This story originally ran in Hail Varsity’s 2023 Husker Football Yearbook. The interview was conducting in May by Brady Oltmans and Erin Sorensen.
The walls of Matt Rhule’s office are adorned with photos. They’re organized, family in one area, coaches he’s played for and worked with in another. To one side of Rhule’s desk is a more random grouping of photos, including an image of Rhule face down on the ice at the Ice Box — home of the Lincoln Stars — where Nebraska hosted an event for the inaugural Husker Football Olympics.
Right above that photo is another with a deeper meaning.
“I had a sack at Penn State, and it was on the front page of the local paper,” Rhule said, glancing at the photo. “A big moment in my life.”
Rhule’s desk is also cluttered with half-full water bottles, fitting for a coach on the go. Maybe he forgets he’s already opened a bottle or two as he races from one appointment to the next, so the new bottle joins the others as his day moves forward.
Nebraska’s new head coach knows the work that lies ahead. He knows there’s only so much that can be said, so he puts in the time to be as present as possible. Those that know him best, like Texas Tech head coach Joey McGuire, feel confident in the future for Rhule and the Huskers.
“I’ll tell you they’re fixing to be a really tough football team,” McGuire said. “Matt Rhule creates that just by who he is . . . I always believe if you have a tough team, you have an opportunity to win. I thought it was a great decision for coach to go to Nebraska. Great decision by Nebraska.
“Rhule is the real deal. He’s a great guy and those guys are going to play extremely hard.”
That’s all Rhule can ask for. When you look at the walls of his office, you see the work and the life he’s built already. The successes and the failures, the lessons and the memories all existing alongside one another waiting for the next chapter to be written.
The Q&A that follows has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Q: As you continue the work ahead of the season, how much of the preparation is done before game week or even a specific game? More specifically, how much of winning happens before kickoff?
A: You’re building your foundation this time of year. That’s kind of like your process, your work ethic, the standards that you live by. Those things are what’s acceptable. After you’ve had a lot of penalties in the game, after you’ve had a lot of turnovers, everybody will sit there and say, “I can’t believe how many turnovers, penalties, we’ve got to do better.” It’s really about what you’ve tolerated all along.
Those standards and the relationships that you’re establishing now allow you to have hard conversations in the season. I believe in this concept of automaticity, where you play at a level where you don’t have to think, you just react. If you haven’t had thousands and thousands of reps, you can’t get to that point. In the course of a week, a game plan is developed. “Hey, we’re going to attack this thing, this person,” but that game plan’s only as good as your base fundamentals. When I say fundamentals, I don’t just mean fundamentals of blocking, tackling, throwing, catching, but also fundamentals in terms of how you operate, how you practice.
Those are all the little things. I truly believe being on time to study hall, being on time to class, that attention to detail and discipline carries over into being focused, studying your playbooks, so that when you get to practice you can practice well. Then when you get to the game, you can play without having to think. If you’re thinking, you’re not playing fast. I really believe it all carries over. If we do a great job now, then we can just hit the season where each week it’s now about the opponent and we’re not trying to fix ourselves.
Q: How do you instill or maintain competitiveness within the team and how important is it within the team itself to be competitive?
A: It’s one of our fundamental, core values because it doesn’t take talent, right? We believe that competition is king. I think the way that you breed it—because I don’t think you can instill it, right?—but the way you breed it, I think all of us have it. The way that you breed it is if you find competitive guys, then you play them because then you’ll have a competitive team. If I play fast guys, I have a fast team. If I play tough guys, I have a tough team. If I play competitive guys, I have a competitive team.
I think you put them in a lot of competitive situations. What happens in football a lot of times is you’re so game-plan specific––you rehearse these plays, you rehearse these things––and they get to the games and things never go quite like you thought. Now, all of a sudden, you have to go compete.
There’s really two types of competition or two phases of competition. Number one, you go out and you want to win the game, right? There’s a way to win every game and the mission is to go win. No matter who we’re playing, we want to win. But the great ones have a second level of competition where they’re competing against themselves.
Usain Bolt once said, “I never want to come in second to myself.” He could run a good time that beats everybody else, but it’s not up to his standard. We want our guys to understand that we want to beat the other team, but we also want to play to our standard and compete with ourselves and always try to get a little bit better. So, you have to put them in those situations, and you have to think that way as a coach to get your guys to hopefully think that way.
Q: Who’s the most competitive player you’ve ever coached?
A: Probably Christian McCaffrey.
Q: Was wondering if you might say that.
A: I mean, Christian would compete at ping pong and compete at everything, and I don’t want to take anything away from anybody else, but I don’t know if I’ve ever been around anybody like him.
Q: Your first year as an assistant at Temple in 2006, that team went 1-11. What did that season teach you about coaching and about the people that play the game?
A: I went 2-10 my first year at Temple as a head coach. I went 1-11 my first year at Baylor. I always felt like our best job was done that first year. I probably was able to succeed in those times because I went through that 1-11 year at Temple and I watched Coach (Al) Golden, our head coach, make us do a couple of things. He made us read this book called “Don’t Flinch,” which was the story of Barry Alvarez turning around Wisconsin. I remember when I was going through my first year at Temple, when I came back, I reread that book because it talks about the blueprint of how to go through adversity and deal with that.
I think you learn your best lessons in those times. Really the challenge for me is to make sure I’m also learning those lessons in times of prosperity. A lot of times in prosperity we just relax, but when that happens, what do you do? Are we either getting better or are we getting worse? Are we building a culture of competition? Are we building a culture of accountability? Are we recruiting every single day? Because obviously we need to get players in here. Are we developing the players that we have? Are we making sure our kids are getting educated?
When I went to Baylor, everyone thought I was nuts. I turned down the Oregon job and I went to Baylor. Baylor was coming off a scandal and I remember saying, “You know what? 1-11, 1-12 teams, they need good coaches, too. Those kids need an education. Those kids need to learn how to be good people.” I probably learned a lot of that from that year.
Q: Reading up on that, one of the mantras then was to start with the end in mind.
A: Wow. What did you read? My goodness. But starting with the end in mind, it was one of the things that I would say (Golden) had a picture—they almost dropped football down to Division I-AA—so he had a picture of the 1979 Garden State Bowl that Wayne Hardin had taken Temple to. It was the last bowl game Temple had been to, so it was like, “Start with the end in mind. We want to go to bowl games, so this is the vision.” To his credit, like three years later or four years later, we were at a bowl game. Start with the end in mind. Just work toward what you think can be possible and have that be your goal, but then work to get there.
Q: One thing you’ve been consistent with when talking to fans is that you want to give them something to cheer for. You’re also consistent in your messaging that “winning happens now.” Where do those ideologies come from?
A: I’d say they’re core beliefs. I mean, it’s on our stadium. It says, “day by day.” It’s literally on the stadium, so we probably should do that. It’s this mindset of, “Hey, just get better today, get better tomorrow.”
We talk a lot about getting 1% better every day. I can read “Atomic Habits,” and that’s all they’re going talk about in that. I can read great books. I played for Joe Paterno. I worked for Tom Coughlin. That message of working really hard on Tuesday and just worrying about Tuesday. Working really hard on Wednesday to get to Saturday. I think bad teams think only about Saturday.
It’s even more granular when you get to the game. You play a quarter, everyone’s looking at the score like, “Oh my gosh, are we gonna be OK?” I’m like, “Just play the second quarter, man.” Just worry about right now. The stoics say it, most self-help books say it: just be in the moment. Learn from the past; prepare for the future, but live in the present. I think a lot of different influences on me have gotten me to that point, but one of my true mantras is “what’s next!” It’s with an exclamation point, not a question mark.
When my son was born, my wife Julie got sick and we didn’t know what was wrong with her. He was born at 32 weeks and he had all kinds of complications and Julie had all kinds of complications. I’m sitting there and I didn’t know if my wife was going to live. I didn’t know if my son was going to live. You can get emotional in those moments, but it’s like, “OK. They’re taking Bryant upstairs to the NICU. Matt, come with us.” Got it. Go upstairs. “Hey, we’re going to do this test.” Test was good. What’s next! “Now we’re going to do this.” Cool, what’s next! “It’s just this methodical thing. When something bad happens, what’s next! If something good happens, what’s next!
I was reading Pete Carroll’s book at the time. And I was like, “Man, this is a way of life.” No matter what happens, good or bad, there are two outcomes to everything. If something negative happens to you and you learn from it, it becomes a positive. If you feel bad for yourself, it’s a negative. If something good happens to you and you get complacent, it’s a negative. If you learn from it, build off of it, it’s a positive. No matter if something good or bad happens to you, you still have a decision if it’s going to be positive or negative in your life.
You will see me in the season, we’ll win a game and I’ll be very stoic. I’ll be like, “That was great. If this is the highlight of our season, then so be it.” If your memories are bigger than your dreams, then you probably aren’t living a life worth living. That all came out of those moments watching my son and Julie go through that. Watching the coaches, listening to all these people, reading all these books and having everyone basically say sort of the same thing: to build the future you want tomorrow, build it today. That’s what I’m trying to get across to our guys and with a real humility of we shouldn’t walk around as celebrities because you’re living in the past or you’re living in the future, instead of just getting better today.
Q: As for the fans?
A: I have a friend that came here, and he was staying at the Embassy Suites. He’s waiting for me for dinner and he’s a British guy, so people love to talk to him. He started talking to them, he’s like, “I’m here to meet the coach.” And they were big Cornhusker fans. He spent maybe half an hour with them at the bar and then met me for dinner and he was like, “Have you ever said thanks?” I said, “What do you mean?” He goes, “Have you ever said thanks?” And I said no. He goes, “I had people tell me they’ve been sitting in the same seats for like the last 15 years and there’s no championship seasons. They come to every game no matter what. Have you ever said thanks?” It just hit me that I’ve coached places where if we lost the last week or if we’re not playing an opponent that people think is good, no one comes to the game. I’d never said thank you.
I can say thank you with my words, but the best way to say thank you is to work my tail off. All I can do is promise work and have my players work in a way that honors people’s loyalty so at least we’re being loyal to them.
Q: How much of player ownership had been instilled in you from your various coaching stops and the people you to talk to?
A: The best teams I’ve had have had a couple guys who, in crucial moments, step up and say, “Hey, this is what we’re going to do.” We don’t need a bunch of speeches. We need everyone to do their job and work hard and have a standard. When guys don’t match the standard, we need some guys to say, “Hey, that’s not what we do. Come on, man.”
I played at Penn State. I was never a great player there but at Penn State, the best players were held the most accountable. That was the key at Penn State. That’s why we won. Our best players were held the most accountable, and in most places, the best players are given the most freedom, but not with Coach Paterno. The best players then, when they spoke, everyone listened because they’re being held to a high standard. I learned most of what I learned at Penn State from the other players. It was how we did things. It was embedded, ingrained in us.
That’s what I believe in wholeheartedly. The players don’t set the rules. They don’t set the standard. I set the standard and the staff sets the standard, but the players elevate it. They raise it. If I say, “I want you guys lifting. I want you to do 10 reps of this exercise. That’s the standard here.” The great ones come in and they do 12 and then when they see another guy doing 12, he does 13. That’s how you build a championship culture.
I say that out loud really to challenge our guys, right? We’ll find out if they can do that. Can they do it in all areas? It’s one thing to do it in terms of lifting weights. It’s another thing in terms of being on time, treating people well, the things outside of football. That’s when we have a true championship culture with everyone holding each other highly accountable in all areas.