When Matt Rhule took over a Baylor football program reeling from a sexual assault scandal, he inherited a team in disarray.
Over half of Baylor's allotted scholarships were unfilled, and the Bears only had one player left in its 2017 recruiting class — Jalen Pitre. Sticking out the tumultuous situation and believing in Rhule not only got Pitre to the NFL, but it also cemented his legacy at Baylor.
In a wide-ranging conversation on the “Bussin’ With the Boys” podcast with former Nebraska linebacker Will Compton and Taylor Lewan, who played at Michigan, Rhule detailed how he sees his rebuilding process playing out at Nebraska.
“The players that choose to come here in this class and next year’s class, they’re the ones who people will remember for a long time,” Rhule said.
At each of his previous college football rebuilds, Rhule’s first year was nothing to write home about. Despite going 2-10 at Temple in 2013, Rhule set the foundations for the next three seasons by playing freshmen and focusing on the future. He had a similar challenge at Baylor in 2017 as the Bears went 1-11 after signing a large incoming recruiting class to rebuild the program’s numbers.
Rhule has already begun turning around the Nebraska roster — the Huskers have added 37 high school commits and transfers this offseason already — but the level of talent he’s inheriting is much greater than at either Temple or Baylor. Because of that, Rhule envisions a much different Year 1 with Nebraska.
“I don’t want this to be a slow burn, because I feel like that year for them was last year,” Rhule said. “What I respected about Nebraska was that the players had just lost their coach, they’d had some tough losses and they just kept battling. If you go to Iowa the last game of the year when Iowa has to win it to win the Big Ten West and you beat them, there’s something in that locker room.”
That being said, Rhule isn’t getting ahead of himself with delusions of grandeur. Simply getting Nebraska back to winning ways is step one before competing to be at the top of the Big Ten. But, when making his decision about where he’d coach next, Rhule felt Nebraska’s status as a national title-winning team helped assure him that he could lead the program back to those heights.
And while that might be his long-term goal, that’s not the vision Rhule presents to his current roster. Rhule said he asks his players “to be a lion every day” by attacking everything in their life. So long as players are tough, hard-working and competitive, those traits will help Rhule implement his vision.
“I just want us to be the kind of team that’s really humble,” Rhule said. “We feel like we can win every game and we also know we have a chance to lose every game, so let’s just worry about today. I’ve got guys talking to me about bowl games next year and I’m like, ‘Whoa, let’s just go to the weight room guys.’”
Nebraska’s status as a development program is something Rhule has often emphasized as one of the school’s top selling points, but he still sees room for improvement in Nebraska’s training and recovery facilities. Whether it’s massage work, cupping, scraping or sensory deprivation tanks, Rhule sees the potential for Nebraska to fully invest all its resources into helping players train and recover.
“One of the most important jobs for me is to make sure my players are as healthy as possible,” Rhule said. “Healthy teams win more games.”
Particularly along the recruiting trail, Rhule’s two-plus seasons with the Carolina Panthers have elevated the way players see the Nebraska coaching staff. When Rhule is making recruiting pitches, he isn’t talking NIL — he said he lays out the resources Nebraska has and the coaching staff’s vision for each individual player. For many of those ambitious young players, that involves talking about the NFL instead.
Being fired by the Carolina Panthers taught him how to get through adversity, Rhule said, and it also let him ponder why it didn’t work. After signing a seven-year contract with the Panthers, Rhule wanted to build the team gradually over time. If he knew he only had two or three years to overhaul the team, Rhule said he would have been more aggressive in free agency or gone after big names via trade.
On a personal level, Rhule’s time in the NFL also taught him plenty about what it means to be a good coach. At Carolina, he not only had to fire coaches, but he also had to cut players and understand how every single play and action is graded, examined and discussed.
“The amount of pressure, the amount of stress and anxiety on these guys is overwhelming,” Rhule said. “The locker room and the coaching staff has to be a safe place. Let’s build a space where we can coach them hard but coach them the right way.”
Players and coaches are also in the spotlight at Nebraska, but Rhule said he’d “rather have passion than apathy.” He’s seen that passion in places like Scottsbluff, where local fans swarmed downtown after hearing he and offensive coordinator Marcus Satterfield were in town and on vacation in Mexico, where random strangers told him “Go Big Red."
There’s still plenty of recruiting and offseason training to go before the 2023 season rolls around, but Nebraska is roughly seven months away from kicking off the Matt Rhule era. With road games at Minnesota and Colorado up first, Rhule can’t wait to get things rolling.
“I don’t know how good we are yet, but I know we’re starting with a big, physical-looking group,” Rhule said. “There’s a thing in our media guide with pictures of us taking over different stadiums with the Sea of Red. I’ve worked at some great places, but I’ve never had that so I can’t wait for it.”