Matt Rhule’s blueprint for returning Nebraska to national prominence involves a foundational pillar in Texas.
Nebraska’s new head coach built seemingly endless connections in the Lone Star State during his time at Baylor. He’s revisited those relationships upon his return to college football. There are assistant coaches Bob Wager and Garret McGuire, both with sterling reputations in Texas. Former UIL executive director Dr. Susan Elza came to Lincoln as Rhule’s chief of staff, handling off-the-field responsibilities. Multiple sources in Texas highlighted that as a savvy hire in the evolving landscape of football administrative responsibilities.
Then there’s the on-the-field personnel. The ones playing in front of thousands. Rhule’s 2023 recruiting class consisted of six Texans—five of those signings committed after Rhule arrived at Nebraska. That half-dozen is the most since 2011, the one immediately preceding Nebraska’s first season in the Big Ten Conference. If the move from the Big 12 alone didn’t alter Nebraska’s recruiting footprint, it certainly shifted the program’s focus.
Rhule said he wanted Nebraska to have an “elite presence” recruiting in Texas. He wanted to revisit those Big 12 ties. That hit Adi Kunalic’s inbox several times as his employees at Opendorse relayed the message. The former Husker from Texas has said the same thing for years.
“I’ve always observed that our classes in Texas haven’t always been as significant as they had been,” Kunalic told Hail Varsity. “We made that shift to the Big Ten, then they completely fell apart.”
Kunalic was born in Bosnia, moved to Germany and then Fort Worth, Texas, in 2000. He fell in love with Nebraska during visits and in conversations with coaches about academics. His family didn’t have much money and he never had more than $1,000 in his account even while playing at Nebraska. But the Big 12 schedule guaranteed his family a short trip to either Austin, Lubbock, Waco or College Station—even drives to Norman and Stillwater, Oklahoma—each season to watch him play. He graduated just before Nebraska moved to the Big Ten. He’s often wondered what that conference shift did to prioritizing Texas.
Then came Rhule’s announced focus. There is also support staff from Texas, assistant coaches from Texas and multiple players from Texas. The coaching staff has recruiting ties all over the country. But a focus on Texas could only help relationships in a competitive pool of athletes.
“You can be very intentional, it’s almost like in sales,” Kunalic said. “If you have a specific group of customers you’re going after you’ll be way more successful in closing them than if you’re all sprawled out and you’re trying to get a little bit of everything.”
Former Husker Cody Glenn also wondered what that move from the Big 12 did. In 2005, Glenn signed with Nebraska because it’s where he felt the most comfortable. He attended a game at Memorial Stadium and was sold. No other place he visited included so many who cared about football that much. And he came from a place that truly cared about football. After all, he graduated from Rusk High School with career records in rushing yards and touchdowns. Texas high school football has its reputation for quality and rabid obsession for a reason. Glenn was raised in that. It’s almost a year-round sport with various classes, camps, workouts and film breakdowns.
“I feel like we can impact a lot of these kids and the kids take pride in it and understand that I played football in Texas,” Glenn, now running backs coach at Cypress Fairbanks, said. “I’ve got to make sure I hold up to that reputation. Kids, atmosphere and community and everyone rallies around it.”
Glenn directly coached three running backs who went Division I in eight years. He credited the immense talent in Texas, unrivaled by any other state. That talent also held him accountable to make sure he helped each recruit fulfill their potential. Glenn’s NFL experience was mainly as a linebacker. In order to relate to his running backs he related back to his time at Nebraska. Admittedly, it’s been tough at times for him to recall those days. Rhule’s proclamation in prioritizing Texas gives him hope.
“It means a lot,” Glenn said of Nebraska focusing on Texas. “It’s hard to talk stuff when we’re not doing as well as we have been. It’s nice to have them back down recruiting these guys.”
I’m so excited about the future of the @HuskerFBNation @huskers I’m going back through my old pics showing my kids that dad used to be more than a human jungle gym, lol #gbr #nebraska pic.twitter.com/JQnaMOLNJp
— Cody Glenn (@Txhusker3452) February 5, 2023
He hopes to see attention on Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth. This coaching staff has connections in both those metro areas. It also is making smaller communities feel involved as well. And that hasn’t been lost on Andrew Shanle. The St. Edward native and former Husker is coaching at Cypress Ridge, Texas. Seeing this coaching staff stop in Ainsworth to visit 2024 recruit Carter Nelson sent Shanle into reflection on how he was recruited. He loved Nebraska but Frank Solich and Danny Young didn’t have to do much to convince him to Lincoln, where older brother Scott already played. But he appreciated the connection nonetheless. So Shanle messaged Rhule, unsure if the head coach received the message.
“Remember the small towns in Nebraska and when a coach goes into the gas station it makes an impact on that small community for years,” Shanle remembered his message saying. “So I’m glad to see those schools making that a priority across the state regardless of the school size.”
Shanle likes the tweets and pictures he sees from those stops. Every pause for a picture takes moments out of the coaches’ days but leaves a lasting impact on that school and community.
“They’re making huge impacts in little ways and I don’t know if they realize how important that is,” he said.
Shanle knew he wanted to become a coach when his playing career ended. He confided in assistant coaches who shared advice. Shanle wasn’t sure if he wanted to be a graduate assistant or go to high school. If he’s going to coach in high school, he was told, he needed to go to Texas. Tim Cassidy arranged an interview in Texas by the time Shanle returned to Nebraska from his last NFL stop. He soaked the experience in, unknowing how long he could last coaching in such a competitive environment. All but two of his 12 coaching seasons have been in Texas.
Strength in numbers this morning @THSCAcoaches Region 5 meeting in @SBISD.
I enjoyed meeting @GarretMcGuire and as always it was a pleasure to hear @HuskerElza speak on behalf of @CoachMattRhule @HuskerFBNation @Huskers
Go Big Red! #Huskers #StraightLineRecruiting pic.twitter.com/dNH4S6a75R
— Andrew Shanle (@coachshanle) February 4, 2023
The former all-conference Husker told his friends back home they’d be sold on Rhule as soon as they heard him speak. Shanle met Rhule briefly at a few Texas High School Coaches Association conventions over the years. Recently, Dr. Susan Elza and wide receivers coach Garret McGuire visited him. He knew how passionate all of them are about football and how that gels with Nebraska fans’ feelings of their program.
“I’ve been telling people for years if you get them past that magical border, mythical border, if they can go take a visit they’d fall in love with the place and the facilities,” Shanle said. “I’m excited because they brought the spotlight to the university.”
Rhule’s staff brought slices of Texas to Nebraska. Meanwhile, Shanle and Glenn are down in Texas and excited for the future. Their talk of Nebraska to players makes them sound crazier with every losing season. Now there’s tangible hope for brighter days and a bragging rights in Sunday team meetings deep in the heart of Texas.