When Matt Rhule agreed to become the head football coach at Baylor in 2016, the campus was scorched, the athletic department was smoldering, and the football program was in ashes.
He arrived in Waco that December at a university trying to recover from a sexual assault scandal that rocked the campus and saw coach Art Briles, university president Ken Starr and athletic director Ian McCaw lose their jobs. It was clear Rhule’s success wouldn’t be measured by just the on-field product.
“It’s just one of those things where my wife (Julie) and I just kind of made a decision based on faith,” Rhule told Sporting News. “We thought that this was where we were supposed to be. We knew Baylor was a great place, but that they had hit on hard times. We felt that we were uniquely suited to come here. We thought that we could turn it around. And really, turning it around, to me, meant turning it around off the field first. So we felt like if we could get it done off the field, then on the field success would follow.
“Whereas a lot of people saw disaster, we saw an opportunity to go do something — not just something positive on the field, but also something really positive off the field as well.”
Rhule has turned that opportunity — from an 1-11 record in 2017 to an 11-2 campaign and Sugar Bowl berth this season — into Sporting News’ Coach of the Year for 2019.
But wait: Did Rhule call Baylor “a great place” before he got there? What, in 2016, made Baylor a great place? From the Pepper Hamilton report, the exposés, the steady stream of statements and accusations, the convictions, the expulsions, the firings, even the Big 12 sanctions, there seemed little that was “great” about Baylor three years ago.
Sure, there’s the company line about a commitment to excellence and high academic standards and competitive athletics and a strong Christian mission. Soon enough, though, Rhule returns to the heart of the matter — football — to explain why he took the job.
“Unfortunately, despite having that mission, the football program wasn’t necessarily in line with that,” he told SN. “So I thought me, as the son of a high school football coach and minister, that maybe I could help get the football program back in line with the university and the university’s mission with a commitment to faith and service and leadership.”
Rhule, 44, executed a similar on-field turnaround in his four years at Temple, taking the Owls from 2-10 in his first year to 10 wins in each of his last two in Philadelphia. He regards that first season in Temple as “our best coaching,” and said the same thing happened in Waco.
The Bears "weren't quite ready" to win in 2017, but those hard lessons from a 1-11 season produced five single-possession wins this year. The Bears twice took College Football Playoff-bound Oklahoma to the wire, including an overtime loss in the Big 12 championship game. They also tied a program-record 11 wins, and have a chance at one more.
Winning football games is one thing, but winning back the Waco community and college football fans in general is something entirely different. Rhule’s players haven’t had any prolonged off-field issues since he got there. He said when he arrived, there were zero graduate students on the roster; now there are 10. Players are committed to community outreach projects. Family has become a centralized theme for the coaching staff.
There are so many “How did you” questions for Rhule: How did you save your first recruiting class? How did you build this team up? How did you unite a fractured fan base?
Start with recruiting. The departure of half the 2016 recruiting class, followed by a mass exodus of the 2017 group that left just one player — safety Jalen Pitre — meant Baylor’s future depended on much more than Rhule’s ability to parachute in and put out fires.
“Kids hadn’t been on visits. Kids hadn’t been recruited,” Rhule said. “It wasn’t like there was a bunch of kids that had been recruited and then we just had a transition. We had to start over from scratch. It was really, really, really hard. But I think we looked at it as an opportunity.”
Rhule’s first move was to hire David Wetzel, who was president of the Texas High School Football Coaches Association and played receiver at Baylor under Hall of Famer Grant Teaff. Wetzel was an accomplished coach at Reagan High School in San Antonio. But Wetzel "knew all the right people" among the Texas coaching ranks, and was invaluable for his connections. So Rhule made him assistant athletic director for football relations.
Wetzel introduced Rhule to another successful Texas prep coach, Joey McGuire from Dallas suburb Cedar Hill. Rhule hired him to coach tight ends (he’s now associate head coach and works with defensive ends). From there, Rhule hired former Baylor quarterback and Cedar Ridge coach Shawn Bell, who’s now the offensive line coach.
“Those were three of his first hires,” said Baylor play-by-play voice John Morris. “That was the first move, and it was very well thought out, very smart.”
A Yankee like Rhule — native New Yorker, played at Penn State, coached in Philly — could have crashed and burned in Waco if he hadn’t reached out and brought some of the Texas coaches into the fold. In that endeavor, hiring Wetzel, McGuire and Bell — along with Evan Cooper, who followed Rhule from Temple — was a vitally important first step.
In two months, that first recruiting class grew to Pitre and 26 others, including 20 Texas schoolboys, 17 of whom are still on the team. The list includes three-year starting quarterback Charlie Brewer (Austin-Lake Travis), as well as All-American defensive end James Lynch (Round Rock), All-Big 12 linebacker Terrel Bernard (LaPorte), Big 12 title game hero Trestan Ebner (Henderson) starting guard Xavier Newman (DeSoto) and starting wideout R.J. Sneed (Cypress Ranch). Some of them had other offers, some did not.
“There are too many kids playing high school football in Texas — there are too many great players — to not recruit well,” Rhule said. “There’s too many players in this state that can go play and play at a high level. So for us, we’re just on a mission to make sure that we do a great job evaluating. You know, I don’t want Drew Brees leaving the state. I don’t want Nick Foles leaving the state. I want to make sure that all these guys that end up playing in the NFL, that we evaluate and we get our arms around.”
Rhule gets the credit for building that class, extinguishing the flames and winning those games because, it can be argued, he’s precisely what Baylor needed: an outsider. That was both the quickest and most lasting way to get the Bears past the dark times and into a brighter, more enduring future.
This team was the doormat of the Big 12 before Briles, whose wide-open, sideline-to-sideline, up-tempo offense seemed to be the only way to turn a perennial loser into a contender.
“But there’s other ways to do it as well,” Rhule said. While the big-play abilities of players like Brewer and Denzel Mims and Tyquan Thornton are still in place, this Baylor team is built on punishing opponents with the Big 12’s most physical defense.
As for uniting the fan base, Baylor was largely split between “Coach Art Briles” and “anybody but Coach Art Briles.”
“There were pockets of what you’d call ‘Briles people,’” Morris said. “There were people who said (after Briles was fired), ‘I’ll never give you another dime,’ and they may still be there. But Matt has done a great job of getting them back on board, getting Baylor together pulling in the same direction. We’re a small school. We don’t have a lot of alums. So we’ve got to have all our people on the same page pulling in the same direction to start with.”
That includes athletic director Mack Rhoades, who hired Rhule in 2016 after unsuccessfully trying to lure him to Missouri in 2015. (“I wasn’t ready to leave Temple at the time,” Rhule said.) When Rhoades finally landed his man in Waco, he knew the rebuild would require patience.
He demonstrated that faith and patience earlier this year — with Baylor coming off a 7-6 campaign and starting 2-0 in 2019 — when he extended Rhule’s contract through the 2027 season: essentially a 10-year deal.
Said Rhule of the extension: “That contract and the length and terms said, ‘Hey, we believe in what you’re doing and we know that it’s built to last; it’s not just some flash in the pan, that we’re gonna have a sustained period of excellence here.’”
For most fan bases, winning solves almost everything. Happy fans and generous boosters aren’t things Rhule outwardly concerns himself with, but he knows the importance of external harmony.
In that vein, Rhule said so many in the Waco community were supportive of him and his team — even as they lost.
“They would see us in the community," Rhule said, "even as we were losing, they would see us pick the other team up, they would see us go out there and compete and play our hardest even though we weren’t good enough (to win). And while some people were probably disgruntled, other people were really positive. And that’s why, when I’ve had a chance to leave, I haven’t left. Because that first year, we walked off the field to, I think, three or four standing ovations. Even though we lost. And that’s really special in today’s day and age.”
It’s in that community that Baylor football has changed the most. The football team has won the athletic department’s community service award twice already in Rhule’s three seasons. Giving back, he said, is its own reward, and he’s glad his players embrace that.
“We’re supposed to be in the business of educating kids,” Rhule said. “I believe, and it’s been well said, that giving is the highest form of living. So our kids are very blessed to be here. They get scholarships and they get tutors and they get clothing and they get gear and they get this and they get that. And there’s an argument out there that they don’t get enough, and that might be true. But they do get a lot. And so, to whom much is given, much is required. And we want them to go out and impact the community. It’s one of the key tenets of our program."
Rhule, a father of three (15-year-old son Bryant frequently attends practice and is on the sideline for games), characterized himself as “a grinder.” But he makes himself and his staff take Thursday nights off during the season so they can enjoy at least a little family time in the midst of that grind.
“My son and I are usually watching the college football games. My daughters and I maybe watch a movie because they’re younger,” he said. “But I think we work really hard and there needs to be a time when you can disconnect from the game plan, when you can disconnect from everything and you can just go out and be a dad. That certainly is my first job.
“I love the fact that I was named coach of the year, but I’d rather be father of the year first every single year.”