Pretend you were going to throw a party on short notice.
Not just any party, but you were hoping it would be a killer shindig, with all the chips and dips and jammin’ tunes. You wanted it to be “lit,” as the kids are fond of saying.
How would you do it? Who would you invite?
Heck, I know what I’m doing — I’m hiring Matt Rhule as my party planner.
Baylor’s new football coach put together one whale of a signing-day celebration, and he pulled it off with precious little planning time. Rhule assembled a 27-member recruiting class (it’s 29 newcomers if you include two upperclass transfers) that Rivals ranked 32nd in the nation and third in the Big 12 behind only Oklahoma and Texas.
In a matter of weeks.
So, how did he do it? That’s what I wanted to know. How did Rhule go from one name — it was a pretty lonely party for Jalen Pitre back in December — to more than two dozen? And without settling for second-class prospects to boot?
Well, it wasn’t magic. It required more than a little bit of effort, a lot of “boots on the ground,” as new BU assistant coach Shawn Bell put it.
“This was a challenge, and it was a good challenge,” Rhule said. “One of the unique things about this, these kids that are coming in now, we’ve had really strong relationships. We’ve had to talk about a lot of things with them. We’re not just talking about helmets and uniforms, you know what I mean?
“We’ve had to have real conversations. We’ve had to build relationships in two weeks.”
If the sexual assault scandal that preceded Rhule’s arrival created a notion of Baylor as a toxic or dangerous place, the new coaching staff has gone a long way toward changing that perception in a short period of time.
Rhule won’t ignore the past. As he alluded to, he’s had serious conversations with recruits and their parents about those issues. In one of many interviews he conducted on Wednesday, he remarked about the importance of being respectful to the victims of sexual assault, stressing that “one case is too many.”
That said, Rhule understands what many of us in Waco already knew — Baylor still carries redeeming qualities. It made troubling mistakes with the way it handled Title IX cases in recent years. It continues to address those issues.
However, the university still has much to offer, Rhule said.
“At the end of the day, it’s really not about us as coaches,” he said. “It’s about Baylor. … It’s still an elite – not a great – an elite education. It’s still an elite experience.”
Rhule possesses an energy that his colleagues call “infectious” and “inspiring.” Clearly the guy can make a sales pitch. He might be able to sell screen doors and trailer homes in Tornado Alley.
Still, it wasn’t just the head coach’s charisma that put this class together. I’ll ask the question again — how exactly did he get it done?
The answers, as it turns out, are far less complex than one might expect. He got up early. “I don’t think he sleeps,” said new Baylor co-offensive coordinator Matt Lubick. At 6 a.m. on Wednesday, before the letters of intent came streaming in, Rhule and his new coaches were at Baylor’s athletic complex, working with the current players on staff.
So, yeah. He’s up before the butt-crack of dawn and he hits the ground running. He stays organized. He aims to be up-front and forthright in his conversations with recruits. And he puts his guys to work.
“His energy, since I’ve been here, is as good as I’ve been around,” Lubick said. “It’s contagious with the staff, and contagious with our players.”
Jeff Nixon, another of Baylor’s new assistants, has known Rhule for decades. He played with him in high school, and they were college roommates at Penn State. He said Rhule has been driven and motivated ever since he met him.
“I’ve got tons of stories,” Nixon said, laughing. “It’s probably the only job I would have left the NFL for, to have the chance to coach with Coach Rhule at a great school like Baylor.”
Without a doubt, Rhule’s first recruiting class at Baylor should be remembered for a while. The Bears’ new head man and his quickly-assembled staff — still so fresh-faced that they wore nametags at Wednesday’s signing-day interview session — worked their butts off. No matter how these new players develop, they at least show promise.
Six weeks ago, that idea seemed impossible.
Truth be told, Rhule hardly celebrated on Wednesday. He went through a spate of media interviews, attended a function at the Baylor Bear Club at McLane Stadium in the evening, and was preparing to head to a coaching clinic on Thursday morning.
Who has time to party? The grind awaits.