First, let me give some background. (If you’re not interested and just want to read about Briles skip down to the next heading). I have long been a proponent of the educational ability of sport. The well-documented academic decline of the average American has displayed general disinterest of science, math, history and literature among others. As someone who has enjoyed learning in each of these fields, it is always saddening to hear stories of this decline.
Conversely, the popularity and participation of sport is at an all-time high. Each year record numbers of people tune in to watch sporting events on television, from international spectacles, such as, the Olympics or the World Cup to uniquely American attractions, like the Super Bowl.
While some people shame the explosion of sport as academic standards fall, I would not be one of those people. I love sports, sports history and sports culture more than just about anyone I know. Due to this, I have always argued that sport has a unique opportunity to combat the educational downturn in America. From my perspective, sport offers a unique cross road where lessons in science, math, nutrition, history, politics, industry, fashion, medicine, business and more can be taught using sport as the main tool.
Of course, some of this argument comes from over ambition on my part and could (likely will) be disregarded by most that hear it. Who knows if using sport to teach lessons on these subjects would even be accepted by those that normally reject them. I know that this approach isn’t a one stop solution to fixing our educational problems, but I think it is one way to start reigniting interest in the students of America.
Show a kid how the things they love (sports) are directly affected by a multitude of subjects (listed above) and perhaps we can get that same kid to love or, at a minimum, appreciate some of those other subjects. While I’m a big proponent of this approach using the lens of sport, it certainly isn’t the only way. Thousands of hard-working and brilliant teachers around America are struggling each day to inspire their kids to new and greater things. I just hope I can use some of my sports-related teachings to inspire others to look at how interconnected and entertaining education can be.
That being said…
Attaque à outrance, or why Art Briles is a World War I French General
In my spare time, I love to read. I read just about everything and, while there have been plenty of things I don’t enjoy, there haven’t been many times I’ve turned down a recommendation. This past weekend during some down time, I picked up a book I hadn’t read in years, The Guns of August by Barbara W. Tuchman. A great read, I think most would consider the book the definitive English text on World War I.
In the first few chapters, Tuchman describes the background for the war, especially the cast of characters that were involved. While reading about the French preparation for war, I was struck by one character in particular. Inspired by the teachings of French General Ferdinand Foch, Louis Loyzeau de Grandmaison, who would become the Chief of Operations for the French General Staff during World War I, ushered in a new wave of French military philosophy – the “attaque à outrance.”
As 1914 approached, Europe could feel itself on the brink of war. The aggressive actions, words and preparations by the German Kaiser, Wilhelm II, alerted the French to begin their own preparations. There was no way the French could beat the Germans on even footing. Germany had more soldiers who were better supplied. The German country was made for war – more industrialized, better mobilized and with a higher birth rate, the French simply could not match the German war machine.
However, the French brought something else to the table – a strong spirit. The French military used philosopher Henri-Louis Bergson’s, “élan vital,” (translated best, in this sense, to ‘vital force’ or ‘vital will’) and purposed it to define the country’s strong nationalism and pride – the force that would allow France to overcome the superior German forces.
Building on this force, the aforementioned Grandmaison, decided the only way to guarantee a French victory was through attaque à outrance. Translated: attack to the limits or attack to excess. To defeat the superior German force, Grandmaison would launch an all-out offensive at the German’s weakest point. Even though smaller in number, weaker in training and more poorly outfitted, the combination of surprise and French will would allow the French to break the German line – rendering, not only, the German defense, but also their offense ineffective.
Sounds familiar doesn’t it?
When Art Briles came to Baylor, the Bears were the perennial doormat of the Big 12 conference. Baylor was the team other schools scheduled for homecoming. Yes, Baylor was a conference opponent, but no one took them seriously. In the five years before the arrival of Briles, Baylor had accumulated a 6-33 record in conference play. The Bears were smaller, weaker, slower, more poorly trained and more poorly outfitted than the superior forces of Oklahoma, Texas and others, but the Bears did have something – élan vital.
You could see that the Bears were tired of being underestimated and overlooked. They may not have been as powerful as many of their opponents, but they would fight. Perhaps that was never clearer than on October 20, 2004. The Bears were sitting on a 2-5 record with the #16 Texas A&M Aggies coming to Waco. Baylor wasn’t overwhelmed by a superior force, rather the Bears used their will and fought back pulling off a stunning 35-34 upset in an overtime win.
Perhaps that is part of what enticed Briles to leave his alma mater and come to Waco. He saw the passion of the school, the fans, the administration and the alumni. The will was there. They just needed to find a way to win.
Briles’ answer? Attack. Attack to the limits.
The Bears didn’t turn things around right away; they only won two conference games in Briles’ first year. However, in year three, Baylor made it to a bowl game. In year four, the Bears won their bowl game. By year six, Baylor University was the champion of the Big 12 conference.
Baylor attacks. Through the air and on the ground, the Baylor attack is formidable. The Bears will likely set records this year as they continue to throw an unrelenting assault at their opponents’ weakest points. The Bears attack until they break them.
Briles might take one more piece of history from these French forerunners – “N’en parlez jamais; pensez-y toujours.” Translation: Never speak of it; think of it always. Yes, Briles and Baylor have stumbled in their last two bowl games, leaving many to question the Bears and their attack. The Bears don’t need to be reminded of this and they certainly don’t want to waste time talking about it.
What they will do is remember. They will remember the disappointment and disgust. They will remember how it feels to walk off the field as losers. With each yard gained and each touchdown scored this year, the Bears remember their work is not done. There is a power driving this Baylor team. Nothing should cause other teams more fear than the fact that this Baylor team remembers.
Baylor’s mission won’t be over until they are 14-0 and the undisputed #1 team in the country.
Of course, for all the parallels between Briles and the attaque à outrance, they are still very different. In the age of machine guns, barbed wire and trench warfare, the French’s “attack to excess” model was often ineffective if not outright disastrous. Of course, that model may still be true with Baylor – with big risk comes big reward. No team can keep up with Baylor’s attack, but if the attack falters, it often leaves the Baylor defense to play with a short field and little or no rest. So far this year, Baylor hasn’t faltered.
This article was written and researched by Ryan Sprayberry, Collections and Exhibits Manager at the Texas Sports Hall of Fame