Matt Rhule's Texas Immersion Is at the Heart of Baylor's On-Field Turnaround

A native New Yorker, Matt Rhule dove right into Texas culture when he was named Baylor's head coach three years ago. It's made all the difference in Waco.
By Ross Dellenger ,

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WACO, Texas — A Yankee in the heart of Texas, Matt Rhule needed to make some changes when he took the job as head coach at Baylor. First off, he got himself some new boots, then he began speaking with a slower pace, next he altered the way he pronounced Baylor—BEH-lur became BAY-lur. He started to wear jeans more often, up-sized his vehicle to a four-door Sliverado and bought a Polaris ATV. The latter came with a free shotgun, because of course it came with a free shotgun. This is Texas. “What would I do if I knew I had a free shotgun?” asks Baylor assistant coach and Texas native Shawn Bell while recalling the story. “I’d go get it that day. You know how long it took him to go get that shotgun? Three-hundred and sixty-five days. So I called over there and got it set up and picked it up.”

You’ll have to forgive Rhule. He’s not from ’round here. He was raised in New York City, played at Penn State and spent much of his coaching career in Philadelphia. That’s why his hiring at Baylor in December 2016 baffled many in the college football industry. Not only had Rhule inherited one of the grimmest situations in college football history, but he was an outsider here, a state that often acts as its own country, a place bullish to strangers, especially them Yankees. That’s why he got help—from Texans themselves. Bell, Joey McGuire and David Wetzel were longtime high school football coaches in the state of Texas, each having never worked on a college staff before Rhule made them some of his first hires. “I call us the Three Stooges,” laughs Bell.

Nearly three years later, the Bears, their New Yorker head coach and the Texas Stooges are undefeated. Baylor (4–0) travels for its biggest test of the young season this weekend at Kansas State (3–1). No matter the result of the game, Rhule is in Year 3 of a somewhat remarkable reconstruction of a place leveled by a wide-ranging sexual assault scandal, one that involved Baylor players and took down the school’s football coach, Art Briles, its athletic director and its president. The face of the program became a 41-year-old Northeasterner whose greatest success came at a basketball school (Temple) in the big city (Philadelphia). So he hired Texas guys and turned into a Texan himself. The only thing missing is his cowboy hat (don’t look for that to come anytime soon, says staff members).

Embracing Texas is maybe the most essential piece to Rhule’s turnaround in Waco. Sure, his dialect and appearances leaned more Texan, but he also connected with the state’s legion of high school football coaches, the true power brokers in arguably the most talent-laden state in the union. Rhule mined their players, too (77% of Baylor’s roster is from Texas). There were other pieces to this turnaround, of course. He implemented a rebuild plan that included a physically demanding regimen built on player-coach relationships, sticking to it through a 1–11 season in his first year that came with its share of player pushback.

Along the way were the three Texas stooges. Inside the Simpson Athletics Center, Bell, Wetzel and McGuire are mostly referred to as the Texas Connection. They are surrounded by some 30 staff members that Rhule brought with him from Temple, many of them with an NFL pedigree and Northeastern background. Mixed among them are a trio of coaches who won more than 315 games at the high school level in their home state. You’ve got Wetzel, a 50-year-old off-the-field administrator who coordinates much of the high school relations, a fitting position for a man who at the time of his hiring served as president of the Texas High School Football Coaches Association. There’s the youngest of the group coaching Baylor’s offensive line, 35-year-old Bell, who landed his first head high school job at the ripe age of 25. Last of the group is McGuire, a 48-year-old coaching the Bears defensive ends who won three Texas high school state championships in the last 13 years.

They all talk with that Texas twang, and the older two men left storied high school programs that they’d helped build into dynasties—McGuire at Cedar Hill High and Wetzel at Reagan High. Meanwhile, Bell’s first and last team at Cedar Ridge went 11–1, and he was named as his district’s coach of the year. Bell and Wetzel have a close connection to this place. They played here. Wetzel was a receiver in the early 1990s, and Bell set 28 school records as Baylor’s quarterback from 2003–06. The Bears won 15 games over those seasons, never reaching a bowl. As a Texas kid raised just outside of Waco, he signed with BU to help turn around the football program as a player. It never happened. “When this all happened (with the scandal), it’s kind of the same thing,” Bell says. “I wanted to be a part of the group that turned it around and made it a special place. I knew Coach Rhule was going to be the guy to build it.”

The trio have more in common: They had never worked in college football. That was O.K. with Rhule, himself the son of a pastor and high school football coach. “There are a lot of high school coaches out there who could coach in college or the NFL,” Rhule says in an interview last month from his office. “Those three guys helped me understand the landscape of Texas. They helped me understand who to get to know and how things worked to help avoid the pitfalls that some other college coaches have made. I didn’t want to make mistakes that other guys who came from out of state and didn’t make it work. They had players recruited by those staffs.”

No one here is naming names, but ex-Longhorns coach Charlie Strong famously never truly connected with the 2,500-some odd high school football coaches in this state. That wasn’t the case for Rhule. Two months into his job at Baylor, he hopped on a helicopter with Wetzel, the two of them flying around the massive state to attend the coaches association’s regional meetings. “Coach Rhule wanted to get in front of Texas high school coaches,” Wetzel says. “I remember him saying then to each group, ‘Not everybody around the country has it like we do in Texas.’ The level of Texas high school football, there are some tremendous football coaches that will never win a state championships and don’t ever want to coach in the college ranks.” So many of the sport’s iconic innovators and game-changing movements are rooted in Texas. The evolution of the spread offense is thought to have blossomed here through an offseason enterprise now common across the country: 7-on-7. The triple-option offense swept the nation only after Darrell Royal’s 1960s Texas teams used it to create a dynasty. On a normal year in the NFL, more quarterbacks are from Texas than any other state. And that now-common run-pass option you hear about it? Yes, that too started in Texas, says Wetzel.

Rhule embraced this community in his first full day on the job. He walked across the Brazos River to BU’s stadium to watch Sweetwater beat Gilmer in a Texas high school semifinal. The next day, he saw The Woodlands win over Allen from Darrell K Royal Stadium in Austin, and next he watched a quarterback named Charlie Brewer lead Lake Travis to a victory over Atascocita at the Alamo Dome in San Antonio. Those early days on the job were essential from a recruiting standpoint. The sexual assault scandal resulted in waves of attrition, and Baylor had one—one—verbal commitment when Rhule took the gig. The 2017 signing class was essential. It included Brewer, who Rhule & Co. wooed away from a commitment to SMU, and defensive tackle James Lynch, the subject of Rhule’s first in-home visit as Baylor’s coach. During that period, receiver R.J. Sneed flipped from Ole Miss to Baylor, and BU coaches convinced running back Abram Smith to attend Baylor and not Tulsa. “They came mid-year for a coach from New York they had never met before,” Rhule says. “Those are the guys that had faith in us. It’s amazing what they’re doing now.”

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Brewer, averaging 243 yards a game with 10 touchdowns and no interceptions, is on his second full year as the starting quarterback. Lynch, a preseason All-Big 12 first teamer, leads the team in sacks. Smith scored his first career touchdown this year, and Reed has caught 15 balls. They’ve needed some other heroes during this perfect start. Defensive end James Lockhart’s third-down sack in the waning minutes preserved a 21–13 victory over Rice, and the Bears blew a 20–0 lead over Iowa State last weekend before John Mayers made his first ever field goal, a 38-yard game-winner. So, no, it has not been easy, and it gets tougher from here. The Bears are slim underdogs for the game in Manhattan, Kansas, this weekend, and they are projected to be underdogs in four of their final seven.

Don’t tell Rhule the odds. They’ve been stacked against him since Day 1, taking over a program plunged into darkness. The school fired Art Briles on May 26, 2016, which happened to be the birthday of Jordan Williams, a linebacker then preparing for his redshirt freshman season. About a year before that, Williams had gotten tattooed on his left forearm the school’s logo. “I was a joke for a minute,” he says. For more than two years, Rhule fought the lingering ramifications from the scandal. On road games, fans chanted insults at his kids, some of them in high school at the height of the Baylor scandal. Media reports slammed school administrators. Some people crucified his current players and staff, all innocent of wrongdoing. Rhule kept reminding his players, “This is not your story. This has nothing to do with you,” but it was tough.

The one-win 2017 season didn’t help. Some players pushed back against Rhule’s hard-charging mentality and his physical practices, the opposite of his predecessor. “Our old coach had a certain way. It worked and we won,” says Taylor Young, a senior linebacker at BU in 2017 who’s now a support staff member for Rhule. “Coach Rhule came in and his way was completely different. We hit a lot more. Some guys didn’t like that.” Young became Rhule’s messenger during that turbulent year, disseminating his message among the troops, “the glue” that held the team together, says Rhule. Ironically, Young was one of the players who had to be convinced into staying when Rhule initially took over. Everyone knew what was coming during 2017: lots of losing. When McGuire accepted the job, Rhule warned him, “This is fixin' to be the toughest year of your life.”

What makes Rhule successful is his relationship-building tactics and motivational methods, staff members say. He demands that his assistants form tight bonds with the players. He’s so committed to it that he had Baylor’s new players lounge built directly across the hall from the staff’s offices. Through its glass walls, Rhule can been seen at times playing ping-pong with his players. “One thing about coach, he wants you to be a part of their lives academically and socially,” says McGuire. “If he knows something before you know something about one of your kids, he feels like you’re not putting enough time in to get to know the guys.” Throughout Baylor’s football facility, flyers hang on the walls reminding players of their focus for that week. The upcoming opponent’s logo is alongside three characters in black bold font: 1–0. By the time players return to the facility after the game Saturday night or Sunday, new flyers are hung featuring the logo of the next opponent.

Rhule’s program isn’t built on Xs and Os or any kind of elaborate schemes. In a way, he views that as a positive. He’s one of the rare coaches to have spent significant time during his career as an assistant on both sides of the ball. He’s coached the defensive line and he’s coached the offensive line. He’s coached quarterbacks and he’s coached linebackers. It makes him more well rounded than most head coaches, many of them offensive savants of sorts. “The players on the team feel like I’m the head coach, not an offensive head coach,” he says. “That can breed contempt.”

Bell calls Rhule the “smartest man I’ve ever been around.” Rhule shakes off the compliment. He views himself as a fixer. He took over a Temple program that had won one conference or division title in the previous 45 years and won two in four years. With the Owls, he went 2–10, 6–6 and had back-to-back 10-win seasons. He’s on a similar trajectory here: 1–11, 7–6, 4–0 so far this year. The school rewarded him this fall with a four-year contract extension through the 2027 season, a deal that likely came with a salary boost (As a private institution, BU does not disclose financial terms). Will he be here that long or leave to fix another spot? That includes an NFL franchise. He’s on the league’s radar. In fact, if Rhule was willing to let the New York Jets last year pick his staff, he’d likely be their head coach now, according to multiple reports, including those from Sports Illustrated’s Albert Breer.

In the immediate future for Rhule is turning a seven-win team into a 10-win team. That’s more difficult than going from one win to seven. “It’s hard to go from good to great,” he says. “You go from one to seven by eliminating stupid things. Let’s not have 12 penalties in a game. And you surprise some people. When you’re a seven-win team, everyone sees you coming.”

He can’t do it, of course, without the Texas stooges. “I want something to be made clear,” Rhule says of the trio. “If I took a job at the University of Alaska, I’d take all three guys with me there. They’re not only valuable to me because they’re just from Texas.” He found Wetzel, Bell and McGuire in different ways. Looking for Texas help in his first week on the job, Rhule turned to then-SMU coach Chad Morris, a Texas native, and Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo, who heavily recruits the Lone Star State. Both recommended Wetzel, who in turn suggested the hiring of McGuire. Rhule and McGuire’s interview was a two-hour breakfast at an IHOP off I-35 in Hillsboro, Texas, between Waco and Dallas. After two pots of coffee, they struck a deal. As for Bell, Rhule found him on Twitter. “I saw a Twitter post that had mentioned Shawn Bell,” Rhule recalls. “Name sounded familiar. Someone else had mentioned him.” He messaged Bell on Twitter the night after he was introduced as coach. Bell still has the direct message. He chuckles while showing a reporter. “Slid into my DMs,” he says. “Literally.”

Three years later, here they all are, lossless through the first month of the season, their head coach part New Yorker and, now, part Texan, with his blue jeans, big truck and free shotgun. “I give him so much credit for realizing, ‘Hey, I’m the outsider coming in,’” Wetzel says. “He took a step that some other people that have come into Texas from the outside did not do. He made some hires to familiarize himself. He was not one bit afraid to say, ‘Hey, how do I pronounce Mexia?’ He’s not one bit afraid to say, ‘Hey, should I wear these boots?’”

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