Matt Rhule: Can This Happy Valley Guy Return the Glory to Nebraska Football?

Maybe you were too distracted during the Thanksgiving holiday weekend to focus on a particular development in college football.

No, I’m not talking about Penn State’s triumph over Michigan State, as encouraging as that was to Nittany Lion fans. And I’m not talking about Michigan’s 45-23 pounding of Ohio State, as shocking as that was to everyone.

I am talking about the selection of Matt Rhule to serve as the new head football coach for the University of Nebraska. And even though that story got minimal coverage in the local press, I’m pretty sure it will eventually captivate Happy Valley’s sports fans.

After all, Matt is one of “us”—he’s a graduate of State High and Penn State—and now he’s coaching “them,” the Cornhuskers who became a Penn State nemesis long before they joined the Big Ten in 2010. (Among the pain caused by Nebraska was its selection, by poll, as 1994 national champion over a 12-0 Penn State team.)

Perhaps the current state of Nebraska football limits local interest. Having suffered six straight losing seasons, the Huskers don’t pose the kind of threat to the Nittany Lions that they once did. But how will we feel in the future if both teams take the field with undefeated records and our “enemy” is not a Harbaugh, Ferentz or Bielema but a guy who played football for State High’s Ron Pavlechko and Penn State’s Joe Paterno?

And who’s to say Nebraska can’t reclaim its former glory—the glory that came from five national titles?

Having written five prior columns about Matt and his amazing father, Denny, I guess I’ve become our community’s self-appointed scribe for all things Rhule. So here are my gleanings on why the Huskers pursued Matt, why he accepted their offer and what we are likely to behold as a result.

WHY THEY OFFERED

Speaking at Monday’s press conference where Rhule was introduced to Husker Nation, Athletic Director Trev Alberts offered a glowing endorsement. Alberts noted that he had spoken with 13 coaches since the previous coach, Scott Frost, was fired from his position on Sept. 11. (Frost posted a record of 16-31 in his four-plus seasons in Lincoln.)

Rhule was “1A” on his list from the beginning, noted Alberts, a former All-American linebacker at Nebraska. “There was one coach who stood out from everyone else,” Alberts said. And he further explained his selection by listing some of Rhule’s attributes—leadership, integrity, culture-builder, process-oriented, being a “grinder,” being a strategic thinker.

Alberts has certainly done his homework well; his Rhule list is quite accurate. But I must say he forgot to mention one special ability that surely was crucial for Nebraska’s coaching choice. Simply put, Rhule is an expert at transforming collegiate football fixer-uppers. And that’s exactly what Nebraska needs right now.

Believe it or not, you have to go back to 2016 to find a Husker team that won more than five games. Surely Alberts is yearning to offer better results to the loyal fans who have set an NCAA record for consecutive stadium sellouts, now at 375 games.

Matt Rhule led major turnarounds at Temple and Baylor before going to the NFL. Photo provided by Baylor Athletics

Beginning at his first head coaching spot, Temple University, Rhule showed his knack for fixing a program. Things started slowly at Temple when the 2013 team posted a record of 2-10, but the following seasons soared upward to 6-6, 10-4 and 10-3. (The 2015 team created warm memories in Philadelphia and traumatic ones in State College with a 27-10 thumping of Penn State.)

His mission accomplished at Temple, Rhule turned his attention to Baylor, where he lifted a scandal-plagued program to a thrilling trajectory of success. With the program in ruins, Rhule’s Bears went 1-11 in 2017 but then 7-6 in 2018 and 11-3 in 2019. That last season included Baylor’s first road victory over Oklahoma State since 1939, a feat that prompted TV commentator Tim Brando to say, “We’re talking about one of the great transformational stories in the history (of NCAA football), and this is the 150th year of college football…This is amazing.”

And then there was Rhule’s stint with the Carolina Panthers of the NFL. Sadly, that foray into professional football didn’t fit Matt’s pattern of transformation. He inherited a team that posted a 5-11 record in 2019, and his results remained roughly the same with a 5-11 mark in 2020, 5-12 in 2021 and 1-4 this year before he was fired on Oct. 10.

What went wrong? In an interview on Thursday with The Charlotte Observer, Rhule said he would have taken a different approach if he knew that management wasn’t going to give him the time he thought he had.

“If you told me, ‘Hey we’ve got two years (to win),'” Rhule said, “then we’re going to do things in two years. If you tell me, ‘Hey, I want this to be built for the long haul over four or five years,’ then we’re going to build slowly through the draft and we’re going to make good financial decisions…”

WHY IT IS ACCEPTED

Some people may have thought Rhule would stay out of the football wars for a full year, getting some rest and enjoying his $40 million buyout from the Panthers. But those people don’t know our guy. As his dad, Denny, told me a few days ago, “He just loves coaching. He loves being out there and grinding and watching film and working with the players and blowing that whistle and teaching and correcting. I didn’t think he could go very long without going some other place.”

But why Nebraska? Well, there’s a football answer and a personal answer. From the football perspective, Rhule said it most succinctly during a recent interview on ESPN’s “College GameDay.” “I’m a guy that likes to go places and develop players,” Rhule said. “That’s my passion in life is to watch players grow on and off the field. And no one in history has done that better than the Nebraska Cornhuskers. It just seemed like the right fit and I’m excited to get there.”

As for the personal answer, Matt took advantage of time for thought after he was terminated by Carolina. According to Denny, “Getting fired has made him think a lot about his experience with the Panthers. I think it was a time of reflection, and he told me that he was praying for the right thing for him and his family. I think he was really sincere about doing what God wanted him to do.”

Matt’s wife, Julie, provided helpful perspective during his decision-making time. She, more than anyone else, had observed the pain he felt while sitting in the Panthers’ “hot seat,” and she had heard the thunderous chants of “Fire Matt Rhule” from the fans in Bank of America Stadium. As Matt noted during his recent press conference, “I remember the first time I talked to Trev on the phone. My wife was nearby, and I was talking to her about football, the process and player development. I looked over and she was like, ‘This was the first time I’ve seen you this happy in a long time.’ She has said that this place, these people, this is the right fit for us.”

After two successful college head coaching stints, Matt Rhule compiled an 11-24 record with the rebuilding Carolina Panthers. Photo courtesy of Carolina Panthers.

WHIRLWIND OF WORK

Even in the middle of his initial press conference, Rhule made it clear he was ready to go to work. “I can promise you this,” he said, “I am going to start today. I am going to rip this suit off sometime tonight and I am going to go back to my office and I am going to start to recruit and start to do all the (other) things…”

Indeed, the 47-year-old Rhule needed to do a whole lot of things within a short time. He needed to secure the services of assistant coaches, establish relationships with next fall’s recruits and talk with current Nebraska players who might be tempted to put their names into the transfer portal when it opens Monday.

Some things went well—especially the hiring of assistant coaches. An official announcement on Thursday listed six hires, all men who had previously worked with Rhule at Temple, Baylor and/or Carolina. The most notable name on the list is Marcus Satterfield as offensive coordinator. A longtime Rhule associate, Satterfield recently served as OC at the University of South Carolina where his offense scored a combined 94 points in upsets over Tennessee and Clemson.

But there were also some disappointments within the first few days of Rhule’s tenure. The top in-state recruit for the fall, four-star athlete Malachi Coleman, announced on Twitter that he had decommitted from Nebraska. And three current Cornhuskers indicated that they will be pursuing transfers—most notably a wide receiver named Decoldest Crawford who didn’t play as a freshman due to injury but still attracted attention for his commercials on behalf of…you guessed it…a local air conditioning company.

WHAT TO EXPECT?

Some veteran observers of college football say that the Cornhuskers will never regain their place among the elite programs. They say that Nebraska lacks the necessary population base for local and regional recruiting and that Lincoln lacks the cache for national recruiting.

But as you might expect, the pride of Happy Valley is not buying any of that. If you talked to him directly, he’d simply point to past accomplishments and note how they stemmed from old-fashioned hard work.

“When you ask me what our vision is,” he said at his press conference, “obviously we want to have Heisman Trophy winners. We want to have awards. We want to win conference championships. We want to win national championships. But…I can just tell you this. I want to build a team that is tough. I want to build a team that is hard-working. I told the team that today. The price of glory is paid at 6 am

“Nowadays a lot of coaches are afraid to coach their guys hard because they’re afraid they will transfer. If a player knows you care about them, if they really believe what I said earlier that I want your life to be better for having been here, then you can coach guys hard. I think the old school things of developing guys and pushing guys, wanting them to be better, is what got us there at those places.

“If I have one message for you, it is that we can absolutely do it. We can absolutely get…University of Nebraska football exactly where it is supposed to be. It will be hard. It may take time but it will be done.”

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