Rhule Sticks To Plan, Builds Baylor Program
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – If you think back to those carefree days of youth you will remember people – maybe superheroes, maybe athletes, maybe a policeman or a fireman – who you went to your parents and said, “That’s who I want to be when I grow up.”
In a way, that is what this Thursday night’s 8 o’clock game on ESPN between West Virginia and Baylor is all about, with the Mountaineers being in the role of the child having discovered a role model to emulate.
And this is true not only for the players but even more so for WVU head coach Neal Brown, who understands that Baylor coach Matt Rhule has laid out the road map to success for a young coach trying to build a program.
No one faced a tougher task than Rhule when, on December 6, 2016, he took command of the disaster that was Baylor football, a program ravaged under Coach Art Briles by a sexual assault scandal.
When Rhule took over, the quality of the roster was more barren than the one at West Virginia Brown inherited from Dana Holgorsen. Baylor had a stampede of talented players transfer out and had only one recruit verbally committed.
Parents of potential players were horrified about what had gone on under Briles and the situation was, as Sports Illustrated put it, “one of the grimmest situations in college football history.”
He suffered through a 1-11 first season, improved it to 7-6 in his second season and as he faces WVU this week he stands at 7-0 and nationally ranked.
Brown admires the job Rhule did when he came to Baylor from Temple, where he had resuscitated that program, going through it the same way as he has done at Baylor. His first season at Temple he was 10-2, followed by records of 6-6, then 10-4 and then 10-3.
“He had a couple of opportunities to get a couple of Power 5 jobs, to leave Temple, and he choose that Baylor situation,” Brown said.
It was a daring move, a challenging move. True, there was no real downside to it for the only way to go was up, but he was in the basement of a skyscraper needing to reach the top floor and the elevator was out.
“I think he went in there with a vision of what he wanted,” Brown said this week of Rhule. “He didn’t blink. He never lost his way throughout a 1-11 season, then they ground it out last year in a 7-6 season and now, you look at their roster, they start eight seniors on defense, maybe, a couple of juniors, and five seniors and a couple of juniors on offense.
“Those two years were hard on those kids but now, because he had a plan, didn’t blink and nothing swayed him off that plan, so that’s why they are where they are and those guys are highly productive right now,” Brown said.
And that was how it was.
“I think people recognize that I didn’t have to take this job,” Rhule said this past week. “It [was] a hard job, not just for me, but the 30 other people who work for me who all made the decision to come to Baylor and come to Waco because we believed that we could do it and we could do it the right way.”
The plan was a difficult one to enforce, for he was a New York native coming into Texas, to a state that believes it invented football (or, if not invented, perfected), and to a program living in shame.
Rhule understood, much as Brown does, that the football aspect is only part of it and that you have to reinvent a culture, to bring in not just good football players, but good football players who are also good people.
“I want people to think our young people do things right in the classroom. Last year, we were third-most among bowl teams in terms of college graduates. We had 23. This year we have 14 graduates and 10 in graduate school. Each year our team GPA has moved up, so our guys are doing the right thing in the classroom,” Rhule noted in last week’s Big 12 coaches conference call.
“We have 34 majors. We have guys in engineering, in communication, we have guys challenging themselves to be the best they can be. We have guys giving back to the community through community service. We won the community service award here at Baylor two years in a row.”
Rhule has built upon team character, just as Brown is trying to do now at WVU.
“My focus is always on the players,” Rhule said. “I want people to know when they meet a Baylor football man they are meeting someone who has been pushed and developed and does things in the right way automatically.”
Character counts, Rhule stressed, and certainly the Bears’ character was challenged not only through the two lean years but now by the success they are having, for success can expose as many character flaws as failure.
Rhule admits he has addressed that issue, too.
“We are a Christian university and we do a chapel on Sunday and we cancelled all our meetings last Sunday and just had chapel. It was about how people go through trials in their lives and face adversities but that sometimes success can be a trial,” he said.
“We were never who our record said we were when we were losing and when you are winning you have to remember you are not necessarily what people say you are. You are complex men and I want them to know they are no more special, no better than they were then.
“OK, we are 7-0 and getting more attention now, but you have to block out the noise and you are who you are,” Rhule said. “We’re going to demand from our players and coaching staff that same hunger and fire that we had when we were 0-7.
“It’s because of the way we worked when we were 0-7 that we are 7-0 and now we have to do that again.”