CATCHING UP WITH MATT RHULE
Editor's note - this story originally appeared in the June issue of FootballStories Magazine
BY ROCK HOFFMAN
COLLEGE FOOTBALL EDITOR
Waco, TX - In 2016, the Temple University football program reached heights heretofore unseen when they captured the American Athletic Conference championship with a 34-10 win over Navy. It was a bittersweet victory for some because it was the last game Matt Rhule would be the Owls head coach. After building the Owls into a champion, Rhule left to take over the Baylor University program that had been rocked by scandal. In his first year, the Bears were 1-11 but rebounded to go 6-6 last season and earn a bid to the Texas Bowl where they topped Vanderbilt 45-38.
FootballStories recently caught up with Rhule in his office on the Baylor campus on a beautiful spring day in Central Texas.
Rhule was the third of now five Temple head coaches in a row to leave for a job at a school in one of the power five conferences (if you include Manny Diaz, who returned to Miami before ever coaching a game at Temple). Rhule understands the critics who say a coach isn’t finishing his job or he is bailing out on his players when he leaves for a new job before the team’s bowl game. It was a situation he faced in 2016, when he took the Baylor position and Ed Foley was the acting head coach for the Owls in the Military Bowl.
“You’d love to stay,” said Rhule, who was 28-23 as Owls head coach, “even when I left Temple, I went back out and actually watched them practice even though I was no longer the head coach. I felt like I left the right way and the kids had appreciated what we had done together but you do have to get started on your new job. At the same time, you don’t want the whole thing to be about you, the players are the ones who got you to the bowl game. While it is a distraction that you’re leaving, you can eliminate the distraction and let them move forward. It’s hard to figure out but I’ll always be sad that I wasn’t there at that bowl game with those guys on that 2016 team because that was a team that I loved.”
While Rhule gets put in the category of coaches who left, he points out he spent ten years at Temple, six years as an assistant and four as head coach.
“We left with a championship,” said Rhule, “and that was really important to me. The year before I had a chance to leave and didn’t want to leave because we got to the championship game but didn’t win it. I believe you want to leave a place better than you found it. While I was sad to leave, and I loved my time at Temple it had been a decade of my life and I knew we were leaving the program in good shape. To me, as long as you leave it in good shape, you can have peace about leaving.”
Clearly, the Baylor program is better now than when Rhule arrived and he nearly left to take the New York Jets before they settled on Adam Gase. Rhule has usually been up front when he’s been courted by other teams.
“I try to keep things quiet out of respect for all the parties involved,” said Rhule, who coached in the NFL for one season with the New York Giants, “but anytime that something gets out I’m not going to lie, I was honest with my team here. Anytime you talk to another place doesn’t mean you want to go there; it just means you’re trying to explore what people approach you. As long as I’m consistently honest about things people, while they might not agree with my decisions, will at least respect them.”
The Baylor program went from the lofty heights of having a Heisman Trophy winner and nearly playing in the College Football Playoffs to having it all crash down because of the well-documented sexual assault scandal. Art Briles lost his job, Jim Grobe was the interim head coach for a season and recruits decided to go elsewhere.
Rhule entered a situation that he said was similar to 2006 when he joined Al Golden’s first coaching staff at Temple.
“When Al first got there, that was a monumental task,” said Rhule, who was the defensive line coach his first season with the Owls. “In coach [Bobby] Wallace’s last two years there had been so many junior college players so that when we got there, there was a huge senior class. There was no conference. There were so many unknowns outside of football and we were introducing a whole new way of doing things.
“Here,” he continued, “we had to, sort of, come into a place that was on its last legs in terms of everything that had happened. Trying to recruit, some people just turned and ran. So, we had to win back everyone’s trust one step at a time. It’s been really hard. Now, they we’re making progress, it’s rewarding to have done it but at the time it wasn’t much fun.”
As he enters his third season as Bears head coach, Rhule said that while the location has changed his philosophy has not.
“We got here and quickly realized that we were going to do things exactly as we did them at Temple,” he said alluding to the several assistant coaches and staff members who made the move with him to Waco from North Broad St. “We were going to find our kind of guys – tough, athletic guys. The whole key is in the evaluation, it doesn’t matter how well you recruit a guy if you recruit the wrong guy. We’re just trying to find guys who love football, that want to play and want to compete. Sometimes those guys are highly recruited, sometimes they’re not. We’re looking for guys that, we feel, if they come into our program, they’re going to be a good fit and we can have a chance to turn them into pros like we did with so many guys at Temple.”
Email Rock Hoffman at firstname.lastname@example.org