OU football: Baylor wouldn't be waiting in the Big 12 title game without Mack Rhoades
Mack Rhoades was working in his office at Missouri when the sexual assault scandal at Baylor burst into the open.
News had been trickling out of Waco, but in May 2016, the Pepper Hamilton investigation was released and painted a damning picture. The university’s response to sexual violence had been inadequate. “A fundamental failure.” “Slow, ad hoc and hindered.”
Rhoades watched as the details scrolled across the bottom of his TV screen.
“Man,” he thought, “I feel terrible for everybody involved there.”
But then he went back to work. He was Missouri’s athletic director at the time, and while what was happening in Waco was a cautionary tale for everyone in college athletics — victims were hurt, trust was eroded and jobs were lost — Rhoades didn’t really give it much more thought that spring.
Until he got a phone call about becoming the next athletic director at Baylor.
Three months later, Rhoades was introduced as the Bears’ new leader.
“I know on paper, it doesn’t look like the smartest move, right?” Rhoades said via telephone the other day from his office at Baylor. “May even be a career-ending move.”
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But three years later, Rhoades’ career is far from over. He has become a rising star in college athletics. Baylor is better than ever in football, playing Oklahoma in the Big 12 title game on Saturday and having a chance of making the College Football Playoff on Sunday. The school is good as ever in women’s basketball, coming off a national championship season, and looks poised for big things in several other sports.
Rhoades has done a fixer-upper project the likes of which have never been seen in Waco.
“The thing I’ll say about Mack — it’s Wednesday, we’re getting ready to play Kansas, it’s Thanksgiving, and he’s at practice,” football coach Matt Rhule said. “He comes to practice. He’s around our players. He walks through the offices. He walks through the meeting rooms.
“I mean, he’s in it with us.”
Mack Rhoades left an SEC program for a school mired in the muck of a sexual assault scandal.
Not a conventional choice.
To make it work, he had to be all in. Had to engage. Had to care.
“What was particularly difficult is walking into a place where there’s a lot of really good people and Baylor was doing a lot of great things — a lot of the sports programs were — but because of what happened with football, it tainted everything,” he said. “I believed in Baylor in terms of its values … even though at the time, Baylor certainly from a national perspective seemed to be very, very hypocritical as to those values.
“Just wanting to go and to maybe help.”
Some of the change came in the form of personnel change. During his first two years in Waco, Rhoades oversaw 110 job changes in Baylor athletics, roughly a third of positions in the department.
No new hire was more vital than head football coach.
Football, the economic driver for every major-college athletic department, was in shambles at Baylor when Rhoades arrived. “Baylor football” was toxic. Recruits were fleeing. Fans were wondering what came next.
Rhoades inherited an interim coach, Jim Grobe, who’d been hired after Baylor fired Art Briles. While it wasn’t a great situation — staffers who remained sometimes displayed an attitude of rebellion instead of regret — it gave Rhoades a chance to make a hire. He also had time to assess candidates, observing them and gathering information.
Getting the hire right was critical. Make a bad choice, and Baylor football and by extension Baylor athletics would be set back even more.
But Rhoades insists he didn’t think about the enormity of it.
“Probably glad I didn’t,” he said with a chuckle.
Instead, he focused on what he thought the next coach needed to bring to Baylor. A coach who was good at game planning and recruiting wasn’t enough. Great resolve and strong character were also necessary.
Rhoades thought often about the players, many of whom were going to have three head coaches in less than a year. He wanted someone who would do right by those players. Set high standards. Hold players accountable for their actions on and off the field. But also care about them.
The more Rhoades thought about the characteristics of the perfect coach, the more he zeroed in on Rhule.
Rhoades had interviewed Rhule only a year earlier for the head coaching job at Missouri. Gary Pinkel had resigned for health reasons, and Rhoades thought Rhule would be a good fit after seeing what he’d done at Temple, turning a mid-major afterthought into a program on the verge of a 10-win season only two years after a 10-loss one.
Rhule said no to Missouri and Rhoades, who hired Barry Odom instead.
“I just wanted to stay at Temple,” Rhule said earlier this week. “I wanted to finish what I had started. I had a great group of juniors that were going to be seniors. We had lost in the (American Athletic Conference) championship game, and I had something I needed to finish.”
But a year later when Rhoades called again, this time at Baylor, Rhule was ready to leave Temple.
Even though Rhoades felt certain Rhule was the right man for the job, that conviction was solidified when Rhule interviewed with a group of Baylor folks that included Walter Abercrombie. He played football for the Bears from 1978-81, then spent seven seasons in the NFL. He’d been coached by Grant Teaff in college and Chuck Noll and Buddy Ryan in the pros.
Abercrombie approached Rhoades during a break in the interview with Rhule.
“I could play for this guy,” Abercrombie said of Rhule.
Still, there have been tough days since Rhoades hired Rhule. The first season, the Bears won only one game, and in the last game of the season against TCU, a fight broke out between opposing players.
Doubters both inside and outside the Baylor fanbase were vocal about Rhule.
“This isn’t working,” some lamented.
“The offense is different!”
“What are we doing?!?!”
Rhoades never saw players pointing fingers. They had bought in. They competed every snap of every game.
And Rhule never wavered in his vision for the program or his message to the team.
“I just felt it in my heart that we had absolutely the right person in Matt, the right staff,” Rhoades said, “and we were on the right path, building it in the right way.”
Now, the Bears have gone from 1-11 to 11-1.
Mack Rhoades realizes lots of things had to go right to get to this point.
Matt Rhule understands that, too.
“When you see some of the ridiculous things that are happening in college football right now — coaches getting fired in their second year and their third year — I think it speaks to you better find an athletic director and a president that are on board with not just what you’re doing but how you’re doing it,” Rhule said. “A lot of coaches when they take jobs, they don’t take that into account. I said to myself, ‘This is going to be really hard to go through this at Baylor. It’s going to take someone who understands not just what needs to be done but how it needs to be done.’
“I had complete confidence that Mack was that guy.”
Rhoades has several principles that guide his decisions. Prepare champions for life. Everything matters. But nothing is more important to Rhoades than this — win with people.
“We can have the best facilities in the world, state of the art, the most money,” he said. “Those are all important, but they mean nothing if you don’t have the right people.”
Rhule was the right person for Baylor.
But so was Rhoades.
He made a move some people might not understand. A move many people wouldn’t have made. But once the idea of being at Baylor was put into his head, he believed he belonged in Waco.
He felt called and convicted.
Now, he just feels blessed.
“It’s really a neat time,” he said, “a great time to be at Baylor.”
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 405-475-4125 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK or follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok.