Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Alberts Wanted a Focus on ‘Process,’ Rhule Delivers in First Comments as Husker Head Coach

November 28, 2022

Nebraska made it a big deal. Of course, it’s always a big deal when a football program like this picks a new football coach, but it was evident over the weekend that university leadership was perhaps uniquely invested in making Monday’s press conference an event.

“Let’s be honest, we’re at a critical juncture in our history as a football program,” Nebraska Athletic Director Trev Alberts said Monday.

The pomp Nebraska attached to Matt Rhule’s introduction as the new coach spoke to that.

It invited fans to welcome Rhule, the latest chosen one, by showing up for a de facto Unity Walk on the east side of Memorial Stadium. Nebraska held the press conference not in the more formal setting of Memorial Stadium, but on the practice field inside Hawks Championship Center with all of the reminders of past Husker glory hanging from the rafters. There was a balloon archway, “WELCOME” spelled out in silver, and a light-up “HUSKERS” sign in front of the stage.

Some on Twitter compared it to a trendy wedding reception, others a prom. Both kind of fit, but the feeling I had was of being at a megachurch. I’ve never experienced that in person, though I’ve seen it on a screen numerous times, which is how I experienced the introduction of Rhule.

The echo had something to do with that, but so did Rhule’s approach to introducing himself. He’s the son of a football coach and pastor, and that lineage showed in Rhule’s ability to speak to a captive and in-person audience that already believes.

Maybe this kind of press conference is always going to feel like a bit of a revival, but it’s not always that you get a coach who amplifies it through his nature. Rhule did.

It’s probably unfair to compare this press conference to the last one Nebraska had like it, but it’s also pretty hard not to and, I guess, I’m not strong enough to resist.

Here’s what Rhule, a former walk-on at Penn State and lifelong Nittany Lion fan, said about winning in the Big Ten: “The margin for error in the Big Ten in most games is pretty slight. You have to be a team that executes. Typically, if you look at the Big Ten, the team that has the best quarterback play is going to win, so you need to have not just a quarterback but a system around the signal-caller that lets them be successful. And you have to be able to win in the elements. You have to be able to win in the hot early in the year, cold late in the year. You have to be able to win on the East Coast and pretty soon you’re going to have to win on the West Coast.

“I think having defense, having a run game, those things are important. If you can’t play defense in this league, there’s three, four games you’re going to get run off the field.”

Compare that with Scott Frost’s infamous soundbite five years ago when posed a similar question about adjusting to the Big Ten: “We’re hoping the Big Ten will have to modify their system to us.”

The Big Ten never had to do that, and Nebraska was too slow to adjust to that fact.

That’s the past five years in a nutshell as well as the hope for the future in a nutshell. Rhule, at the very start, seems well aware that each situation requires a different strategy in a way that Frost, at the very start, did not. At least not based on the lack of results on the field.

Alberts said, in a more roundabout way, that’s what he was looking for at the outset of this search, and he said it again on Monday.

“It’s real simple to me. The University of Nebraska has been and always will be the premier development program in the country,” he said Monday. “That’s our DNA. That’s who we are…”

That was the first criteria. Second?

“If there’s anything this program has been about the last 30 or 40 years, this is a program based on toughness,” Alberts said. “I was looking for coaches who understood what toughness looked like, what practice looked like, and ultimately getting back to the vision of being the most physical team on the field on Saturday. That’s Nebraska football. That’s Husker athletics. Toughness was a key component of what our vision was going to be.”

The last criterion Alberts mentioned—a clear sense of identity.

Rhule spoke for nearly 40 minutes and nothing he said felt like an odd fit for what his boss laid out.

So much so that Rhule, when asked about immediate expectations, kept things clearly grounded in reality.

“I, like every other Cornhusker fan, want to go to a bowl game,” Rhule said, something the Huskers haven’t done since 2016. “I don’t want to play just 12 games. I want to go to a 13th game. That should be the bare minimum.

“And then, I want to compete for the Big Ten championship, I want to compete for national championships. I just don’t think we have the right to talk about that right now here today. Right now, today, this team and I, we’re going to talk about ‘Hey, let’s be great this week. Let’s be great in finals. Let’s be great in recruiting.’ If you go 3-9 and 4-8, then you just have to worry about the spring. Let’s be great this spring.”

That would be a start; a start that would be hard to objectively assess without the only objective measure we have—wins and losses—but whatever you think about Rhule as Nebraska’s new coach, at least you have to give him that.

He started at the beginning. It’s the sort of thing that’s easy to say at an introductory press conference, but it’s never a given that any coach actually will.

Rhule seems like he will. He had other offers, by his own admission. Alberts said Nebraska talked to 13 other coaches through the process, declining to name them but noting the Rhule was “1A” through those conversations.

My read is Rhule got the job because he treated turning Nebraska around like he would turning any other program around, as he did at Temple and Baylor. Maybe that rubs some Husker faithful the wrong way.

If so, I think I get it, but the more I consider Nebraska’s recent past the more I think that’s the only way to do it.

A successful football program has to be good for the sake of being good, not because it used to be good often.

Alberts said he was looking for “a culture-builder, a people-manager, someone who understands how to build it brick by brick from the bottom, was critically important to me.”

He didn’t say Nebraska was at the bottom, but that’s what he sought nonetheless. Take from that what you will.

Rhule could never prove he was that guy by talking about it—that’s what his résumé, and what’s to come, is for—but he talked about it pretty well.

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