Matt Rhule took the Baylor in December job fully knowing the ugly headlines, lawsuits and general toxicity he’d need to clean up in the wake of Art Briles’ tenure at the university. In February, Rhule told Sports Illustrated: “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.”
As controversy has continued to swirl around the actions of former staff and players, Rhule has carried on with his task of re-shaping the Bears on and off the field. Last month at the NFL draft, Rhule sat down with SI to chat about how his rebuilding project is going in Waco, Haason Reddick’s journey from walk-on to first-round pick and what the Bears will look like on the field in 2017.
Pete Thamel: Tell me about the philosophical transition, marrying the hyper speed of Baylor with the smashmouth pro-style you did so well at Temple. After 15 practices, what did it look like?
Matt Rhule: I would say before (at Temple), I started with the big stuff, the power, pro-style stuff then I would say 40% of the time we were in some sort of spread type of a deal. All I’ve done now is flipped those percentages. So now we’re probably like 60 percent of the time in the spread stuff and then 40 or 30 (in pro). You ever read the book Purple Cow? I wanted it to be my Purple Cow. It’s an outlier, and you always have to always kind of deal with the fact that Baylor might come out in these sets. But, at the end of the day, we’re still doing what all these other kids are doing. And what the kids have bought into, they are getting training in a way that easily translates to (the NFL) level, so they can see the benefits themselves. At the same time, we’re hopefully going to be fun and dynamic. The biggest issue is tempo and even Baylor last year, they really slowed the tempo down, so a lot of the tempo teams are coming full circle so. I told people I like to be a game theory person. When you have the lead, you don’t want to go real fast. And when you don’t have the lead, you want to go fast.
PT: When I was out your way on Signing Day, you didn’t quite have a feel for what you had talent wise. What’s your impression post-spring?
MR: Yeah it’s a really fast, athletic team. You had two kids that came out early that were really talented and both receivers. And you have Chris Platt, who plays in the spring game then goes and runs in that Michael Johnson Invitational that night in the 400. There’s just elite speed. You know there’s a misnomer out there we’re not going (to have a full roster). We’re at 85 scholarships. It’s just that some positions, there’s like six or seven scholarship offensive linemen, three scholarship backs, two healthy. We have three really good quarterbacks. Zach Smith started at Baylor, Anu Solomon started at Arizona, so that’s going to be a fun battle to watch. Charlie Brewer is a kid who came in, is going to be a really good player, accurate. He was accurate all spring, like nothing fazes him. Like, just throws the ball and the guy catches it. I think one of the things that happened there and losing some kids, they played all their freshmen this past year, so those kids have played and you say to yourself, get them there this off-season, and in three years they’re going to be really good players. We feel good about a lot of different things, but there are areas we’re going to have to maneuver to correct to fix.
PT: A philosophical question for you. Your teams at Temple were known for toughness. Can you teach toughness?
MR: Absolutely and I’ll bore you with this answer. For our kids, I always take toughness and break out the definition for them. It’s defined as physical, and or emotional strength. Webster says to do something that’s really hard or to handle adverse conditions. My point to the kids is it’s a strength, it’s a muscle, so you have a job to do. You can either do it, or do a job under tough conditions, both physical and mentally, so the mental toughness is everything to me from being five minutes early, having your hat off in the building, all these things and the physical toughness is practicing. A lot of people play 1s vs 2s in spring games, and a lot of people in practice don’t hit anyone. We’re different. And that’s how you get guys like Haason Reddick who go from a walk-on to a draft pick. They get better at what they do, and you also get to the point where things don’t bother you anymore. So we can absolutely get tougher. These kids, they came from Texas high school football, they’ve been hitting and running and coaching since they were young, so it’s not a stretch. It’s just our way of doing and it is probably what they did in high school.
PT: You mentioned Haason Reddick. (He ended up as the No. 13 pick by Arizona). Quite a long way from a walk-on. How proud are you of his journey?
MR: I’m unbelievably proud of him, and the fact that he invited me (to the NFL draft) was one of the things I’ve cherished most along the way. I’m really proud he invited me, but I’m really proud of him because no one gave him anything. Even the past year going into this process, he’s a down the line guy, and all he’s done is work and work and work. Once he started to have a ton of success, he didn’t change. He kept running down on the kickoff team even when he knew he was going to get drafted really high because he wanted to win. He’s every bit the example of our program and what we want it to be like.
PT: I’d imagine it has to feel good to play a part in changing someone’s life like that?
MR: One of the things I’m most proud of is that I’ve talked to a lot of teams about him. The feedback, the professionalism and maturity people said they had and answering the good things they’ve done, the bad things they’ve done, at an age where they say kids can’t talk, kids can’t have attention spans, Haason has increased his value not just because of how he broad jumps, but how he interviewed and carried himself with people. To think he came through our program, and he’s respected as an athlete, as a talent, but also as a man. His family’s whole life whole life has changed. This is a kid who made a decision to pay for college and pay for three years and now here he is, he’ll have a lot of zeroes behind his name soon.
PT: Kyle Boyd is a Marine who seems like he could emerge as one of the faces of your program.
MR: He certainly could be. He transitioned into the fullback role. They didn’t really have that before, and he’s a guy, you wouldn’t know everything he’s been through if you didn’t read the story because he lets his actions speak for themself. He works hard, he’s very humble, he’s not entitled in any way and he’s just a great kid. To think he’s paying for something that was once his is unique and really special. He doesn’t come in and use that as a crutch, doesn’t try to garner attention, he just wants to be there and is grateful to be there and is happy to be there and so guys like that, it’s so easy to point out. The good thing about him is his teammates respect him. You don’t have to worry about saying hey guys, look what he did, they all know who he is and what he stands for.
PT: How’s the Ishmail Wainright experiment going from the basketball court to a converted tight end?
MR: One of the cool things is he’s really revered. Coach (Scott) Drew told me he’s a great leader, and so he had to make a decision, he had a chance to go make some money probably playing. And Rico (Gathers) did it (playing for the Dallas Cowboys), he never played, he just went right to the NFL. He’s got all the tools to be a guy that could be drafted next year and has the mental ability and physical work ethic to do it as well. Unless he’s changing his mind tomorrow, he’s been all in.
PT: You should have a really interesting quarterback competition this summer.
MR: Absolutely. I didn’t think it was fair to make decisions based off the spring. Zach has a bum ankle still from the season, they’re all just learning the system. Charlie should be in high school. My thing was let them go out this spring, have the summer, and then in the fall when they all are operating on their talent and abilities, not just who knows a little bit more right now. I would say this: The good news to me is we have three great quarterbacks. Zach has an NFL arm. And he’s really sharp mentally. People think the pro-style thing is being under center. A lot of it is checking plays, changing plays, adjusting protections, it’s that part of the game that is the chess match and he’s really good at it. Charlie has the accuracy and sort of ‘it’ factor and Anu has played a lot, he’s savvy, has a lot of deep balls. He is a senior. He’s got an urgency to him which is unique, and he has an ability to run. For a guy who as a head coach has only had one starting quarterback (Phillip Walker), this is uncharted territory for me. I think it will resolve itself but I think they all can play.
PT: You obviously had a push to Signing Day. Now that you’ve had a chance to ingratiate yourself with coaches in a Texas a bit, how would you say that you’ve been received?
MR: I think it’s going pretty well. The recruiting part is going really well, I spoke to over 1,500 Texas high school football coaches so far. I went everywhere. Those guys like the guys that are on our staff. We’re open 24/7. I think those guys appreciate that, and we’re focused on recruiting in the state. We signed 21 kids last year from the state of Texas, that was the most in the Big 12, and that’s where we’re gonna recruit. There’s obviously 10 to 15 high end players, but the thing you realize is there’s another 200 guys that can all play. There’s quarterbacks in this draft and guys like Pat Mahomes who all came out of Texas. I think recruiting and signing kids out of Texas is going to pay off, but I think kids are excited about us. The facilities are great, the academics are elite, I think parents and kids are excited to go to a school with a mission of faith and service, and I think they’re excited about football. We had to address what happened in the past, but also really positive about the future. Recruiting I think is one of the parts that has been the best.
PT: I know you’ve put a lot of emphasis on community service since arriving in Waco. Your team has performed 700 hours with 21 different agencies since you arrived. All the coaches have participated, too. Give me a sense of the type of outreach?
MR: There’s a thing called Mission Waco which supports homeless people, and we built the back of a shopping center, read in schools, have done stuff with veterans. At the end of the day, we’re trying to do a really good job of making sure our kids find the positives in themselves.