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Matt Rhule Builds a Program, Part 3: The Standard Starts With The Coaches

June 11, 2023

Nebraska is 25 years removed from its last national championship. The Huskers are six 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 final part of that series. You can also read part one and part two.

Matt Rhule asks a lot of his players. He also asks a lot of his coaches. Nebraska’s head coach assembled his staff largely with those familiar to him. Others came as passionate teachers. In any case, they’re all tasked with upholding program standards. And just like Rhule outlined instructions for his players during spring competition, he shares objectives with every coach.

At least one weekly 1-on-1 interaction with a player either in the coach’s office, at dinner or at home. A weekly player or position group training table meeting. A bonding trip once a semester where they go to a steak dinner, play paintball, anything outside of football. Rhule wants the players to see their coaches in a light outside of football to build a relationship not solely dependent on ball. Coaches are expected to hold weekly academic follow-up talks in addition to weekly academic meetings with players. When in meetings coaches are encouraged to help a player’s time management. That includes the calendar app on their phone. Coaches need to introduce themselves to every parent. Coaches hold players accountable to schedule a commitment Zoom meeting where they go over a parental checklist. There’s also goal-setting sessions, spring drill film study and position group progressions. Coaches are also required to submit manuals to their coordinator and Rhule before spring break.

“Write out the way that you coach. Everyone has to have it handed to me by this Friday,” Rhule said during team commitment week before spring ball. “I want to know how you coach. You’re a professional, we’re professional coaches. Every one of of us. Whether you get $1 or $100,000, you get paid to coach. It’s a craft, it’s an art, I want us to write it out so we can make changes.”

Rhule still loves his position manual from when he was the defensive line coach at Buffalo. He’s kept it all these years because it shows what growth and maturity can do.

A connoisseur of coaching books and psychological studies, a recent Gallup study resonated with Rhule. That study gauged engrossed, engaged employees into three groups. It found about 18% of employees were actively disengaged while about 15% of workers were actively engaged. That left two-thirds of the workforce in the middle. Rhule considers this alongside the old Urban Meyer principal of 10-80-10. That runs in line with philosophies from Vince Lombardi and Bill Belichick. Rhule believes in coaching in thirds.

“Ten percent of your team is going to do exactly what you want to the highest standards all the time, as much as they can possibly do and 10% of your team is going to be disengaged,” Rhule explained. “They’re not going to be bought in, they’re going to be negative. Sometimes they can be like a bucket of crabs and try to pull everybody else down. Sometimes it’s like a quiet cynical, ‘Why are we doing this? Why are we doing that?’ quiet locker room issue. You have two spectrums on either end but your team is basically in the middle.”

So, Rhule wants his staff to coach the top 10% and not spend all their time on the bottom 10%. He coaches and spends time with that bottom 10% but wants to spend more time lauding the higher achievers. Or else he’ll risk that middle 80 shifting.

“When you talk about the bottom 10% that middle curve starts to shift to them,” Rhule said. “But when you talk about the top 10% and those who are actively engaged, those who want to be elite, who want to compete, those who are tough and want to perform under pressure, your middle percent starts to go to them.”

At that point, the standards raise. They lift the entire team. But the great ones continue to push to be within the top 10% of those top 10%s. As Rhule puts it, it’s a never-ending churn to strive for greatness.

Of the 10 position groups, each unit must work in function of the greater unit. Leading each group is a coach and Rhule holds three greater rules for them—do exactly what you’re asked to do, protect the staff and put the players first. The first aspect of that doesn’t exclude opinions. Rhule wants passionate coaches who question and hold opinions. But when a decision is made, exact execution is needed. About protecting staff, Rhule explained there’s no easier way to poison the well than for a position group to roll their eyes at another position. And putting the players first is pretty self-explanatory.

“Our purpose in life, as coaches, is for people to say my life is better for having played at the University of Nebraska,” Rhule said. “I want coaches who wake up every day and put the players first. Everything kind of comes full circle. We want to recruit the best players but we want to develop them. And how do we develop them? We don’t talk about what they can’t do. We have a vision and hope for what they can do and then hold them highly accountable.”

Ahead of the money, ahead of the next job, ahead of everything. The players comes first.

Rhule went 3-21 combined in his first seasons at Temple and Baylor. The staff and culture at Nebraska is a much different position now than either of those places. With a higher ground level, how fast can this rebuilding project go up in a year?

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