Starting from nothing: How Matt Rhule rebuilt Baylor's recruiting class from scratch

4:04 | College Football
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Wednesday February 1st, 2017

WACO, Texas — When Matt Rhule took over as the head coach at Baylor during the first full week in December, he inherited a program that had been rocked by a series of sexual assault allegations that shook the university to its core. The fallout from one of the most searing scandals to ever hit college athletics and higher education could cost the university more than $200 million, according to published estimates. And beyond financial toll, the scope and nature of the allegations indelibly stigmatized the Baylor brand for years to come, both in football and beyond.

Rhule arrived at a program that lost six straight games on the field and whose makeshift staff seemingly spent much more time fighting for former coach Art Briles’s tarnished name than recruiting future Bears players. Neither effort went particularly well. When Rhule was hired on Dec. 6, Baylor had one committed recruit, an interim coaching staff rebelling against the university and a new coach with no ties to the state of Texas. “It was like we were dropped off in a foreign country,” says Evan Cooper, Baylor’s director of player personnel who came with Rhule from Temple.

What happened over the next two months is the most remarkable story of National Signing Day 2017. Baylor signed four players in December and 23 more freshmen on Wednesday. Bears officials worried this fall about roster numbers dipping into the 50s as Baylor rebuilt. Instead, with 27 new bodies recruited in less than two months under Rhule Baylor projects to be near the maximum of 85 scholarships this fall.

While the Bears’ 2017 class doesn’t smack with national championship promise, it resuscitated the program’s competitive hopes. By signing day, Baylor’s class ranked No. 36, according to Scout.com. Considering Rhule and his staff parachuted into a toxic situation in unfamiliar territory, the Bears’ recruiting turnaround from a nearly vacant class to third in the Big 12 can be considered Rhule’s first victory at Baylor. “What’s incredible is that a lot of these young men who’ll sign with us, they didn’t have Baylor on their mind three or four weeks ago,” says Baylor athletic director Mack Rhoades, reflecting in his office Tuesday.

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On Dec. 6, Rhule, Cooper and three other Baylor coaches gathered in a windowless conference room where Rhoades holds meetings outside his office. (The interim Baylor staff occupied the football offices until the Cactus Bowl on Dec. 27.) They watched hundreds of player highlights roll on a beige wall, lacking even a proper projector screen. They started with one laptop, blank dry erase boards and empty notebooks. When they initially looked at prospects, they had no idea if cities like Allen, Texas, were near Dallas or El Paso. Wrappers from Torchy’s Tacos and empty cans of Rhule’s beloved Monster Energy drink—blue flavored, low carb—filled the table. It felt, in every way, like a makeshift operation.

Since then, the shotgun marriage of Rhule, Baylor and Texas recruiting has buzzed with promise. “I don’t shy away from what happened here,” Rhule told Sports Illustrated in his office Tuesday morning. “I haven’t. What I tell people is we’re not only going to fix the problem, we want to be an example of what you can do in the future. If you want to come here, you can be the change, build a legacy not defined by things that happened before you got there.”

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Rod Aydelotte/AP

The answer to why Matt Rhule may end up as a perfect fit at a Baptist school in this sleepy Central Texas city begins at a 148-acre island between Manhattan and Queens. At age 5, Rhule’s family moved from Kansas City to New York after his father completed time in the seminary. They soon settled in Roosevelt Island, with Denny and Gloria, both 30, 2-year old Dana and Matt heading to kindergarten.

Denny Rhule came to serve as an associate pastor at Lamb’s Manhattan Church of the Nazarene. He was unpaid at first, so the family lived in subsidized middle-incoming housing and Gloria initially worked as a pre-school teacher and Denny as a physical education teacher at private schools around New York. Their apartment windows offered a glimpse of tugboats traversing the East River. The Rhules were a working-class family, right down to the view.

They lived a modest life that Gloria describes as paycheck to paycheck. Their neighbors included the children of diplomats, and Matt’s friends included some of the children of New York’s elite he knew from school. Matt also accompanied his dad to midnight basketball events in some of New York’s grittier neighborhoods and socialized with homeless children at the church’s community center. Unknowingly, Matt Rhule’s childhood prepared him for the kaleidoscope of backgrounds he’d encounter as a college football coach.

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Matt grew up riding the subways in New York, yet seamlessly hopped into the back of pick-up trucks when the Rhules went to State College in the summer to visit Denny’s family. (The Rhules eventually moved there when Matt started high school). When he’d go to the beach, Gloria recalls with a laugh that he’d instantly blend in with groups of kids. She calls Roosevelt Island in the early 1980s a “social experiment” of different races, socioeconomic backgrounds and religions. “No one paid a lot of attention to that,” Gloria says. “Matt navigated across a lot of circles, and I think it all contributed to who he is.”

Matt vividly remembers a moment from childhood when his parents opened an envelope in the mail with a check that he assumes enabled them to pay the bills that month. He saw their joy, their vulnerability and their relief. He saw them following their calling and fight through struggle for a higher purpose. It stuck with him. “I saw my parents each and every day making the most of each day and making an impact and not worrying about the future, the end of the month, and knowing everything will be provided,” Matt says. “That to me prepared me for this.”

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Rod Aydelotte/AP

Michelle Brigham’s first meeting with Matt Rhule took place on the field at Baylor in mid-January. Her son, three-star offensive lineman Xavier Newman from Desoto (Texas) High, had been committed to both Texas and Colorado during the recruiting process. “The way he greeted me was like an old friend, like we hadn’t seen each other in years,” she said. “That was my first impression. I’d never met this man before.”

What’s impressive about Rhule’s class at Baylor is that it transcends the norm in recruiting, where relationships are typically built over multiple years. Rhule’s top priority was keeping his current players on campus, and none of the 15 players who could have graduated and transferred to other places did. That helped build a foundation for the current class.

The words “regular” and “comfortable” consistently come up when players, prospects and coaches talk about Rhule. When a committed prospect FaceTimed Rhule at dinner on Tuesday night to wish him a happy 42nd birthday, Rhule joked about his age, “I’m almost dead.” At Temple, Rhule coached his son’s Little League baseball team in Philadelphia. (He and Julie have three kids ages 12, 3 and 1.) He’s known for beating his players in Ping Pong and refusing to play them again, preferring to keep bragging rights.

Brigham admits she arrived with concerns about the sexual assault scandal. But after meeting with the coaches and their wives, those fears waned. Her family had been convinced to visit Baylor after Rhule hired Joey McGuire, who coached at DeSoto’s rival, Cedar Hill. (McGuire is one of three Texas high school coaches Rhule wisely hired, along with David Wetzel from San Antonio Reagan and Shawn Bell from Cedar Ridge.)

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DeSoto coach Todd Pederman chuckles recalling an interaction when a college head coach asked him what he thought about Rhule not being from Texas. “You could have told me coach Rhule was from Austin, and I would have believed you,” Pederman says. “When does coach Rhule become a Texan? I don’t get too caught up in that. High school coaches aren’t about that. What’s important is that he opens the doors and makes guys feel comfortable.”

Peterman got that vibe immediately when Rhule came through and visited DeSoto after getting the job. “You can tell when people are comfortable talking,” he says. “And you can tell when a car salesman comes in to recruit. I just felt comfortable talking with him.”

So did Newman, the top-rated player in Baylor’s class. On the Sunday morning of Newman’s visit, Brigham and her husband were sold on Rhule. But they didn’t want to tip off their son about their feelings. So they mulled it over at breakfast, with Newman saying, “Mom, it just feels right.”

Brigham declined to go into specifics about how Rhule quelled her fears on her questions about the sexual assault scandal but said she felt satisfied with his answers. Newman left campus as a Baylor commit, impressive considering his offers from Oklahoma, Texas and Texas A&M. “I really feel that he’s going to be hard on them,” Brigham says. “He’s going to love them just as hard. As strict and tough as he’s going to be on them, he’s going to love them just as hard.”

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Matt and Julie Rhule met in State College as Penn State students in the mid-1990s. He worked as the fry cook at Chili’s. She was a waitress. He jokes she spent the summer ordering fried food. She jokes that her brother wouldn’t tell her Matt called their home. (Actually, that wasn’t a joke.) Their journey through coaching began at Albright College in Reading, Pa., where Rhule worked for a defensive coordinator named Geoff Collins. (Collins replaced Rhule as Temple’s head coach in December).

They hop-scotched the country while Matt chased his coaching dream. When he worked as a graduate assistant at UCLA in 2001, Julie recalls their Los Angeles-area zip code as Beverley Hills 90212. They were two digits and a world away from the glamour of the famous television show. “The wrong side of the tracks of Wilshire,” she says with a laugh.

They hopped to the Smoky Mountains where Matt worked at Western Carolina before a hitch as an assistant at Temple and a season with the New York Giants. Then, Matt became Temple’s head coach in 2013. Along the way, they had three kids, big wins and plenty of struggles.

Rhule went 2–10 his first season at Temple, including losses to Fordham and Idaho. He changed the program by not changing though, keeping the same high-energy and deprecating demeanor that he developed from his time as a Penn State walk-on through his meandering path. “It took him a couple years to build the culture,” says Ed Foley, who worked under Rhule at Temple. “But once it’s built, it’s rock solid. Matt left the program in great shape from a culture standpoint.”

Rhule eventually led Temple to back-to-back 10-win seasons, which included an American Athletic Conference championship in December, the Owls’ first league championship since 1967. In the 49-year gap, Temple had been kicked out of the Big East and nearly dropped football altogether. Plenty of folks noticed the historic achievement, and in the 48 hours following the AAC title Rhule interviewed with both Baylor and Oregon.

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Matt and Julie suddenly found themselves on the right side of the tracks—swanky sushi house Nobu Fifty Seven in Manhattan—eating miso cod and pondering a big decision. Baylor had offered Rhule the job that morning.

Rhule told Rhoades, who’d interviewed him as Missouri’s athletic director the previous year, he’d keep his word and speak with Oregon. Ducks officials called during dinner with an offer. With both of his cell phones hovering below 10% battery, Matt and Julie juggled phones and offers they could never have imagined at Chili’s. (They got the stink eye from the Nobu staff when they kept insisting they charge their phone at the host stand.) “They have a place to charge them downstairs,” Rhule said. “And I’m like, ‘I can’t! This is my life!’”

Julie says that as recently as this summer, neither she nor Matt would have considered Baylor. But the relationship with Rhoades combined with the opportunity to change the program’s paradigm proved alluring. “Even before he interviewed,” Julie says, “I had this gut feeling we’re going to end up taking this job and move. If you had told me that this summer, I would have said, ‘What?’ But I just feel like this is what’s meant to be. We both felt like this was our leap. We’re being called to do this.”

While it will be imperative for Rhule to win at Baylor, his rebuilding project will transcend the field. (His seven-year deal is worth $28 million, which gives him time). He’ll have to navigate ugly headlines he didn’t create, like the lawsuit filed Friday that alleges 52 rapes by football players in four years under the previous staff. More accusations, settlements and lawsuits still loom over Baylor.

And for Rhule, that means a higher standard. He’s pleased with that, as its part of what drew him here. “At the end of the day, we should probably hold ourselves to a higher standard,” he says. “At the end of the day, what these kids need is a fair, consistent standard and someone who advocates for them and holds them to a high standard. That to me is all any kid can ask for when they go to college.”

And on National Signing Day, Rhule announced his arrival at Baylor with a class that will serve as a foundation for the future.

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