Taking the reins of a disgraced Baylor football program, Matt Rhule’s overriding plan was to clean up its off-the-field issues, build a winning team, and establish long-term stability.
From the moment he stepped on campus in December 2016, Rhule immediately began plunging into his first and most important task by recruiting players who would represent the program the right way and dismissing veterans who couldn’t maintain his moral and ethical standards.
Academics and community service are high Rhule priorities, and his rosters have reflected that.
After Rhule’s 1-11 debut season, the Bears enjoyed a remarkable turnaround in 2018 by finishing 7-6, capped by a thrilling 45-38 win over Vanderbilt in the Texas Bowl.
With most of the roster returning and a much more favorable schedule, there’s no reason to think the Bears won’t win bigger in 2019.
The third part of the equation — establishing long-term stability — is something only Rhule can determine.
Due to Rhule’s hard work and vision, the Baylor football program is much more stable now than the scandal-ridden one he took over two years ago. But how long will Rhule be around to oversee it?
During the last two off-seasons, Rhule has interviewed for two NFL jobs – last year with the Indianapolis Colts and this year with the New York Jets.
The January 2018 dalliance with the Colts seemed to come out of nowhere and died just as quickly. But rumors of the Jets’ interest in Rhule built steadily since the team fired former coach Todd Bowles on Dec. 30.
On Wednesday night, a lot of Baylor fans were on pins and needles as they awaited the Jets’ decision on whether to hire Rhule or other coaches in the running like former Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy, former Miami Dolphins coach Adam Gase and Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy.
About 6:30 p.m. Central time, news broke that Rhule was staying in Waco as the Jets chose Gase. Widespread relief for Baylor Nation.
But in future years, history has taught us that you can count on NFL teams pursuing Rhule like clockwork at this time of year. As he gains more success at Baylor, the harder teams will try to snatch him away.
If he leaves, it will certainly be a blow after the rebuilding job he’s done in the last two seasons. After everything this program has been through, the last thing the Bears need is to play under their fourth head coach since 2015.
But Baylor fans shouldn’t vilify the 43-year-old Rhule if he eventually leaves Baylor. If he believes the NFL is his destiny, there’s no reason he shouldn’t pursue it.
I don’t think there’s much question Rhule would love to be an NFL head coach someday.
Since beginning his coaching career in 1998, he’s coached at the college level all but one season when he was an assistant offensive line coach in 2012 for the New York Giants. He had far less experience than the other coaches up for the Jets’ job.
But he often refers to the NFL in interviews and many of his coaching theories are NFL-based.
One of his pitches to recruits at Baylor is his coaching staff’s considerable NFL experience, including defensive coordinator Phil Snow (Detroit), co-offensive coordinators Glenn Thomas (Atlanta) and Jeff Nixon (three NFL teams), wide receivers coach Frisman Jackson (Tennessee) and senior offensive consultant George DeLeone (three NFL teams).
Rhule certainly has a lot of NFL connections, and pro general managers have seen how well he evaluates talent and builds programs at the college level. Before coming to Baylor, Rhule took a Temple team that finished 2-10 in his first season as head coach in 2013 to 6-6 the next year and then to a pair of 10-win seasons.
But as good as his Temple teams were, they took a back seat to the attention the Eagles got in Philadelphia. In the northeast, the NFL’s popularity far exceeds college football. It’s not even close.
Rhule grew up in New York City, where his father was a prep coach and pastor. Rhule would have come full circle by coaching the Jets, the team he grew up rooting for.
Coaching in the NFL is about as cutthroat as it gets. You’re always one or two bad seasons away from losing your job. But there’s not a lot of job security in college coaching either.
Since Grant Teaff’s 21-year tenure ended in 1992, the next five Baylor coaches were either fired or resigned under pressure. Four of those coaches were fired for not winning enough. The other one, Art Briles, won a lot in eight seasons, but his program’s sexual assault issues cost him his job.
My guess is that Rhule won’t be a long-timer at Baylor, but it will probably be his choice whether he stays or goes. But if he does leave, people should remember him for the good he did to restore integrity to the program, not for bailing out to pursue his NFL dream.