OU football: If the Sooners ever need another head coach, Baylor's Matt Rhule should be No. 1 on the list
WACO, Texas — Matt Rhule’s first Temple University team lost its first six games. Around the 0-5 mark, Rhule got a call from a friend in the business.
Super Bowl-winning coach Dick Vermeil.
Vermeil gave Rhule some advice he hasn’t forgotten.
“Don’t listen to anybody,” Vermeil said. “Don’t listen to the outside noise. Trust yourself, trust your staff, and see what you do.”
Four years later, Rhule was the head coach at Baylor, and that 2017 team lost its first eight games. Rhule again remembered the advice.
“That’s something I learned,” Rhule said. “Just continue to be patient and don’t sway with the wind. Don’t change. I see a lot of coaches go through their first year, they fire a bunch of assistant coaches. That to me is not how you build something. You build something by one brick, one block at a time.”
Those bricks have led ESPN’s GameDay to the banks of the Brazos. Undefeated Baylor hosts 10th-ranked Oklahoma at 6:30 p.m. Saturday in a game that will have major ramifications on the College Football Playoff. Quite a stage for a program that less than two years ago was 1-11 in Rhule’s first season trying to bring back Baylor from the ashes of the sexual assault scandals of the Art Briles era.
It’s a remarkable rise. In this home city of “Fixer Upper,” Rhule has far surpassed the Cinderella story of Chip and Joanna Gaines, who will be the guest pickers Saturday morning on GameDay. Fixed Up is the best way to describe Baylor football.
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Almost three years ago, I ranked the coaching hires of the 2016-17 off-season. I ranked Rhule No. 10 out of 21. “Seems like a funny hire,” I wrote.
Boy, was I wrong, and I knew it by July, when I chatted with Rhule at Big 12 Media Days. On the podium or just chatting one-on-one in a hallway, Rhule stole the show without trying. He seemed the perfect blend of saying the right thing and saying it in the right way, and nothing Rhule has done in the 28 months since has countered that belief.
The son of a Nazarene urban missionary grew up in New York and moved to State College, Pennsylvania, as a teenager. Rhule went to Penn State without a scholarship and became a linebacker for Joe Paterno.
Rhule entered coaching, rose quickly and was hired as head coach at Temple at age 37.
Here’s how impressive is Rhule. If the Lincoln Riley-to-the-NFL storyline ever bears fruit, Rhule would be No. 1 on my list to fill those huge shoes. Of course, Rhule himself might be in the NFL by then, because the pros are hot and heavy after him, too. Rhule could be the head coach of the Jets, but reports say he refused to give in on staff autonomy. More character.
Baylor is not a powerhouse. The Bears’ 9-0 record has been reached by surviving five overtimes (three against TCU, two against Texas Tech); winning one-possession games against Rice and West Virginia, who combined have three victories; beating Iowa State with a last-play field goal; and winning big-time road games in Stillwater and Manhattan.
It’s a resume’ that doesn’t wow the playoff committee, which has Baylor ranked a disrespectful 13th. But it’s a resumé covered by Rhule’s fingerprints.
That first Temple team that went 2-10? The Owls followed up with 6-6, 10-4 and 10-3 seasons at a program void of tradition, relevance or resources. Baylor under Rhule has gone 1-11, 7-6 and now 9-0.
What’s the secret?
“No. 1 is to find the right people,” Rhule said. “The right coaches, then go recruit the right people on your team. It’s not always about talent. To me, it’s about toughness. If you want to have a tough team, you need tough coaches.
“Because when you build something, you’re going to go through adversity and it can build character, but it’s a lot better if you get people WITH character.”
That’s what Baylor did when it hired Rhule, and now the Bears have brought GameDay to the Brazos.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at email@example.com. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.