Photo Credit: Eric Francis

The Whys and Drives of Matt Rhule, Nebraska’s Next Head Football Coach

November 27, 2022

Matt Rhule is known in college football as a builder of success in nontypical circumstances. He elevated Temple’s consistent 8-win output to the program’s first conference title in over 40 years. Baylor was an 11-win team on the field but primed for failure when Rhule came in to replace ousted head coach Art Briles amid scandal. When Rhule was introduced at Baylor there was just one commitment in its recruiting class. They won 1 game in his first year. In Year 3, that one commitment, Jalen Pitre, developed into an All-American and Baylor fell a shoestring tackle shy of the College Football Playoff.

But what’s the rebuilder built upon? What’s at the foundation of the man tasked with turning Nebraska back around? He’s been called a somewhat polarizing figure. Some players and coaches hitch their wagons to him. Others don’t mesh so well. He’s a preacher’s son who builds relationships but isn’t afraid to get creative to get his point across. He’s driven and dedicated to football, as well as family. But at the root of Rhule’s journey across the Big Ten footprint is belief.

He and his wife, Julie, drove 3 hours out of their way to Philadelphia with their then-year-old son Bryant, two dogs and a cat in a Nissan Maxima to convince Al Golden to give Rhule a job at Temple. According to a 2019 story from Pete Thamel, Julie convinced her husband to meet the Temple coach and tell Golden it was a mistake to not hire him, an assistant head coach at Western Carolina at the time. It was awkward. Golden didn’t have any jobs at the time. Until a few months later when Rhule became the new defensive line coach at Temple. Because of this, Rhule would meet with any coach who stopped by his office at Temple and Baylor.

Then there’s how Rhule interacts with his players. Rhule told The Athletic’s Matt Fortuna in 2019 that he hosted different events at Baylor to keep players around each other. Watching Monday Night Football with Popeyes became a way of melding the team together. He said players initially complained about working in school and football. Those two things go hand-in-hand to the New York native.

“So that’s why this whole ‘trying to rebuild the program’ (thing) was like: Hey, let’s spend a lot of time around each other,” he said to Fortuna. “Let’s get people around each other.”

Players at Baylor came to Rhule with gripes about school, bruises and pending travel plans. Rhule, who’s coached every position except receivers and defensive backs in his career, would focus on different positions in pre-practice meetings. In his message to fellow coaches, he’d say the games are about the players. Everything outside of that, however, relied on the coaches to set their players up for success.

“We are what we tolerate,” Rhule commented.

The new Nebraska coach is also known as a fiery competitor with relentless energy and creativity. There’s the story how he, as the defensive line coach at Temple in 2006, splashed coffee on his face at the end of team meetings. Two years later, Temple ran for just 72 yards against Kent State. That wasn’t good enough. Rhule, the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach by then, responded by installing velvet ropes and a red carpet in the offensive meeting room, dressing in full doorman attire to imitate a nightclub. He led players to their seats with a flashlight and welcomed them to “Club 72,” mocking their rushing output. Temple scored 55 points the following game and the club closed.

When Rhule wanted to see the Owls play with toughness on the road he challenged the defensive starters to a hitting drill. Rhule wore a Central Michigan helmet, shoulder pads and mouthpiece. He told Thamel he bought the DVD of that drill and brought it to his head coach interview at Temple after the 2012 season.

“Letting the guys have a chance to hit me––it maybe wasn’t fun for me, but it was a cool moment for them,” Rhule later remembered. “I don’t take myself too seriously.”

Following a disappointing game at Baylor against West Virginia, Rhule stressed improving numbers in turnovers, rushing yards and penalties ahead of a rivalry game against TCU. He huddled the team a half hour into practice and shouted, “Protect the football!” Rhule got after an offensive lineman for not helping his teammate up after a play, then ran to high-five him. Notably, he told the offensive linemen to run gassers on the heels of giving up eight sacks to West Virginia.

“We’re gonna protect the quarterback,” he told them, “or we’re gonna become cross country runners.”

When they finished he gladly met with each of them. Football and humanity are co-existing components in his ecosystem. He implemented a unique practice schedule at Baylor to allow for more family time. But when not with his wife and/or three children, he browses through his Notes app or pulls up football clips from his phone. Rhule still attended a Texas High School Coaches Association event even after he announced he was leaving Baylor to coach in the NFL. The Athletic’s David Ubben recently noted that high school coaches unconditionally respected and admired Rhule despite only coaching in Texas for three years.

He once spoke at the THSCA convention and spoke about leadership. Rhule stressed providing resources for his players and coaching them to be reliable. Do your job, do what you say. Provide resources, expect excellence––including in himself––and instill leadership. With the same fiery passion he coaches with, that he inherits from his father’s days at the pulpit, Rhule stirred players to have the end goal of the NFL. And envision every step they need to get there. He wants to help in each step. It starts by getting to know each player and what motivates them.

“If we want to be great coaches, if I want to be a great head coach and I don’t understand the why of each and every kid on my team,” Rhule told those gathered, “if I don’t understand why they do what they do, what drives them, I’m never going to be a good coach and I’m certainly not going to be a good leader.”

And if the players don’t understand the “Why?” of each coach and the mission statement of the program, they won’t meet their ambitions. That’s why his journey now takes him to Nebraska. And it’s why he’ll be introduced as head coach by athletic director Trev Alberts at 1:30 p.m. on Monday.

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