Photo Credit: Eric Francis

‘The Right Way’: Matt Rhule and His Coaching Staff Learning Nebraska’s Various Traditions

January 22, 2023

Standing on the makeshift stage inside the Hawks Championship Center and practice field for his introduction, Matt Rhule said he wanted to learn Nebraska’s tradition. He wanted to get it right.

The new football coach’s lessons started in the lead up to that moment with watching dozens of Tunnel Walk videos with his son. Hours and hours worth, he said from the stage. Rhule’s words that day reverberated off the facility’s walls decorated in history. Five years illuminate the north walls of the complex reflecting each of the school’s five national championships. Signage in the practice facility also boasts the program’s 46 conference championships, 53 bowl appearances, 27 All-Americans and three Heisman Trophy winners. There, on Nebraska’s indoor practice field, adjacent to the new $180 million-football facility, Rhule became the latest chapter of the program’s history.

“I do not know Nebraska well enough yet, and I hope you will bear with me because I want to embrace everything that has to do with the University of Nebraska and the University of Nebraska’s football program,” Rhule said. “But I feel like through (his son) and through some friends of mine that have played here, that this is exactly the right place at the right time.”

The morning after his introduction, Rhule tweeted a photo from inside Memorial Stadium. The numbers of Nebraska’s five national championship seasons glowed before the dawn. It was still too early in the work day for the light to shine through. Rhule then tweeted more photos from inside the stadium, the archways, the signage, the spectacles adorning Nebraska’s college football cathedral even the most diehard of Husker fans may take for granted each Saturday. Or some they may not have known.

On December 16, Rhule tweeted a photo of a weight rack inside the strength facility. Most fans saw it as a rally for the work unseen. Others knew better. It was Sam Foltz’s rack. Where he powered his final set of hang cleans from the ground—three reps of 325 pounds. The matte black rack is still adorned by red “27” stickers, one on each side.

Rhule isn’t the only one studying the program. Special teams coordinator Ed Foley spent numerous days on the recruiting trail driving around Nebraska. He went to Sterling, the home of Dean Steinkuhler, on a quasi-recruiting trip. On his way through North Omaha, home of Heisman winner Johnny Rodgers, he stopped in Millard North, high school of Heisman Trophy winner Eric Crouch. Then there was the trip out west to the tri-cities. He stopped at high schools in Hastings and Grand Island. The night before he arrived in Greeley, Foltz’s hometown, to meet with the Foltz family. Foley, leader of the special teams unit, drove the highway that now bears Foltz’s name and learned his story.

Foltz was a lifelong Husker. He was a humble, hard working rural Nebraskan who lived the dream of becoming a Husker until his untimely death in 2016. His memory is alive within former Huskers and the athletic department.

Defensive line coach Terrance Knighton, in spirit of Rhule’s early morning tweets, sent one of the stadium’s north entrance in one of his first days in the offices. It was the statue of Dr. Tom Osborne and Brook Berringer. Knighton also dove into the traditions held inside the grand stadium. Some of those involving the legacy of his own position, like the Ndamukong Suh Weight and Conditioning Center. That space grew Nebraska’s weight facility by 50% with its upgrade in the last decade and reminds current Huskers of the great defensive lineman who nearly became the school’s fourth Heisman Trophy winner.

Then there’s the defensive traditions at large. The Blackshirts began as a way to differentiate players at practice and grew into something beyond folklore. The tradition changed almost annually, certainly by each coaching staff in the past 20 years. Some viewed the practice shirts as a reward, a carrot dangling in front of shutouts and sacks. Bo Pelini, for example, said they had to be earned and handed them out late in the season. More often, others, left them hanging in respective lockers in the week leading up to the season opener.

That’s what Scott Frost wanted to do in 2022. He wanted to hand out the Blackshirts at the start of the first game week. However, those Blackshirts were tucked away in luggage in Chicago, bound for Ireland. As a result, he awarded eight Blackshirts in Dublin. Frost wouldn’t hand a Blackshirt out to those who hadn’t played a game for Nebraska before, so he withheld three. Those Blackshirts never saw a locker the rest of the season. Former interim head coach Mickey Joseph took the Blackshirts away when he took over. He didn’t return them until after the season finale at Iowa. It was someone else’s problem at that point, Joseph laughed.

New defensive coordinator Tony White heard all about the Blackshirts when he got to Lincoln. He studied the Blackshirts when he met with local media for the first time earlier this month in case he was asked. White said he wants to reach out to former coaches and players. He’s heard the multitude of ways it’s been done. He said he’s focused on doing it the right way.

“That’s something you don’t mess around with,” White said. “That’s one of the greatest traditions you have in college football, especially defensively. Blackshirts? As a kid running around, putting on a black shirt and reenacting being part of a defense. I want to do it right and I need to talk to people to find out the best way to do it.”

Then there’s the off-field traditions. The politics that come with being Nebraska football coach. No, not like former Husker Jim Pillen who is now the state’s governor—not that kind of politics. The kind that brought athletic director Trev Alberts to a white cloth dining table with Osborne and Rhule at this year’s Outland Trophy ceremony. Former Heisman winners and legacy Huskers met Rhule that night. Rhule spoke with Osborne during the hiring process. It was a dream come true, the new head coach said way back on the day the school announced his hire. Rhule made a few comments, as did Alberts and Osborne. At that ceremony, Rhule thanked everyone for his warm welcome, as well as the award recipients. The Outland recipient wasn’t a Husker and Rhule didn’t coach any of the four Husker team award recipients. But the room wanted to hear from Nebraska’s head coach.

“It’s one of the reasons why I came to Nebraska, because we’re supposed to be there alongside you guys,” Rhule gestured toward Outalnd recipient Olusegun Oluwatimi of Michigan and his offensive line coach, Sherrone Moore. “It’s awesome to see you guys represent the conference because, of course, the Big Ten is the best of the best.”

When Osborne took the stage later to award Barry Alvarez with the Tom Osborne Leadership Award, he thanked Alberts and Rhule. The legendary offensive coordinator, head coach, athletic director, mentor, community figure, Congressman and leader then shared his optimism about Rhule. He said the new head coach has done a great job so far in terms of recruiting. And the Hall of Famer has no doubts Rhule will be successful at Nebraska.

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