December was already going to be a busy month for Baylor coach Matt Rhule and his staff with the early NCAA signing period coming up in a few weeks.
But Rhule’s calendar got a little more crowded when the Bears became bowl eligible with their 35-24 win over Texas Tech on Saturday in the regular season finale at AT&T Stadium in Arlington.
That’s one extra date Rhule will happily make room for.
Reaching a bowl is a major step forward for Rhule’s second-year program following a 1-11 finish in his debut season. He took over the monumental task of cleaning up Baylor’s scandal-wrecked program in December 2016.
“I think for the program, it’s validation that we’re doing the right things the right way,” said Baylor athletic director Mack Rhoades. “It’s another step forward. Certainly, I don’t think anyone would say that we feel like we’ve arrived or we’re there yet. But it’s progress. And I think most importantly, man, just for those seniors. Think about everything those seniors have been through. For them to end their career here with a bowl game, and to be part of that foundation in terms of bringing Baylor back, that’s special.”
While Rhule doesn’t want to stay .500 in upcoming seasons, he understands it’s a year the Bears can build on.
“We went from one win to a bowl,” Rhule said. “The freshmen will know a bowl is what you’re supposed to expect. They’ll see this as the bare minimum. I’ve asked them to do some hard things, and they’ve done them.”
So far, Rhule’s first two seasons at Baylor parallel the trajectory of his former program at Temple, which finished 2-10 in his first season as head coach in 2013 before jumping to 6-6 in 2014. His .500 season was a springboard to the next two highly successful years when the Owls reeled off consecutive 10-win seasons before Rhule moved to Baylor.
Reaching a bowl was the kind of progress Rhoades hoped to see in Rhule’s second season. But Rhoades isn’t surprised because he already knew the kind of leader Rhule was by watching his success at Temple and working closely with him the last two years at Baylor.
“In my mind, I never felt like and still don’t feel like Matt Rhule needs validation,” Rhoades said. “Matt Rhule is a heck of a football coach. First and foremost, he’s an unbelievable leader of young men. The text messages right now that I’ve received from national media that are talking about, ‘Hey, great hire, unbelievable.’ So not a validation of Matt Rhule, but a validation in terms of the process.”
Rhoades is even more proud of the progress Rhule and his staff have made in rehabilitating the program off the field. Rhule’s players are graduating at a high rate and they’re doing a lot of community service work. They’re making many of the necessary steps toward rebuilding the program the right way after the sexual assault scandal brought down the Art Briles’ regime.
Rhoades thought Rhule had the character and coaching ability the program needed when he hired him 23 months ago, and it’s becoming more apparent to the public and Baylor followers as his tenure unfolds.
“I thought it needed a person that was grounded and would be prepared for the enormity of the situation because this wasn’t just a football coaching position, I didn’t think when we were hiring,” Rhoades said. “There was so much more to it. All the noise and some of that is still around the program, and the doubters, and the litigation, and all of that stuff.
“It needed somebody who could withstand that and look at it in its eyes and say ‘Hey, we’re going to be OK. We’re going to get through this, we’re going to get past this.’ That’s what it was about. Quite frankly, I wanted a partner that was ready for a fight, ready for a tough situation, knowing it was going to be a battle. You know what? We’re still going to battle.”
Where the Bears end up in the postseason won’t be officially revealed until Sunday after the conference championship games are played next weekend.
Four destinations with Big 12 bowl ties appear most likely for the Bears: the Armed Forces Bowl in Fort Worth on Dec. 22, the Cheez-It Bowl in Phoenix on Dec. 26, the Texas Bowl in Houston on Dec. 27, and the Liberty Bowl in Memphis on Dec. 31. All Big 12 affiliated bowls will be played after the early NCAA signing period begins Dec. 19.
The Big 12 has seven bowl eligible teams, including Oklahoma and Texas, which will play in Saturday’s Big 12 championship game at AT&T Stadium in Arlington.
West Virginia finished the regular season with an 8-3 record while Iowa State is 7-4 heading into Saturday’s game against Drake. Potential destinations for the Mountaineers and Cyclones are the Alamo Bowl in San Antonio and the Camping World Bowl in Orlando, Fla., both on Dec. 28.
Baylor, TCU and Oklahoma State are all 6-6. Part of the determination for where those teams will play could depend on whether the Big 12 gets one or two teams in the New Year’s Six bowls.
But Rhule believes any bowl experience will benefit his program for numerous reasons.
“First one is the tangible of that we get another month to play,” Rhule said. “That will really help our team move forward. Sometimes take some guys and try them in other positions. The intangible is that those seniors get to be part of the team for another month. The third thing now there is some faith.”