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Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Matt Rhule Builds a Program, Part 2: Installing The Culture

June 10, 2023

Nebraska is 25 years removed from its last National Championship. The Huskers are 6 seasons removed from their last bowl game. Athletic director Trev Alberts hired rebuild artist Matt Rhule as head coach to return the program to its former glory.

Just before Rhule led the Huskers through their first spring season, he spoke to coaches during a Lauren’s First and Goal clinic. Lauren’s First and Goal is a nonprofit which has already raised over $2.6 million for pediatric brain tumor research and cancer services. Rhule was one of three speakers at that March clinic. For nearly an hour he spoke about evaluating and building a winning team. Hail Varsity is breaking down that presentation into three parts. This is part two of that series. Part one is available here.

Matt Rhule gives his players a passage from his favorite book, The Greatest Salesman In The World by Og Mandino. He says it’s kind of a life-verse for him and it now hangs in Memorial Stadium.

“I was not delivered unto this world in defeat, nor does failure course in my veins. I am not a sheep waiting to be prodded by my shepherd. I am a lion and I refuse to talk, to walk, to sleep with the sheep. I will hear not those who weep and complain, for their disease is contagious. Let them join the sheep. The slaughter house of failure is not my destiny. I will persist until I succeed.”

Rhule said it’s an important verse in learning about him while also giving the team something to hang their hat on.

“If you love football and you’re tough and you compete and you perform under pressure then you’re a lion,” Rhule said. “We’re not sheep waiting for the officials to make a good call. We’re not waiting for the OC to make the perfect play. We don’t need the perfect defense and for the blitzer to come unblocked. If I call a blitz for you and you end up 1-on-1 on the block, be a lion and win. I want the talent level to be infused with a mentality.”

When Rhule talks of the locker room he divides it into two parts. There’s the culture and there’s the brotherhood. He considers the culture as the sum total of their collective actions. You are what you put on tape. Does everyone on the team execute the process and meet established standards? It’s one thing to meet the established standard. Rhule wants those who push it a step further and compete within each other to achieve. Speaking of which, the brotherhood applies to great teammates. Good teams commit to common goals but great teams commit to each other.

Brotherhood is different than family, Rhule explains. If one of his two daughters, Vivienne or Leona, stopped when walking on the street, Rhule would go back for them and check on them. If a teammate, a member of the brotherhood slowed down, Rhule would urge them forward. There’s no turning back. Brotherhood is the oath made to each other that they’ll push, not pull, each other through adversity.

“We have this goal of winning a championship but I also commit that I’m going to keep up with you and you’ll keep up with me,” Rhule said. “If I’m not doing what I’m supposed to be doing, call me out. And if you’re not doing what you’re supposed to do, I’ll call you out. That’s brotherhood.”

Rhule believes it’s not fair to the team to bring bad actors, toxic personalties, into the locker room. Coaches see players in practices, meetings and workouts. Teammates see each other, essentially, all day. Rhule reiterates the human need for social interaction and the inherent pack mentality. Nebraska’s new coaching staff wants to build the team together and bond them through work and life. At the time of recording, Rhule’s presentation where he shared this belief came during team competition week. That was the culmination of seven-week workouts that involved a competition day each Friday. Competition week involved a points system based off weight room, meals, academics, weekly study halls, community service and attendance for other Husker athletic events. And an automatic 2-point deduction if they wore a hat into the building.

Nebraska’s spring season ended on a chilly April afternoon. Over a dozen arduous practices where coaches demanded detail work from every player finally culminated. It’s all part of turning around a program to its former glory. Unlike Rhule’s previous rebuilds at Temple and Baylor, Nebraska has already climbed the mountain top. In order to return to the summit, or at least leave base camp, Rhule wants to instill culture in the locker room. How far along was that instillation after spring camp?

“I really think this team, once we develop the fact that we lead the team, that will take us a long ways,” quarterback Jeff Sims said after the spring game. “Coach Rhule has done a great job of leading us and his thing for us was to get us ready to lead each other instead of him having to do everything. He wants this to be a player-led team. And I think we’re this close to being that. Everybody’s buying in and I think this team is going to be really good.”

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