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How Soon Is Now?

December 14, 2022

This story originally appeared in the Dec. 2022 issue of Hail Varsity. Make sure you don’t miss another issue by subscribing today.

Matt Rhule’s introductory address to Husker Nation was, by most accounts, a success. Hope is always high with the arrival of a new head coach. Most know the things to say to keep the good vibes going, and the audience is always willing. Everyone wants to believe.

Even by those forgiving standards, Rhule exceeded expectations. He said something his two predecessors at Nebraska didn’t at their equally enthusiastic, if not equally decorated, introductory press conferences––it will be hard.

Here’s the full context of the quote: “As people ask me why I am here, (it’s) because this is the right fit. It is the right time, and if I have one message for you, it is that we can absolutely do it. We can absolutely get the University of Nebraska and Nebraska football exactly where it is supposed to be. It will be hard. It may take time, but it will be done.”

Scott Frost, at his first press conference in December 2017, said building a football team the state could be proud of was “going to take a lot of hard work.”

Mike Riley, at his introduction three years earlier, said “one of the basic ingredients to success is hard work.

Hail Varsity December 2022 CoverThose are both admirable, if expected, things to hear at the outset of a new regime, but distinctly different from Rhule’s acknowledgement of the challenge ahead. Of course, Riley and Frost each inherited different versions of Nebraska football.

When Riley took over, the Huskers were preparing for the Holiday Bowl. Nebraska had won 71% of its games under Bo Pelini over seven seasons. It had a pair of AP All-Americans, Ameer Abdullah and Randy Gregory. Riley wouldn’t get to coach either, but remember when Nebraska had All-Americans?

Frost took over after Riley bottomed-out in year three, leaving him with a .500 record during his time in Lincoln. It was a rapid decline, however. Thirteen months and one day before Nebraska announced the Frost hire, the Huskers were ranked 10th in the College Football Playoff rankings. Remember when Nebraska used to be ranked in the top 10? Or at all?

Rhule had more reason than either to say “it will be hard,” but he still had to choose to say it, to acknowledge reality. That can be tough in such a setting. It’s particularly tough at a tradition-rich program like Nebraska, but it was one of the things Athletic Director Trev Alberts said he would look for in the Huskers’ next head coach—an appreciation for the past while knowing it wouldn’t win you anything in the future. Rhule delivered.

He’ll probably keep delivering now through next August when he coaches his first game. At that point, results are the only thing that matter. Until then, however, everything will be viewed as trending up, buoyed by hope. Nobody wants to spoil the good vibes.

Maybe that’s why a question like this might feel out of place, but we’re going to explore it anyway: How long before Rhule exceeds expectations on the field?

Most coaching hires at this level don’t work. Nebraska fans know this as well as anyone, given, well, this century, but it’s not a fun fact to confront (see: good vibes). Only six Power 5 schools have had the same head coach since 2011—Alabama, Clemson, Iowa, Northwestern, Oklahoma State and Utah, The remaining 59, including Notre Dame, have combined to make 137 coaching changes over that span, an average of 10.8 per year or 2.3 per school.

Not all of those changes were due to failure, of course. Rhule leaving Baylor for the NFL wasn’t a failure. Brian Kelly leaving Notre Dame for LSU last year wasn’t a failure. But the majority of those 137 changes were made in pursuit of more wins. That’s the bet in its simplest terms.

If you take Riley, with his .538 winning percentage at Oregon State, give him the resources and support of a Nebraska, all-time .701 winning percentage entering 2015, you’re hoping he’ll win at a rate closer to the Huskers’ past than his own. Athletic departments hire highly-paid firms to help them identify the candidates most likely to do that, and it still doesn’t happen very often.

From 2011 through the end of the 2022 regular season, the average newly-hired Power 5 coach had a .558 winning percentage at his previous college stops and a .501 winning percentage at his new school. Few ADs make that deal willingly, Steve Pederson in 2004 and Shawn Eichorst in 2015 being notable and close-to-home exceptions. More often, however, market forces lead the way. Is the uncertainty of a new start more advantageous than the waning interest in the present? In an era of escalating TV money where no buyout seems prohibitive, it’s hard to argue against a reset because a reset inevitably boosts enthusiasm.

Maybe things are changing, however. The 2022 season was something of a banner year for first-year head coaches. The 27 coaches at a new job this year increased their schools’ winning percentage by an average of 7.3 percentage points, the biggest increase in the past decade.

Jon Sumrall (Troy) and Jeff Tedford (Fresno State) won conference titles in their first year. Mike Elko went 8-4 at Duke and led the Blue Devils to their first winning record in conference play since 2014. Jim L. Mora went to Connecticut and delivered more Ws, six, than the Huskies had seen in a season since 2015. Sonny Dykes took TCU, unranked in the preseason AP poll coming off a 5-7 season, to the Playoff.

Maybe no coach in 2022 better represents how all fans and ADs hope their coaching change goes than Lincoln Riley at USC. He had a .846 winning percentage over five seasons at Oklahoma, and that’s exactly what the Trojans got at 11-2 prior to their bowl game. That’s video-game stuff, as if USC simply downloaded Riley, and more than a few key pieces of the Sooners’ roster via the transfer portal, and instantly got Oklahoma-like results.

Riley’s replacement, Brent Venables, didn’t fare as well. The Sooners went 6-6, Oklahoma’s worst record since 1998. That leaves Venables, who started his rise to coaching stardom as a coordinator at Oklahoma, looking at a high-stakes season in 2023. The Sooners are off to the SEC, along with Texas, in 2025. They won’t want to go there with questions surrounding the head coach.

But the real reason things might seem sped up with coaching trajectories could be the transfer portal itself. It debuted in October of 2018, and, for three years, was basically a centralized way for coaches to know who was available, but in 2021 student-athletes were granted the right to transfer without sitting out a year. Since that change, first-year coaches have posted their two biggest average winning percentage gains, year-over-year, of the past decade in the past two seasons.

The ability to immediately reshape a roster may have changed the math on how long a rebuild should take, for better or worse.Which brings us back to Nebraska and Rhule in 2023.

Nebraska didn’t hire Rhule for his career record in college football. It’s four games above .500. Nebraska hired Rhule for the clarity and consistency of his trajectory over coaching stints at Temple and Baylor.

Both went about like this: lose a lot in year one, .500 in year two, win a lot in year three and, in the case of Temple, year four. The best way to visualize that is with average scoring differential. Rhule’s lines at Temple and Baylor are nearly linear and pointing in the right direction. For realistic expectations for a new hire, they’re almost ideal.

Nebraska’s differential over those years, provided here for context, are a little all over the place. The Huskers have yet to reach the highs of Pelini’s final two seasons. Riley’s differential got worse each year, the inverse of Rhule’s dual trajectories. Frost’s differentials still don’t make sense. He made Nebraska better from a scoring perspective in year one, but had the same record as Riley’s final season. He improved again, slightly, in year two and the Huskers won one more game, a slower upward trajectory than anyone hoped but still upward. Then things really went nuts. His lowest per-game differential resulted in a 3-5 record in 2020 and his highest resulted in 3-9 in 2021, a lack of results that still defies explanation.

That’s where the clarity of Rhule’s Temple and Baylor trajectories come into play—not only could you clearly see progress in the points scored and allowed, but the results followed. His teams got what they earned, and they got a little more each season. It’s all that’s really fair to ask of a new hire.

It leaves Nebraska, and Rhule, in an interesting spot entering 2023. The new head coach acknowledged it will be hard, but how hard? Nebraska went 19-37 between 2018 and 2022, making its closest contemporaries Colorado (19-35) and Louisiana-Monroe (19-37). But the Huskers scored like a team that should’ve gone 27-29, making it closer to what Florida State (28-30) or UCLA (27-28) did over that stretch.

For Husker fans who have already processed the pain of all those losses, there is some evidence that maybe things weren’t quite as bad as they felt or looked over the past five seasons.

There’s no reason for Rhule to mention that at his introductory press conference if it is even partially true. Better to just benefit from it, though it does add a wrinkle to his year-one history at Temple and Baylor.

If you’re patient, there could be a certain honor to bottoming out in year one if it produces bigger gains down the road (as it has twice for Rhule). His first Temple team won two games, Baylor one. His change in winning percentage over the previous year at Temple ranked 21st among 29 first-year coaches in 2013. At Baylor in 2017, he ranked last in that metric among 18 new hires.

Should Nebraska go down next season before beginning a climb back to “where it is supposed to be,” that would be in line with Rhule’s past performances. It would be fine. Every coach gets one year—and often only one year—totally free of expectations.

But just as it was for Pelini, Riley and Frost, this is a different Nebraska program than any of them inherited. The landscape of the sport is also different. This is Rhule’s first crack at coaching in the transfer portal era. It’s too early to say that immediate eligibility has made coaching transitions easier, but you can accurately say that the two best seasons for first-year coaches as a whole have coincided with that change.

How long before Rhule exceeds expectations on the field? It’s fun to consider during this honeymoon period, but only the games can actually answer that question.

“It may take time,” Rhule said.

After hard, may might’ve been the most important word he used during his first talk in Lincoln.

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