Nebraska needs a full-time football coach at the end of the season, and there are few things more fascinating than that. Each Monday, The Carousel will talk coaches until the Huskers pick their guy.
See if the following coaching trajectories work for you: a) 2-10, 6-6, 10-4, 10-3, b) 1-11, 7-6, 11-3.
You don’t have to choose one or the other, if you choose Matt Rhule as your next head coach you get both. Option A was Temple, Option B was Baylor.
The Carolina Panthers fired Rhule last week, five games into his third season with a career record in the NFL of 11-27. He was instantly mentioned as a candidate for every available college job—five are open at this point—and it’s fairly obvious why: His trajectory at Temple and then Baylor fits the classical notion most people have of what a successful hire looks like. Maybe you have to bottom out in year one while setting the culture, then you get a little better the next year and then it’s time to go big.
Rhule, a Penn State alum, did that twice. It’s hard to argue with, yet I find myself wanting to argue.
Through the soft-focus lens that lets us know we’re in the idyllic past, Rhule took over a Temple team that was 4-7 the year before, Steve Addazio’s second of two seasons in Philadelphia. Four years later, Rhule went to Baylor, which was reeling from a sexual assault scandal and the dismissal of Art Briles. The Bears went 7-6 under interim coach Jim Grobe prior to Rhule’s arrival.
Those things are all true, I’m just not sure they paint the total picture. Prior to going 4-7 in 2012, Temple had gone 9-4, 8-4 and 9-4. The first two seasons of that stretch were under Al Golden, which might be good for a laugh now, but Miami liked him enough to hire him in 2011. You could argue the Owls ascendancy, while playing in the MAC, began there. From 2009–12, Temple went 30-19 (.612). In four years under Rhule the Owls were 28-24 (.538), but won the program’s first conference title in 40 years.
Now, to Baylor. Off the field, the Briles era was a disaster (and that’s much more important in the grand scheme of things), but on the field it was working. While the Bears dropped to 7-6 the year before Rhule’s arrival, it was 32-7 (.821) the three seasons prior. Both Temple and Baylor were “down” when Rhule took over, but part of that perception is because both had been up in the preceding seasons.
It’s tough to separate signal from noise when considering coaches in general, but I find it particularly tough with Rhule. You can’t deny that his teams got better year to year, but is there more to it than that? He didn’t beat a ranked team over three seasons at Baylor. (He was 2-5 against top-25 opponents at Temple.) The 11-win season in 2019 came against what ESPN’s FPI ranked as the 46th-toughest schedule. The two 10-win seasons at Temple came against schedules ranked 78th and 84th.
For context, the average strength of schedule Nebraska faced during the four full seasons of the Scott Frost era was 29th with a low of 41st.
And context is the only point here. If any of the Power 5 teams with openings have the chance to interview Rhule, take it. You would hope, however, that the leaders executing those searches know that there’s more to making a hire than a neat and tidy narrative of lose big, win close, win big.
Rhule’s college career just happens to be one of the neatest and tidiest you’ll find.
Mickey Joseph seemed to have broad support from Husker fans from the day he took over the top seat. You didn’t have to look far to find people who wanted him to have the job full-time, and I doubt that’s decreased as Nebraska has gone 2-2 through Joseph’s first four games.
Here’s where I’m at, and I’ll excerpt a column I wrote for our October issue:
When Athletic Director Trev Alberts announced Joseph as the interim coach on Sept. 11, I took that title very literally, emphasis on interim. On that day, I would’ve given Joseph, say, a 10% shot at being Nebraska’s head coach beyond the remainder of the 2022 season. Nine out of 10 times, I would’ve expected the Huskers to conduct their search and settle on someone else, but that’s Joseph against the field.
On an individual level, a 10% chance probably would’ve made Joseph the favorite. Insert the name of your favorite Nebraska coach candidate—Dave Aranda, Matt Campbell, Lance Leipold, et al––you wouldn’t have put the chance of any one person taking the job above 10%. There are just too many potential outcomes.
The needle on my Mickey Meter is hovering between 25 and 30% with five games left, much higher than where it started. Let’s see where it goes from here.
That column also highlights some of the current parallels to another wide receivers/associate head coach-turned-interim who went on to get the full-time gig. (Hint: Nebraska beat him in his first game as the full-time head coach.)
THE BIG 12 BATTLE ROYALE
It just so happened that when Nebraska had an opening a lot of the natural coaches of interest plied their trade in the Big 12. Are any of them on Alberts’ actual list? Who knows, but it would be more surprising if none from the Dave Aranda, Matt Campbell, Chris Klieman, Lance Leipold group were of interest.
To me, sitting at my civilian desk and not an AD’s, Klieman seems like the longest shot of that group to end up at Nebraska and I wouldn’t put much better odds on landing Aranda.
Campbell and Leipold, however, continue to make sense in theory. But what to make of recent swoons for Kansas and Iowa State?
If the Huskers are legitimately interested in either coach, I think the swoons are great.
Kansas raced to 5-0, but has since lost two straight without starting quarterback Jalon Daniels for most of the TCU game and all of Saturday’s loss at Oklahoma. Neither loss looks all that bad, but more might be on the way. The Jayhawks still have road trips to Baylor, Texas Tech and Kansas State and get to host Oklahoma State and Texas. FPI currently projects KU finishing with five to seven wins, and it already has the former. Is Leipold still getting a long look if that’s the case?
Iowa State, currently 3-4, has the same final record projection as Kansas from FPI—probably 6-6 with about one win of wiggle room up or done. After starting 3-0 with a win over Iowa, Campbell’s Cyclones have dropped four straight, all by three points or less. Iowa State had a great chance to beat ranked Texas in Austin on Saturday and still has ranked road trips to Oklahoma State and TCU on the schedule. Right now, the Cyclones might be slight favorites in its three remaining home games––Oklahoma, West Virginia, Texas Tech––but they all could squarely be in tossup territory. If Iowa State can only claw its way to 6-6, is Campbell still getting a long look?
The answer to both questions should be “of course.” It’s fun to watch these games as if there’s a horse race going on for a new head-coaching job, Nebraska’s or someone else’s, but nobody should be hiring a coach based on what they’re doing right now. It’s about everything it took to get to the point where a promotion seems possible.
At least it better be. In Nebraska’s case, a coach with a solid season that maybe lacks undeniable curb appeal probably isn’t the worst thing. It might be easier to leave if things are still in progress rather than operating at full capacity.
Brandon is the Managing Editor for Hail Varsity and has covered Nebraska athletics for the magazine and web since 2012, Hail Varsity’s first season on the scene. His sports writing has also been featured by Fox Sports, The Guardian and CBS Sports.