PFLUGERVILLE, Texas - Two players at the Texas high school team coached by Art Briles were ruled ineligible Tuesday by the state's governing body for high school sports, upholding a previous ruling made by a district committee earlier this month.
The University Interscholastic League's state executive committee agreed with the district ruling that two Mount Vernon High School players, Brock Nellor and Cameron Nellor, changed schools for athletic purposes. The UIL requires athletes who are deemed to have transferred for athletic purposes to sit out one year before participating in varsity athletics.
The committee voted 4-1 to deny the appeal made by the family of the two.
Briles, the former Baylor coach who was fired in 2016 in the wake of a sexual assault scandal at the school, was in attendance at the meeting but did not testify.
"We're disappointed in the decision of the state executive committee," said Mount Vernon ISD superintendent Jason McCullough, who made a statement to reporters but did not take questions. "But we have to respect that; that's their role. We still believe that the Nellors moved to Mount Vernon as they should have the right to and that it was not for athletic purposes, but unfortunately, that's what the state executive committee upheld from the local decision. We're disappointed in that, but I guess there's nothing else we can do about it from here."
Mike Motheral, the chairman of the UIL's state executive committee, called it a "very tough decision," and said that Briles was not accused of recruiting the players to the school.
"It wasn't about recruitment," Motheral said. "I just want to make sure to go on record to say that Coach Briles and his staff, none of those folks were ever accused in this and they are not guilty of any kind of recruitment."
Among the key factors in the UIL's decision, Motheral said, was the family's relationship with Lynx Hawthorne, a former player for Briles at Baylor and at Guelfi Firenze, the American football team in Italy that Briles coached earlier this year before arriving at Mount Vernon. Hawthorne is said to be in Mount Vernon filming a documentary on Briles, but is also kin to the Nellors, who moved to Mount Vernon from Colorado before the season. Hawthorne played receiver and special teams for Briles at Baylor from 2013-16.
The player's mother testified before the committee on Tuesday that the family moved to Mount Vernon for myriad reasons, including a job opportunity and a chance to be in a smaller community that fit what the family desired. She said they've never chosen a school based on athletics.
"They made a family decision, they came down and scouted, looking for a community to move into in the northeast Texas area," said Tiger Hanner, the family's attorney. "The first time they talked to Lynx about all this was to say 'Hey, we're coming down [to Mount Vernon] ...when they made the decision that 'This is where we're gonna go,' they told Lynx 'We're coming down.'"
Briles received a public reprimand from the district executive committee earlier this month for using an assistant coach on the field (Hawthorne) who wasn't a full-time employee of the district. UIL rules dictate that assistant coaches must be employed by the district. Hawthorne's status with the team has been a point of contention throughout the hearings. His relationship to the Mount Vernon program and the Nellors was pivotal.
"He wasn't working there," Motheral said. "He's working on a documentary. But he has access to the program, and so as I said earlier, that was one of the major factors to sort through and make a determination on."
Hanner said he believes the Nellors fell victim to a district that is targeting Briles.
"I have my own personal opinion that the district is upset about Art Briles being the coach at Mount Vernon, and that's why we're here," Hanner said.
In September, the Nellors and two other Mount Vernon players were initially ruled eligible by the District 7-3A Division I executive committee. But the committee reconvened after new information arose and overturned their previous ruling as it related to the Nellors.
"This started as a pretty aggressive attack about their residency," Hanner said. "The documentation is voluminous to prove their residency sequence and that they met the rules. All of a sudden when that was met, we had an immediate shift that this is for athletic purposes."
Motheral acknowledged that Briles' high-profile likely brought more attention to the case but wasn't certain whether that had a role in why the issue was revisited after the initial ruling.
"I can't answer whether or not that had a factor or why it was brought forward," Motheral said. "I will tell you that when you're dealing with high-profile coaches sometimes, they're under scrutiny and people are really watching. But again, we've seen nothing that Coach Briles did anywhere close to problematic."