Baylor's Matt Rhule has the toughest job in college football

Dan Wetzel
Columnist

WACO, Texas – McLane Stadium towers over the intersection of the twin ribbons of Central Texas – the Brazos River and Interstate 35. Opened in 2014 to the tune of $266 million, it serves as both a modern addition to the otherwise forlorn Waco skyline and a monument to what Baylor football could be and, indeed, was under former coach Art Briles.

Once arguably America’s worst program, Baylor believed it had stuffed its two-win seasons and its lopsided losses in the past under the tattered end zone tarp of bygone-era Floyd Casey Stadium and moved onward and upward.

The recent success was beyond everyone’s wildest dreams. Robert Griffin III won a Heisman. Baylor routinely scored 70 points per game. It kept beating Texas. It reached No. 2 in the polls. Oft-forgotten Waco was hopping.

And then it all came undone after a series of sexual assaults by players and improper investigations and discipline by coaches and administrators. Briles was fired in 2016. The ugliness, via lawsuits, resignations and well-deserved condemnation continued.

The school is still fighting for its reputation. School president Ken Starr and athletic director Ian McCaw are no longer here either. Yet the program remains synonymous with wrongdoing in much of the public’s mind.

In terms of football, now, who knows? The Bears have lost their last eight regular season games, including two this year against schools (Liberty and UTSA) that had never previously defeated a Power Five program.

Baylor got cup-caked by the cupcakes. With the teeth of the schedule upcoming, 0-2 could quickly become 0-8. Or who knows, even worse.

The Bears are bad. Again. And unlike some programs that have waded through horrific scandals, such as Penn State, there remains a sense that this is all fragile, that you can’t just snap your fingers and return to prominence, that while McLane may be shiny and sturdy, everything can be lost and gone in the Texas wind.

And there are plenty of people who would view that as karma.

Baylor coach Matt Rhule walks off the field following the team’s 17-10 loss to UTSA on Saturday. (AP)

Matt Rhule is the first-year coach trying to hold it together. On a bright Monday morning he sits on a couch in his office, and is, perhaps surprisingly, upbeat and optimistic. Signs with the Duke logo (this week’s opponent) with “1-0” printed under it hang in the halls outside. No need to dwell on last week.

“This is a group of kids who have for the last 12-to-18 months, when they look at their Twitter timeline or they go on the road, they hear nothing but the bad,” Rhule said of how negativity can snowball. “So I think you see a group of kids, when things go wrong, they have a weight on their shoulder.”

Rhule is 42 years old and a native of New York City. He was a walk-on linebacker at Penn State. He climbed the coaching ladder all the way to the New York Giants before Temple tabbed him as a head coach. In 2013, his first season, the Owls went 2-10. They won 10 games in each of the last two years.

He knows how to coach. He knows how to build. He knows how to deal with early dispiriting losses.

He was a hot young coaching prospect and had options. So why wade into this morass, all the way down here in Texas?

“These kids need a coach,” Rhule said of the remaining players, who did nothing wrong. “No matter how hard the situation, they need someone who is here for them, who is consistent and who believes in them.

“And I believed that was supposed to be me.”

There’s more, of course. The seven-year, multi-million dollar contract, the Big 12 membership, the array of talented recruits an easy drive from campus, the chance to work at a faith-based institution and even McLane, among a slew of other cutting-edge facilities itself. He thinks he can win.

Rhule won’t make excuses for the two losses. Some reasons are obvious. There are 31 newcomers. Freshmen are in key roles. Players are still a bit shell-shocked by everything.

His challenge begins with maintaining spirit. He is trying to build a culture of accountability and discipline, even, or especially, when the scoreboard goes wrong. To him, whether Baylor is 0-2 or 2-0 doesn’t matter that much at this point. Morale might be better, but the broader challenges would still exist.

“My players are who I worry about the most,” Rhule said. “It’s about getting our players to believe [that there is a correlation between] going to class on time and playing the right coverage on third-and-6. When the kids believe that they can win if they do things right, then they’ll do things right.

“We lost two games, but we didn’t really lose to other teams, we lost to ourselves,” he continued. “But we’re losing to ourselves on Tuesdays or Wednesdays or Thursdays when we sleep in. When we get them to be men who do what it takes even when it is hard, that’s when you have success.”

This all sounds good, especially when Rhule is looking you in the eye and explaining it. It’s how he managed to hold together a top 35 recruiting class in February and currently has a Rivals.com top 25 class verbally committed for next year. When the losses come though, will the players stick, will the idea of Baylor as a power persist?

Rhule says he can only coach his players the way he’d want his own son coached, by setting high expectations but never publicly criticizing them. He’s found appreciation from parents and high school coaches.

It is clear Rhule already cares about Baylor. He awoke Sunday morning, after a brutal loss, to find a neighbor had left a basket of fresh-baked bread and a note of support. He isn’t, he thought, in Philly or New York anymore. He says fans send him scripture passages and positive emails. He talks about the likable kids he has on his team that had nothing to do with the scandal but were coated by it anyway.

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He wants success for them.

“At the end of the day I want kids who play for me to expect good things to happen,” Rhule said. “And right now we’re not expecting good things to happen. We’ve lost eight of our last nine games. That’s hard. And it’s obviously not just the wins. It’s the totality of this … Mistakes were made. We know that. That’s been documented. Things happened that shouldn’t have happened …

“But these are good kids and they are trying to do things the right way,” he continued. “I tell them, ‘Once you get through this, you’ll be impervious to anything. You will know, I can handle adversity, I can handle obstacles.'”

He sounds confident. He sounds passionate. He’s 0-2, but it’s a one-week season.

“We don’t panic.”

The party is over at Baylor right now. Issues, on and off the field, abound. Winter, for now, has returned. McLane dominates the sky over by the river, over by the highway, and a coach’s optimism aside, whether it’s more about the future than the past remains to be seen.

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