Matt Rhule was Trev Alberts’ candidate 1A. Nebraska’s athletic director listed all the criteria he sought in a new head coach earlier this week. During the search process, he channeled Nebraska’s history of being the “premiere developmental program” in the country. Alberts wants to be that again There’s a $165 million testament to Alberts’ commitment to that nestled next to Memorial Stadium and Hawks Championship Center. He chose someone known for developing athletes. That new head coach, raised and played in college football legacy, dug into Nebraska’s history before his first day on the job.
During Rhule’s segment on the November 26 episode of ESPN’s College GameDay, moments after the university confirmed Rhule’s hiring, he mentioned speaking with Tom Osborne. After all, despite being a Penn State fan, he grew up “revering” Nebraska. The legendary Huskers coach welcomed Rhule to Lincoln. Then Rhule asked for Osborne’s blessing. Osborne laughed. No blessing needed. He trusted Alberts’ decision that the man in front of him was the right man for the job.
“It was great to have a chance to talk to coach Osborne,” Rhule said during his introduction. “He’s someone who I have looked up to as a coach. I grew up in the era of the gentleman coach. The coaches that would battle for 60 minutes, shake hands and go clinic in the summer. That was coach Osborne and coach (Joe) Paterno. He said he’d be here for me if I ever needed it, and I will certainly take him up on that.”
Rhule mentioned in his opening remarks on Monday how Osborne and Nebraska made him cry in 1983. He was 11 living in New York City at the time of the Kickoff Classic involving National Champion Penn State Nittany Lions. They’d just beat Nebraska, No. 2 at the time, the season before. An eager Rhule and his father walked into Giants Stadium hoping for a repeat result. Instead, No. 1 Nebraska demolished Penn State, 44-6.
“I can still remember walking back to the subway with tears in my eyes wondering why Nebraska had to do that to us,” Rhule remembered.
He also mentioned being a walk-on at Penn State and a potential national champion. The Nittany Lions went 12-0, undefeated and unblemished in 1994. But the grand prize eluded them. Nebraska went 13-0 that same year, won the Orange Bowl and the national championship.
Nebraska’s new head coach’s appreciation for football legacy involves programs and their coaches. He developed a friendship with legendary Baylor head coach Grant Teaff, who’s stayed somewhat close with Osborne over the years. They’ve all talked together in the initial days of Rhule’s tenure in Lincoln. He coached defensive line for Bob Toledo on a UCLA team that rose as high as No. 4 in 2001 and won the Rose Bowl. He coached with Al Golden and legendary Giants coach Tom Coughlin. The one that he’d still quote through his Baylor days was his college coach, Joe Paterno. In a speech to the Texas High School Coaches Association, Rhule talked about the importance of toughness. A former walk-on linebacker during Paterno’s reign, Rhule remembered the old ball coach’s words vividly in a half-impression.
“It’s the greatest game because you knock someone down, you pull them back up and then you knock them down again,” Rhule said.
In terms of history, Nebraska’s at its lowest point in 60 years. Not since 1956-61 did Nebraska fail to qualify for a bowl game in a 6-year span. During that stretch, Nebraska went 19-40. In the most recent 6-year stretch Nebraska is 23-45. Alberts knows the importance of this hire. He wants to build Nebraska back to the size of its shadow.
“Let’s be honest, we are at a critical juncture in our history as a football program,” Alberts said before introducing Rhule. “Having someone who has a track record of understanding how to build a program at multiple levels and multiple locales with multiple strengths and weaknesses was really important to me.”
And so he turned to a man steeped in football history.