMAN — Jeff Lebby climbed the short ramp leading out of the OU team meeting room Friday, his Sooner offense having played its best game in two years.
Sixty-two offensive points against Texas Christian; 607 total yards, 30 first downs and a 69-45 victory. Wasn’t it just a few weeks ago that Lebby was coordinator non grata? That even Brent Venables questioned Lebby’s play-call with Bedlam on the line?
Such is the fate of offensive coordinators at Frying Pan universities like Oklahoma. The heat always is on.
But that flame works both ways. It fuels success, and Lebby should have been walking tall on Friday. An offensive masterpiece. Reports of being interviewed for the Mississippi State head coaching job. Better indications than ever that Dillon Gabriel might return to quarterback the 2024 Sooners.
Lebby’s stock never had been higher than when he walked that ramp. Heck, even the personal side of a difficult situation — a duel against his lifelong best friend, TCU offensive coordinator Kendal Briles — seemed to go as best as it could. Both offenses making like a fireworks factory fire.
But no. A little bit of Lebby was reserved for empathy. He found no joy in beating Briles. Found little solace in TCU’s offense at least making quite a show for itself.
“It still doesn’t help him, being on the wrong end,” Lebby said.
You see, this is a relationship that runs deep. Deeper than the typical friends-in-the-business, friends-from-school you see all over college football.
Briles and Lebby are more than friends. They are family. Not the artificial family that players and coaches always are spouting about before they wake up one December day and decide to join another family.
This is a thick-blood, thick-water bond.
“I love Jeff,” Briles said. “Been a dear friend of mine and brother … just always been as close a friend as I ever had.”
That brother part was not hyperbole. They are brothers-in-law; Lebby married Briles’ sister, Staley. They have been together through remarkable highs at Baylor, where father and father-in-law Art Briles built a national powerhouse, followed by a scandalous fall. Jeff Lebby and Kendal Briles were banished to the hinterlands of college football but quickly rebuilt their reputations and résumés.
And now they’re occasionally asked to pit their offenses in Roman Colosseum-type entertainment. Look who’s fighting who. First in Arkansas-Ole Miss games (they split in 2020 and 2021, including a 52-51 fireworks fire that Lebby’s Rebels won in ‘21), and this year with OU-TCU.
“It’s not fun for us, just because obviously as close as we are, somebody’s going to be not happy,” Lebby said. “It’s not enjoyable. That’s Staley’s brother.
“We’re incredibly thankful, have a pretty good perspective, we’re dang blessed to be what we’re doing. At the same time, this isn’t a week that we love.”
Hitched at birth
Lebby and Briles were connected even in their wombs. Art Briles and Mike Lebby, Jeff’s father, coached together in Sweetwater, Texas when Kendal Briles was born and Jeff Lebby was conceived.
When Art Briles was head coach at Stephenville, and Mike Lebby became head coach at Dublin, 14 miles down Highway 377, Lebby stayed at the Briles’ home in the weeks and months before his family made the transition. Even shared a bedroom with Kendal Briles.
The boys became fast friends. Back then, they didn’t mind competing against each other; Kendal Briles said their Sega Genesis games in Road Rash and NHL Hockey were about as even as those Ole Miss-Arkansas games.
“We were all family,” Kendal Briles said.
The boys began high school far apart — Lebby went to Andrews, where his dad was coaching 45 minutes northwest of Midland; Briles went to Stephenville, 80 miles southwest of Fort Worth. But in 2000, Art Briles joined Mike Leach’s staff at Texas Tech, and Kendal Briles transferred to Wolfforth Frenship, just outside Lubbock. That made weekend trips to hang out a little closer.
Their friendship remained strong through college — Briles at Texas and Houston; Lebby at OU — and when Art Briles was named head coach at Baylor in 2008, he hired his son as an assistant coach and Jeff Lebby as assistant director of football operations.
Soon enough, Lebby was an assistant coach, too, and the Baylor offense was humming.
At family get-togethers, the talk often turns to offensive football. The coaches don’t want it to, but it’s who they are.
“When it’s some downtime and it’s not the season, we don’t want it to consume us,” Lebby said. But “it’s funny that it always seems to circle back to ball. Because in all reality, it does consume us.”
Offenses change over the years, so what you saw Friday on Owen Field wasn’t an exact replica of Art Briles’ veer-and-shoot at Baylor. Those Baylor teams would spread receivers, sometimes four of them, all the way to each sideline, trying to create running gaps for tailbacks.
But defenses adapt, and only a portion of that remains with the Sooners and Horned Frogs.
“From a philosophical standpoint, there’s a bunch of similarities,” Lebby said. “Playing with tempo, run first. Still spreading people out and trying to create pressure for the other side of the ball.
“Obviously, there’s different plays inside of each scheme that are unique to whatever our personnel is.”
Art Briles’ Baylor teams eventually won big. In the 12 years before Briles’ arrival, Baylor won 11 conference games. But the Baylor rebuild came quickly; Robert Griffin III won the Heisman Trophy in 2011, and the Bears won back-to-back Big 12 titles in 2013 and 2014.
“Memories you’re never going to forget,” Briles said. “You can’t ever replace ‘em. Such a wonderful group of men and people.”
Kendal Briles is a year and a half older than Jeff Lebby. Briles’ little sister, Staley, is a couple of years younger than Lebby.
You know the script. Annoying little sister for a long time. But once everyone grows up, the annoying part goes away.
Between OU and Baylor, Lebby in 2007 coached high school in Victoria, Texas, a couple of hours southwest of where Art Briles was coaching at the University of Houston. Lebby would drive up regularly to spend time with his lifelong friends.
Romance bloomed, and Lebby didn’t have to go through the traditional vetting process when it came to Staley’s family. They were married in 2011.
“Comforting for me,” Lebby said. “Had a ton of support from Kendal, as close as we were. Since the day I was born, we’ve been so incredibly close, pretty dang unique and special. Made it easy.”
Of course, let’s not get too patriarchal. This wasn’t the Briles family’s decision to make. This was Staley Briles’ decision to make. Kendal said he didn’t really get involved.
“If you’d ever met my sister, you’d probably stay out of her way,” Kendal said.
The marriage brought the Lebbys and Brileses even closer. They would need that closeness.
Art Briles legacy
Maybe now you understand Lebby’s defiance when asked to defend his father-in-law coming onto Owen Field after the September 11 OU-Southern Methodist game.
A social-media photo of an incognito Briles, wearing an OU shirt and talking to Lebby, prompted outrage from some; OU athletic director Joe Castiglione issued a statement that “boundaries” had been breached.
Lebby at first said, “That’s my father-in-law … that’s the grandfather to my two kids.”
Lebby issued a (forced?) apology the next day.
The incident was a peek into the fall of Briles, over the Baylor sexual assault scandal. A variety of assault allegations and convictions occurred from 2012-16, and a subsequent investigation by the Pepper Hamilton law firm found that the Baylor athletic department prioritized football success above campus safety, including administrators directly discouraging students from reporting sexual violence allegations.
The fallout was vast. Briles, athletic director Ian McCaw and president Ken Starr lost their jobs. Briles became a football pariah, and even when organizations like Grambling State and the Hamilton Tiger-Cats of the Canadian Football League tried to hire him, public pressure forced the job offers to be withdrawn. He since has coached at Mount Vernon High School in Texas and in the Italian Football League.
The virtual banishment didn’t extend to his staff, but there were repercussions. Kendal Briles landed at Florida Atlantic and has worked his way up through Houston U., Florida State, Arkansas and now TCU. Lebby landed at Southeastern University, an NAIA school in Lakeland, Florida, and since has coached at Central Florida, Ole Miss and now OU.
Both OU and TCU received mild blowback from hiring the son-in-law and son of Art Briles, respectively, and both schools are careful to limit interviews to certain subjects, unrelated to Art Briles.
But that’s peculiar, in a way. Art Briles is at the center of any football story about his son-in-law or son.
“There’s a constant connection,” Lebby said. “Kendal and I have been incredibly close forever, great friends forever, from the day I was born.”
And so they met again Saturday on Owen Field. It was the best possible result, considering ties are not available. One won, one lost, but both offenses were in high gear.
Heck, remember what it’s called on the basketball court when there’s occasionally an I-won’t-guard-you-if-you-won’t-guard-me mentality: Brother-in-law defense.
Art Briles wasn’t there to see it. He probably wouldn’t have made the trip to Norman anyway, even without the clear unwelcome sign OU hung out back in September.
“My parents wouldn’t touch it,” Kendal Briles said of the game. Art Briles might not even have watched on television. “He’s so conflicted, it’s tough on him to watch it.
“It’s tough on the family, because there’s really no winner, because not everybody can be happy after the game. You want a lot of points and want it to be a tie. It’s always difficult.”
There was no tie on Owen Field, but there were a lot of points: 114. One of the highest-scoring games in Big 12 history. Not the 133 points scored in that Baylor-West Virginia shootout of 2012, or the 125 points scored in the Baker Mayfield-Patrick Mahomes showdown of 2016, but 69-45 is a lot of points.
And so the OU-TCU game was a testament to the coordinators who were hitched at birth and were Sega Genesis rivals and now are bound by marriage and offense, success and scandal.