Nebraska football: Matt Rhule the perfect fit for Huskers' reclamation project
Matt Rhule certainly made a positive impression in his introductory press conference as Nebraska’s new head football coach Monday.
The 47-year-old Rhule, with previous stops at Temple, Baylor and recently with the NFL’s Carolina Panthers, captivated the brigade of reporters and onlookers at the Hawks Championship Center with impressive speaking dynamics. Rhule shared his passion for not only football, but the journey that led him and his family to Lincoln.
He vowed to embrace the many traditions embedded within Nebraska Football. He says he has a clear vision of what it will look like to bring Nebraska back to relevance. Rhule made a point to thank his wife, Julie, and their children for their faith and belief in him. He knows picking up and moving half way across the country isn’t easy.
But to Rhule, the opportunity to coach at Nebraska was appealing. Very appealing. Especially after conversations with athletic director Trev Alberts and university president Ted Carter.
A 13-minute opening statement was filled with graciousness for the opportunity, along with praise toward a once-storied program. Rhule started with a story about attending the 1983 Kickoff Classic game between Nebraska and Rhule’s favorite team, Penn State. Only 11 years old at the time, Rhule was crushed with the 44-6 thrashing Tom Osborne’s Huskers put on the Nittany Lions, wondering “why’d they have to do that to us?”
Things aren’t the same these days in Lincoln. Winning, and turning things around, Rhule said, “won’t be easy.” But it can be done. With everyone moving in unison in the same direction.
Matt Rhule: "If I have one message for you, we can absolutely do it." Says it will be hard, it might take time, but it can absolutely be done.
— Brian Christopherson (@Husker247BC) November 28, 2022
Proven program builder
Alberts preceded Rhule’s time at the podium by talking about Rhule’s proven ability to build programs. He mentioned his time at Temple and Baylor. The overhaul in Waco was nothing short of spectacular. From 1-11 to 7-6 to 11-3, Rhule completely flipped the script — and quick — with a Baylor program that was in disarray following Art Briles’ scandal-ridden tenure.
Through the 2.5-month coaching search, Alberts talked with 13 candidates. One name kept coming to the top of the list — Rhule. Alberts said he was Candidate 1A. Development, toughness and identity were 3 areas Alberts was seeking in a coach. Rhule fit the bill in each.
Development, toughness, identity are the three words Alberts stresses he wants. About that identity part, "We're going to believe in something. We're going to dive into it and we're going to play complementary football."
— Brian Christopherson (@Husker247BC) November 28, 2022
Alberts put his money where his mouth is. Rhule signed an 8-year, $74 million contract. He’ll have a salary pool of $7 million per year for assistants. The AD knows Nebraska is teetering on the brink. It needs a guy who can put his nose to the grindstone and turn it around. Alberts is banking on Rhule being the guy.
History says it’s a wise bet. Sure, Rhule didn’t fare particularly well with the Panthers. But the NFL isn’t always a tell-all for success. Look at Nick Saban. Lane Kiffin. Steve Spurrier.
Instead, let’s focus on Rhule’s results at Temple and Baylor. In his 4 seasons with the Owls, Rhule won 10 games each of the final 2 years. From 2-10 in Year 1, to 10-3 in Year 4. It was a massive turnaround in a place (Philly) where pro sports rule and college sports is often an afterthought.
At Baylor, Rhule followed interim coach Jim Grobe, taking over in 2017. At that time, the roster had been gutted. Only 45 scholarship players, well below the NCAA limit of 85. Rhule and his staff scrambled to fill spots by February’s signing day. They added a few more transfers in the offseason. Several walk-ons were put on scholarship to get up to 85.
It was a rough 1st year in Waco, as the Bears finished 1-11. Rhule toughened up practices. Made them more physical. He even had to withstand a bit of pushback from guys who were holdovers. But in Rhule’s mind, he was preparing them for the future.
Year 2 was better. The Bears finished 7-6 and tied for 5th in the Big 12. By Year 3, a 11-1 finish and 2nd-place conference finish was in the cards. Rhule had rebuilt the Bears in less than 3 years by recruiting hard and ramping up the intensity in practice. Two areas he hopes to replicate in Lincoln.
Plenty of work ahead
Rhule begins his tenure in Lincoln with plenty of heavy lifting to do. Nebraska is coming off seasons of 3-9 and 4-8. Not much has gone well. Everyone thought Scott Frost was a slam dunk hire entering 2018.
But under Frost, recruiting slipped. Player development was poor. Attention to details — by Frost especially — was neglected. The once-mighty Huskers have fallen to depths not seen in the program’s modern history. It will be a slow climb back to relevance in a league that doesn’t take prisoners.
With $7 million in the assistant coach pool, it will be worth watching who Rhule brings in. As of Monday, South Carolina offensive coordinator Marcus Satterfield has said he’ll be joining Rhule in Lincoln. Satterfield’s offense just beat Tennessee and Clemson in back-to-back weeks. It’s a balanced, diverse attack that when executed well can put up points in a hurry.
Other names to watch include: Elijah Robinson (defensive line coach, Texas A&M), Evan Cooper, Terrance Knighton (DL, Carolina), Corey Campbell (strength coach, Carolina) and Mickey Joseph (Nebraska interim coach).
Robinson is known as 1 of the best recruiters in the nation. Cooper worked with Rhule at Temple and Baylor, coaching DBs. They are guys with a ton of pedigree and coaching success who could make an immediate impact.
One of the biggest remaining questions to be answered is the status of Joseph. Will Rhule retain him? Or will Joseph even want to stay? Rhule said discussions with Joseph and current staff will take place this week.
Keeping Joseph would help bridge the gap between the current players and Rhule. Something to keep an eye on.
Best man for the job
Rhule’s hiring coincided with Wisconsin’s surprise hiring of Luke Fickell over the weekend. Some on social media believe the Badgers made the better hire, due to Fickell leading Cincinnati to the College Football Playoff in 2021.
But a deeper dive into the matter certainly doesn’t prove it. In fact, for the position Nebraska’s in — a complete rebuild — Rhule is the better man for the job. He’s been there, done that. And, he’s done it at the Power 5 level. A proven commodity. A box Alberts wanted to check.
That’s not saying Fickell is a bad hire. Far from it. The Badgers hit the jackpot. The B1G coaching fraternity gets stronger each year. The addition of Rhule and Fickell only ups the ante around the league. And both Nebraska and Wisconsin likely hired the best “fit” for their current programs.
As far as Rhule is concerned, he knows he has no time to waste. He was headed to his office later Monday after meeting with the team before the press conference. The players were told his door is open. Transparency and open communication are important to Rhule. Building relationships and trust is key.
Rhule mentioned defense and winning in the trenches as key components to a successful team in the Big Ten. At last, a coach embracing what it takes and not running from it. A breath of fresh air.
Nebraska needed a grinder. Someone not afraid to work and rebuild this thing brick by brick. Finding players is at the top of the list.
As he evaluates the current roster and looks to make additions, Matt Rhule says “we will leave no stone unturned to find good players.” #Huskers
— Luke Mullin (@LjsLuke) November 28, 2022
There was no better proven coach out there than Matt Rhule. Alberts knew it. Even when negotiations hit a snag, neither side panicked. It eventually worked out.
There’s no such thing as a “sure” hire. Frost’s failures proved that. But as Alberts’ lengthy search landed on Rhule, the boxes were checked.
Nebraska got its man. It’s now a matter of time to see how it plays out.