Minutes after a 14-10 loss to previously-winless Memphis in October 2012, Rice coach David Bailiff stood in front of his floundering 1-5 football team and accepted responsibility for what they all deemed an unacceptable defeat.
One of his captains, however, was having none of it. Phillip Gaines, a skinny, reserved junior cornerback with 4.38 speed, long arms and a knack for swatting passes away, followed with an unusually candid speech that blistered the paint off the walls in the locker room, as defensive coordinator Chris Thurmond later put it.
“Phillip said ‘Coach, this isn’t your fault, this is our fault,’” Bailiff said. “And he went around and dissected the entire football team in the locker room. Offensively, defensively, he challenged people. It was one of the greatest locker room scenes I’ve ever seen — he was calling them out. We just let him go.”
Bailiff, who was in his sixth season at coach, had reason for letting Gaines unleash. He was understandably on the hot seat, due to his 24-43 overall record at the time.
Now, Gaines’ speech is now regarded as a program-changing moment by Bailiff and his staff. The Owls responded that season by winning six of their final seven games to finish 7-6, and in 2013, they went 10-4 to finish with their best record in five years.
“From that point on, we were a different football team,” Thurmond said. “That was the catalyst and the thing that changed the direction of the way we were going.”
So yes, when NFL teams inquired about Gaines before the draft, Bailiff and Thurmond were all too happy to vouch for their talented 6-foot, 193-pound corner, who racked up four interceptions, nine pass breakups and 36 tackles during a senior season in which he was named the 2013 Preseason Conference USA Defensive Player of the Year and allowed only 32.5 percent of passes thrown his way to be completed.
“He didn’t get (the award) because nobody threw the football at him,” Bailiff said. “Early in the season, when people tried to throw it over there, that’s where he got his four interceptions. After that, people just quit trying.”
Bailiff continued to vouch for Gaines’ off-the-field characte as well, even when the conversation turned to less pleasant topics, such as Gaines’ past arrest. He was arrested in April 2011 for possession of less than 2 ounces of marijuana, a misdemeanor, and was sentenced to one year of probation. He also failed two drug tests in college, including one on Jan. 1, 2013 that led to a one-game suspension.
“Obviously, you’re disappointed when that happens,” Bailiff said. “But he also won this football team back because he made a pledge to them and he was a man of his word. And that’s why he was re-elected captain (in 2013).”
Bailiff added that there was “a huge gap” between the first and second failed tests.
“It was after the second one where he was so disappointed in himself,” Bailiff said. “And he never let us down again.”
Thurmond, who also coaches Rice’s cornerbacks, was asked if there’s any reason to be concerned about whether Gaines’ past marijuana usage is a long-term problem.
“Absolutely not,” Thurmond said. “It’s like, when you miss a putt on 16, that doesn’t mean you’re going to miss every putt the rest of your life. You’re gonna learn from it and you’re gonna go on.
“Phillip Gaines is like part of my family. He could not be a better person or kid than he is.”
While a cynical person might point out the high likelihood that most college coaches would say the same about their players, it’s important to remember that Bailiff and Thurmond apparently go back a ways with the Chiefs’ director of player personnel Chris Ballard, who said he is also close with another member of the staff.
“They all vouch for this kid,” said Ballard, who said he’s been tracking Gaines for three years. “I’ve been doing this a long time, especially in that area, and absolutely have tremendous faith in the kid and who he is as a person.”
The Chiefs didn’t rely solely on those recommendations, though. Bailiff said he was surprised about how deep the team went when digging into Gaines’ background.
“When you’re making an investment, you want to make sure you’re not making a mistake,” Bailiff said.
“They went and talked to his high school coaches because they called me and said ‘you’re not going believe this,’” Bailiff said with a laugh. “So I know they did a very extensive check on him.”
That goes for on-the-field, too. Dorsey has watched film of Gaines, including 2012, when he played with a cast for the entire season due to a broken wrist and still had 18 pass breakups, the second-most in the college football.
“I just like the things he does,” Dorsey said. “He uses his legs really well. He can turn and run with the receivers on the vertical. He can stop when he’s got to stop and mirror receivers in his routes. To me, that’s what the defensive coaches look for in the position.”
Dorsey also sees plenty of room for growth in Gaines, both physically and technique-wise.
“In college, they only had the 20-hour rule,” Dorsey said. “Therefore, you are not going to be as technically sound ... as you would in professional football. I still see a higher ceiling than most.”
Bailiff and Thurmond also disagree strongly with an evaluation on NFL.com that suggests Gaines is a poor tackler who struggles in man coverage.
“That certainly wasn’t our judgment — all we do is play man coverage and he led the nation in pass breakups,” Thurmond said. “On third down, we have a call where it’s like a box-and-1 concept in basketball where we play zone coverage around him but we play him man-to-man on whoever their best receiver is, no matter where he lines up.”
Bailiff, meanwhile, says Gaines has “linebacker courage” as a tackler and calls him as physical a corner he’s had since he’s been at Rice.
Still, Gaines — a self-pronounced perfectionist — knows he has work to do to be the kind of player he wants to be.
“Trust me, whatever the coaches tell me, I’ll do that and more,” Gaines said. “They may tell me to do this and be here and there in practice, but I’ll go home and look at film. I will think about it the whole day. I love football with all my heart.
“They have no idea how hard I’m going to work for them, they’ll see once I get there…I’m fully onboard, trust me.”
By investing a third-round pick in Gaines, the Chiefs are obviously showing they are willing to do so, much in the same way Gaines’ college coaches already do.
“I trust that young man,” Bailiff said. “I trust him in any situation. I do.”
To reach Terez A. Paylor, call 816-234-4489 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at twitter.com/TerezPaylor.