Hickey: Matt Rhule is Nebraska's chance at finally getting it right
Matt Rhule had as much chance at succeeding in the NFL as, well, Mickey Joseph did at Nebraska. Anyone wondering why he had a losing record only needs to inspect the roster he was working with.
There’s a reason Christian McCaffrey was expected to do everything, and often injured trying to do it.
So any Nebraska fan out there is wondering, “Is this the best we can do?” after noticing Rhule’s 11-27 record with the Carolina Panthers should take heart.
Yes, Rhule is the best Nebraska can do.
Just as Steve Spurrier was once the best South Carolina could do after failing in the NFL. And Nick Saban was the best Alabama could do after failing in the NFL. And Lane Kiffin eventually became the best Ole Miss could do after failing in the NFL (and several other places).
This isn’t about what Rhule could do in Charlotte. It’s about what he can do in Lincoln.
And if Rhule’s prior college work is any indicator, that will include a lot of wins. This man has walked into situations far more dire than a 5-year bowl drought at a blue-blood program.
He won 10 games at Temple, people
The Temple job is a Temple of Doom for college football coaches.
Bruce Arians, who you may remember as Super Bowl-winning coach Bruce Arians, went 27-39 in 6 seasons there.
Part of the reason the job is so difficult? Nobody in Philadelphia cares. There are pro teams in every sport. Even Temple is part of the “Big 5” of Philly universities. And the best you can hope for on the recruiting trail is Penn State’s afterthoughts.
Heck, you’re even picking up Rutgers rejects.
But Rhule won there anyway. He went 28-23 at Temple with a pair of 10-win seasons. He has the 4th-best winning percentage in Temple history among coaches who spent at least 3 years there. Pop Warner is second.
If Rhule can recruit players to play at a program that is an afterthought in its own home stadium, you better believe he can recruit them to play in a stadium that has sold out every game since John F. Kennedy lived in the White House.
And perhaps most vitally, he can do so by building a pipeline to Texas.
The value of the Baylor experience
One of the unintended consequences of Nebraska’s move from the Big 12 to the Big Ten was decreasing the Cornhuskers’ visibility to Texas recruits.
Nebraska high schools do not produce an overabundance of Division I football talent. Nor do any of the 6 states bordering Nebraska. A connection to a talent-rich state is essential to the Huskers’ ability to succeed in the modern era.
Joseph was such a valued member of Nebraska’s current coaching staff due to his connections in Louisiana as well as his connections to the program’s past.
Rhule has no connection to Nebraska’s history other than respecting it. And given the Scott Frost disaster, that’s for the best. A fresh perspective is needed. And Rhule’s connections in Texas are far more valuable than whether he’s ever seen balloons released after a touchdown.
In 2019, Dave Campbell’s Texas Football — the absolute Bible of the sport in football’s version of the Bible Belt — conducted a survey among high school coaches in the state.
The question: Which Texas college coach do you trust the most?
TCU’s Gary Patterson, who at that point was 20 years into his tenure, was the winner. But in second place was Rhule, who at that point had coached just 2 seasons at Baylor. In other words, before the Bears’ breakthrough 11-3 season that concluded with a trip to the Sugar Bowl.
Remember, Rhule took over Baylor in the wake of a widespread sexual assault scandal that shook up the entire campus. The toxicity of the situation is second only to Penn State’s Jerry Sandusky scandal in modern college football history.
Yet within 3 years, Rhule had already turned Baylor back into a respectable program to send players. As a guy who never lived in one of the most parochial states in the nation.
“It’s not easy for a guy like that to become accepted down here,” Texas High School Coaches Association president Rodney Webb told Texas Football in 2019. “It’s remarkable to me how a guy who has no roots in Texas has come to our state and ensconced himself in the culture down here.”
Rhule may no longer live in Texas, but he still has those relationships. Every school in the country is recruiting in Texas. Because of Rhule, Nebraska will have a leg up against much of the competition.
Let Matt Rhule
In many ways, Nebraska football feels culturally connected to another Big Ten program: Indiana basketball.
The glory days are long gone, but the fan fervor has never wavered. The programs are part of the lifeblood of their respective states. And after decades of missteps, both programs found themselves at a crossroads entering the 2020s.
The Hoosier hoops program appears to have found its answer in Mike Woodson — a former pro coach with a record below .500 in the NBA.
Rhule may similarly breathe new life into a once-great program.
Multiple national championships probably aren’t in the cards. But a return to respectability is. And right now, that’s all Nebraska can ask for.