It’s a crisp 90 degrees in the land of college football’s Big 12 and, separated by 270 miles of I-35, two of the conference’s powerhouse are in the dog days of springs. Recruiting season is over and kick-off is four months away, yet football’s brightest young minds are as busy as ever.
In Norman, attention is fixed on Oklahoma’s new favourite son: Lincoln Riley’s Heisman-winning quarterback who is just days from being selected first overall in the 2018 NFL Draft. There is no such draft-induced acclaim in Waco, where Matt Rhule’s Baylor are plotting how to progress a team surrounded by more optimism than you might expect following a 1-11 campaign.
In the months between that day and now, Riley would anoint undersized junior Kyler Murray, bound for Major League Baseball after this season as a first-round pick of the Oakland Athletics, as Baker Mayfield’s successor and field a myriad of calls from NFL teams about offensive alignments and plays, all the while plotting another assault on the College Football Playoff.
Rhule, meanwhile, would finally start to concentrate on the matter of winning football games after spending much of his first season changing the culture within the Bears following the sexual-assault scandal that rocked the University and ended Art Briles’ successful (on the field) reign. He, too, would speak to NFL head coaches who called for his advice, such as Doug Marrone and, notably, Jon Gruden. And he’d begin to repair any out-of-joint noses after interviewing for the Indianapolis Colts’ head-coaching position in the aftermath of the Josh McDaniels debacle.
But who are these two outliers of college football; why is the NFL so fond of a man who went 1-11 in his first season at Baylor, and another who’s just 34 years old and had never been a head coach anywhere before 2017?
Rhule, fresh off the back of a skull session with his fellow coaches in the balmy afternoon heat, takes up his story as Baylor’s players tuck into Pokey O’s cookies and ice cream while pelting one another with water balloons. “Getting into this can be traced back to my walking-on at Penn State,” the coach tells Gridiron.
He arrived at Happy Valley as a football junkie, spending four years under Joe Paterno as a limited linebacker who often had to beg to play. “I wasn’t perfect, but I learned a valuable lesson. I try to make sure I give everyone an opportunity. I think the biggest thing we can do is to find value in guys, even if it’s just their toughness and their dependability. If you have enough guys like that, then I think your team can become tough and dependable because teams aren’t built with stars. They’re built with the glue guys first, followed by the stars that can take you over the top.”
Rhule got ‘over the top’ because of a work ethic and versatility that has stayed with him from his days in State College. While more known for his work on the defensive side of the ball, he has also coached offense and special teams throughout his career. As an assistant at Temple from 2006 to 2011, he served in five different positions: defensive line coach, quarterbacks coach, recruiting coordinator, tight ends coach and offensive coordinator. At Western Carolina he was linebackers coach, offensive line coach, run-game coordinator and special teams coordinator. His knowledge of the game isn’t limited to any one position or side of the ball, which helps him relate to both the glue guys and the stars.
“I love football,” he enthuses. “Nothing more, nothing less. To me it’s always been important to cross train across the positions because then you’re just more aware of what’s going on and what guys are supposed to be doing. It’s tougher for me to coach a guy convincingly if I don’t know the first thing about where his technique is falling down. If you understand them then you win trust and that’s very important to me. Inform and educate the young man first and the player and his trust will follow.”
Part of that mentality came from playing under Paterno and seeing how he dealt with the roster. Part of it came from his only spell in the NFL, as offensive line coach under Tom Coughlin with the New York Giants. “I saw that he had a plan that he stuck to. Win, lose or draw, the plan was the plan. And he was also fantastic at dealing one-on-one with players.”
That attitude took Rhule from New York back to Temple and his first head coaching gig, where he oversaw a remarkable turnaround, turning a moribund programme into a winner – 20-7 over the past two seasons while winning a conference championship and playing in a pair of bowl games – and maintaining a strong relationship with his team and the region. It was part of the attraction for Baylor who, in the midst of numerous allegations and convictions for sexual assaults committed by its players, fired Briles – despite him having overseen a renaissance of Bear football during his tenure and catapulted the school into national prominence – after he was held responsible for the scandal.
“I get that we have to win games and that’s important,” said Baylor’s director of athletics Mack Rhoades when unveiling Rhule in 2017, “but not more important than making sure we prepare our kids for life after Baylor and this new culture of making sure they understand that everything does count, and everything does matter, not just on the football field. It’s part of Matt’s ministry.”
It would have been a bitter blow for those that worship at the Church of Baylor Football had Rhule jumped ship to Indianapolis after just one season, more so because of the school’s recent history and the job done to repair its image. He was coy about the Colts interview and subsequent rumours of taking over as the Eagles offensive coordinator after Frank Reich’s departure, but did tell us this: “When it comes to the NFL, I’m not saying that’s my dream or that that’s where I want to be.”
“But it has to have crossed your mind as being a possible part of your future?” we probe.
“My wife and my family and myself, we came to Baylor for a job. Not on a whim or as a stepping stone to the NFL,” he replies. “We came here because we believe in this school and that this is where we’re supposed to be. And, we’re not leaving until we do what we came here to do.”
“So, would you talk to NFL clubs if they came calling again?” Gridiron pushes.
“It’s great that people recognise the work we’ve done and the players we’ve put into the pros. They see these hard, tough, developed players so, when someone wants to talk to me, I’ll be respectful. I’ll talk to them.”
Rhule talks to the NFL a lot. Just not general managers and owners. These days he’s forever on the phone to coaches around the league, despite just winning a solitary game in 2017. “I have a good relationship with a lot of people in the NFL and they’ll often call me for a conversation,” he admits. “It’s football, it’s Xs and Os, we’re all doing the same things. Look, I take pages from Alabama, Clemson, the New England Patriots.
“The teams I respect the most, the Alabamas, the old USC teams, the Patriots, if they need to be in five-wide and they’re behind like Josh [McDaniels] was in the Super Bowl, they’re going to be in five-wide and throw it. If they’re ahead, they’re going to get in the I-formation and bloody your nose until they win the game. Whatever you need to do to win a game and talking to people around the game is part of that. It’s collaboration. Just ask a guy like Lincoln.”
Beyond making plays, there’s another huge benefit for Riley and Rhule when it comes to this increased NFL chatter: it’s a key factor in the recruiting war because the biggest question from high-school kids is, ‘How can I get to the league?’. After his Colts interview, Rhule can now go into living rooms and tell potential recruits that NFL teams want to hire him, which increases Baylor’s attractiveness. Similar with Riley. Talk that the NFL is beating a path to his door is good for the future of Oklahoma as well: the top QB prospect for 2019, Spencer Rattler of Phoenix Pinnacle High, admitted to SportsDay that Riley’s NFL interest excites him. “It does. He’s a guy that the league is all over and you can’t really beat that. When he’s your head coach and you’re a quarterback, Oklahoma’s an NFL quarterback factory.”
The league will come calling for these two men soon enough. And not to discuss formations and plays. It’ll be to run franchises and rebuild fanbases. They both know it and, while neither is encouraging the conversation, the evolution of the pro game in terms of taking on so many collegiate concepts, and the way that young coaches deal with Millennial players, means it’s almost inevitable. “Twenty-eight, 29, 30 of the 32 NFL teams wanted to pick Riley’s brain this year,” said ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit in an interview this summer. “That matters. Take Dallas. If and when the Cowboys ever need a head coach, it wouldn’t surprise me if the Jones group considered Lincoln Riley. He’s young and only going to get better. If he were a stock, you’d be buying Lincoln Riley.”
And it’s the same with Matt Rhule. “It wouldn’t surprise me at all to see the NFL, within a few months, come back and try knock on his door and get him to leave again,” adds Herbstreit. “These guys are the future of football, on Saturdays and Sundays.”
This article originally appeared in Issue XL of Gridiron magazine – for individual editions or subscriptions, click HERE