Matt Rhule said he found alignment at Nebraska. The school’s administration shared his belief not only for football success but in how to sustain it. He’d already raised Temple’s standard for success and successfully navigated Baylor football back to prominence.
That brings him to Nebraska. Once one of the most powerful college football programs in the country has since sputtered through instability and lack of success. In the 25 years since Nebraska won its last national title the program’s been led by six different head coaches, four university presidents and three university chancellors. Those numbers don’t include the interim appointees. Nebraska’s introduced a new head coach or athletic director in six of the past 11 years. Fundamentally, that instability and lack of aligned vision trickled into the football program. Former head coach Scott Frost hired three different offensive coordinators and he didn’t finish five seasons at his alma mater.
Enter Rhule and athletic director Trev Alberts’ unbridled support.
“Let’s be honest, we are at a critical juncture in our history as a football program,” Alberts said at Rhule’s introductory press conference in November. “Having someone who has a track record of understanding how to build a program at multiple levels and multiple locales with multiple strengths and weaknesses was really important to me.”
Just moments later Alberts told Rhule, “We’re going to support you and we’re going to work as hard as we can to help you and help our program be successful.”
With little institutional success at the program in the last decade, Rhule’s created his own infrastructure with new hires and holdovers from the previous staff. The university directory shows Nebraska has 39 total football staff positions—including on-field coaches, strength and conditioning, graduate assistants, football operations and off-field roles. That’s the largest in the Big Ten. NCAA records show it’s 10 more positions than the Nebraska football program held before the 2017 season. Since then the Huskers have gone 21-45 with no bowl appearances.
In addition to the full-time assistant coaching staff, Rhule hired Corey Campbell as strength and conditioning coach. He’s aided by four assistants who spent last season on staffs at Northwestern, Duke, Buffalo and TCU, respectively. That doesn’t include a coordinator of football sports science position that collaborates with the strength staff.
“I want us to be a place that is on the cutting edge of everything sports science wise, player development wise, recovery wise,” Rhule said of Campbell last week. “He built a staff of guys, we have physical therapist as part of our weight room staff, so we have one of the greatest gifts we can give our players, health. We have the right knowledge base because I don’t know anything about the weight room. I need people that are experts, that I can trust, who also have my mindset about culture, about development and Corey has all of that.”
The staff also includes five various analysts, three defensive quality control assistants, three developmental performance quality control assistants and two graduate assistants. There are several recruiting-based positions, a developmental assistant, video technology position, a graphic design position and a handful of other administrative positions. One of those is a chief of staff position that former University Interscholastic League Executive Director Dr. Susan Elza occupies.
Dr. Elza comes to Nebraska as a hall of fame softball coach in Texas who navigated a political tightrope of leading the UIL in its various sports. That includes overseeing the monolith of Texas high school football while still being available to needs of other sports. She garnered a sterling reputation from high school activities directors and coaches by continuing to hold sports, albeit with fan and media restrictions, during the height of the pandemic. Rhule got to know her during his time at Baylor and attempted to hire her onto his staff at Carolina. Rhule called her “elite” and said she’ll handle football administration, operations and her chief of staff role.
In an appearance on 365 Sports last week, Dr. Elza said working for Rhule while rebuilding Nebraska was the “chance of a lifetime.” She’s been surprised by all the moving parts behind the scenes of a Power 5, blue blood football program that will now benefit from the college football’s first $1 billion annual TV contract. She also provided some clarity as to her job obligations.
“Administratively trying to bring all the different departments that operate through football together,” Dr. Elza summarized her position. “To bring the unity we need to make the administrative decisions that I can assistant (Rhule) with so he can focus on coaching football and winning games.”
An often-used word by Rhule and his staff since their introduction has been alignment. He believed his vision and mentality is in alignment with not only Alberts but Chancellor Ronnie Green (set to retire at the end of the school year) and President Ted Carter. Rhule said alignment is necessary to build success before going on to lay out the issues.
It won’t be easy, he told the Hawks Championship Center during his introductory press conference. In his first words as Nebraska head coach he said he’ll be a grinder to lay the foundation for future success. Following a huge recruiting haul, he hopes to build competition among the roster to determine who best benefits Husker football in the fall. Rhule casually said last week that some players will find out through workouts and spring ball if they want to meet the new standard or not.
That work ethic isn’t just imposed on the players. He demands it of himself and his coaching staff. They recruited with such fury it impressed not only Alberts but Hall of Famer Dr. Tom Osborne.
“We have to have a plan. And that plan involves working harder than the next man,” Rhule said on November 28. “We are going to build a team that is tough, we are going to build a team that is hard working. We are going to compete at everything we do.”
Those aren’t uncommon words. Nearly every coach that takes over following a coach firing invokes hard work to turn fortunes around. But he’s also proven a man of his word in the first two months. The CEO-style coach assembled his administrative staff that can handle the massive demands and innovations required in this age of college football. These hires and decisions came with Alberts’ approval. If that’s not a testimony to their alignment, Alberts’ own words when he was introduced as head coach might be.
“We’re not entitled to success here. It has to be earned,” Alberts said on July 14, 2021. “It isn’t going to be overnight and it isn’t going to be easy.”