When Matt Rhule arrived in Waco last December as Baylor’s new head football coach, the program was, to put it charitably, under siege thanks to a sexual-assault scandal. Rhule rolled up his sleeves and got to work, focusing on offering players some much-needed stability and on offering members of the Baylor Family hope for the future.
Rhule grew up in New York City. His family moved to State College, Pennsylvania and he attended Penn State University, where he was a walk-on linebacker. He coached at the University of Buffalo, Western Carolina University, and was part of the New York Giants coaching team, before assuming his position as head coach at Temple University in Philadelphia in late 2012.
Coach Rhule has spent a lot of time talking to reporters and Baylor fans about his vision for the future. He sat down with The Baylor Line in late May, just after the end of Spring practice.
What did your parents do for a living?
My dad was an ordained minister and he was also a senior high school teacher and coach. My mother was a preschool teacher when we first moved to New York City, then she became a Woman’s Ministry leader. When we moved to State College, she worked for a program called Fast Track, which was a program through Penn State that helped kids with behavioral issues in rural Pennsylvania.
What’s the best lesson you’ve learned from them?
One of the greatest lessons my dad taught me was the way he loved mom. I’ve never once ever, ever in my life seen my dad even give a cross word to my mother. Never once have I seen my father not be anything but kind and gentle and patient with my mom. And my mom was the same. So I think I learned a lot from the way they’ve always treated each other and treated other people, and given their life into service of other people.
What was it about the Baylor opportunity that you decided to take it without ever stepping foot in Waco?
I just knew that Baylor was a place that at its core — its philosophy, its mission — is very similar to what I believe in, and who I am and how I was raised. You can come here, and you can be a part of academic excellence. You can come here, and be a part of athletic excellence — 18 of Baylor’s 19 sports programs earned a spot in postseason play. So you have academic excellence, you have athletic excellence, you’re here in a beautiful area, with a beautiful campus. And you’re coming into a Baptist universe that believes in faith, service, and leadership. Those core principles are things that I believe in. And it just seemed like a natural fit to me to want to come here.
How have they reacted to you in the early months here?
When you have three coaches in a year, that’s really hard. And so when the third coach gets there, you’re just kind of ready for some stability, ready for some continuity. What I’ve asked them to do is very hard and very different. They’ve done what I’ve asked them. I’m really proud of the academic success we had this semester. I think our athletic department over the last year did 2,000 hours of community service, and in three months, our football team did 700. So I’m proud of them, and hopefully we can continue to grow that.
What is it they get from that? From the community service?
Well, I think Taylor Young said it best when he went to Brazil on a mission trip. He said something to the effect of, “I came down here to impact the lives of other people. My life has been impacted so much more.”
We do community service not for publicity, not for awards. I ask our guys to do community service to give back. We’re so blessed, and we don’t want to be entitled; we want to be grateful. And how better to be grateful than to give back to other people that maybe don’t have as much as you have. So many kids here in this community look up to the Baylor football players, so why not go give back to them. And in doing that, you really end up giving to yourself. You end up blessing your own life so much more.
What would success look like for the coming season to you?
I think if we can get them to start to understand who they are, who we want them to be. We want them to be tough. We want them to be hard working. We want them to be competitive, disciplined. We want them to be a team. We don’t want them to be a group of individuals who play for themselves, but a group that plays together, one that’s always focused on process and what’s next. And so I want to win, don’t get me wrong. But sometimes you could win, and not be doing those things. I’d like to see that ethos begin to be built. And I think as long as we’re doing that in the future, we’ll continue to be really great.
You attended a school that went through a very difficult period. What did you learn from the way Bill O’Brien handled the situation?
As a Penn State alum and former player, I’m grateful that Bill O’Brien handled everything with class and dignity. Hard things were happening to the football program, sanctions hit. People were very splintered around the outside of the Penn State football program.
On the inside, Bill did what you’re supposed to do. He was the football coach. He focused on the things that mattered to those kids, which was practice, and football and game plans, and academics, and community service. He focused on the players, and did not get focused on the things he couldn’t control.
Then [current Penn State coach] James Franklin came in, and he’s really done the same thing. I believe my job right now is about bringing stability, but [the situation] also needs someone whose focus is on the things that the football coach can control. We want to do it with the same class and dignity and integrity that Bill O’Brien did at my alma mater. As a Penn Stater, I knew what my university stood for. I knew what my football program stood for. I believed that we would get through it. And we certainly have.
You’ve been driving around the state meeting with donors, meeting with fans. What’s your message?
Just trying to tell them what we’re trying to do. That we’re hoping to build a culture of excellence and a culture where everything counts, where academics and community service and spiritual growth and football are all important. Where how you treat people is just as important as how many touchdown catches we make.
And that we’re trying to do that one man at a time. Our job here is to build men, to take young people when they’re 18, 19, and teach them what it means to be a man, to be honest, to be accountable, to live a life filled with integrity, to do that by telling them and also by showing them. And so that’s what we do, and I think when you do that the football comes and the guys develop and become great players.
You arrived at Baylor where one of your first tasks was to rebuild the 2017 recruiting class. By all accounts, you’ve done just that. Did it turn out better than you expected?
I wouldn’t have come here if I didn’t think we could recruit. This is too good of a school, this is too good of an opportunity for a young person to come here, and get an elite education, have an elite academic experience, be in central Texas where they can be close to home, beautiful facilities both athletic and campus-wide, wonderful people. And they can come some place that cares about not just what they do, but also who they are, where they’re going to spend eternity. So I think that’s pretty cool about this place. I expect it’s not going to be for everyone, but there’s a lot of kids out there who recognize that this would really change their lives.
When I talked to another Baylor coach a few months ago, she said that the kids she’s recruiting never ask about the problems. Have you found that to be true?
Everyone’s asked. As they should, and everyone continues to ask.
What do you say?
The truth as I know it. Most people ask more about impact on the program moving forward. But I try to very simply be positive because I’m always positive. And I try to be honest, because people deserve honesty. And anytime something bad happens, anytime something difficult happens, there’s an opportunity afterward to go be part of the solution and to fix what was wrong. And I think for some of the kids that signed with us this past year that resonates with them.
I think once kids have gotten here, met the staff, and met the kids on the team, and walked around campus, and met the people here, they recognize that this is a really good place with a bunch of really good people.
Any time something bad happens, you fix it in two ways. You fix it with process and you fix it with people. So you have to make sure the right protocols and systems are in place, so that if something bad happens, you address it immediately. And then you fix it with good people who are invested in each other’s lives. And you address problems then as they come.
You were a walk-on at Penn State. Do you have a special affinity now for walk-on players?
I would say yes. I think that’s because you see a kid that comes out and practices the same, competes the same, does all the hard things that we ask. Yet at the same time, they’re paying their own way to go to school. So that’s a sacrifice that I’m always appreciative of.
I’ve found value in walk-ons over the years. Cody Booth, my first year at Temple, went to the NFL. He was a walk-on. Haason Reddick, who was the 13th pick in the 2017 draft was a walk-on. I’ve found that many people were walk-ons based upon what has happened, not what you’re going to be.
One of the changes we’ve made is the way we’ve lifted up the walk-ons in this program. They are front and center every bit the same as scholarship players. It’s just at the end of the day, they are paying their own way, as opposed to not paying their own way. But a football player’s a football player. They come in all shapes and sizes, with all different backgrounds. And so hopefully we can continue to find value in some of the kids that came here as well.
How did being at the draft with your players and seeing them do very well affect you?
It was gratifying. I was in the Green Room with Haason on Day One, and then I went over to my offensive lineman Dion Dawkins’ draft party on Day Two. They’re both wonderful kids, both graduated, both built themselves up, both very grateful for the opportunity. And at the same time it was a reminder to me to just keep believing in kids and keep pushing them. There were times a couple of years ago that nobody believed either one of those guys would get drafted. But between Jeremy Scott, our strength coach, and their position coaches, we just stayed true to the process, and kept letting them develop.
And so Haason went from a walk-on to a first-round pick, and Dion from a guy with no scholarship offers to a second-round draft pick. That was a good reminder to me to not get caught up in where kids are, but always see their potential and where you hope that they can be.
Was it tough to see what happened to Baylor kids in the NFL Draft (only one – Kyle Fuller – was drafted)?
I know Seth Russell and have so much respect for him. He’ll have an opportunity. Once you sign the free agent deal, at least you have a chance. And you’re hopeful that they get in there, they can compete, show what they have, and hopefully that as we move forward, we can make this a place where every year you get four or five guys drafted out of here. That’s our hope in the next couple years.
In Bull Durham, Kevin Costner has a great speech where he talks about the things he believes in. What does Matt Rhule believe in?
Trying to make sure you’re the best that you can be day in and day out. I really believe that everything counts. You just can’t try to be a good coach and not try to be a good father. You just can’t try to be a good student but not be a good son. You have to try to be excellent in every aspect of your life. I believe in that, and that takes toughness, and that’s why I always say I want you to be tough, hardworking and competitive here because you need those things. It’s not easy to be the best that you can be day in and day out. It’s not easy to wake up this morning at 5 a.m. and come to work, and then try to be excellent at four o’clock in the afternoon. But that’s what it takes to be great, so I believe if there’s anything we can teach, it’s that.
What’s the pebble in your shoe, that little thing that just bugs you?
A sense of entitlement. I feel to whom much is given, much is required. When you’re given so much — athletic ability or great jobs like this — I want people to be grateful. And I want them to be grateful not just with their words, but with their actions. It’s little things to me. I’m proud when I go over to the cafeteria, and I see our athletes in there bussing their tray, or saying, “Thank you,” and “Yes, ma’am.” I mean, it’s a much more purposeful life if you lead a grateful life. And so I can’t stand when I see entitlement. I can’t stand when I see people who aren’t grateful. And so I think that’s our job is to work with young people just to help them see why they should be grateful.
Tell me about your expectation levels.
I am very process oriented. So I have high expectations. I expect everyone to be up on time, and to be at class on time, and to do their best in class. And if there’s a chance to go do community service, do it. Then to lift it up to a really high level. I just think that when you demand excellence daily, then the end results come. I think that is probably the way I approach everything, the way I approach my home life, and the way I approach my family. I think we have really high standards and expectation level with kids day in and day out.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
My first year at Temple, we were 0 and 5. And the phone rang. It was [former Philadelphia Eagles head coach] Dick Vermeil who I’d only met in passing once. And he said, “Matt, I’m going to give you one piece of advice. Just do what you’re doing, and do what you believe in. Don’t listen to anybody. Don’t listen to outside noise, don’t change. Stay true to what you’re doing.” And I did that. I didn’t change, I didn’t break, I didn’t bend. I had people saying, “Hey, you should change this. You should change that.” We were 129th in defense in the country our first year. People were saying, “You should change the defense.” There was all this noise, and I stayed true to what we believed in because Coach Vermeil told me to. And the next three years we were in the top 25 on defense. So that was advice that I’ve actually turned around and given to other coaches, now that I’ve learned that.
What advice do you give to your graduating seniors?
I tell them to always focus on the process, and to control the things that they can control and not worry about how much they’re getting paid, or if they go to NFL or get a job after school. Just go be excellent at the things that they can control. The more you do, the more you do, right? So if they are asked to start off opening letters in the mailroom, then go open letters better than anyone else. If you work harder than anyone else, if you’re working as hard as you can, good things usually come.
What’s your first rule of parenting? And does that apply to your players?
Pour love and affection in your child’s life. And I think once your child’s tank is full — once they know that you love them, and that that’s nonnegotiable — they feel safe, and then they can be corrected and guided. I think that’s very much the same here. Love takes all forms; I’m not walking around hugging the players every day. Love can be structured and disciplined. But I think that concept of building relationships, and people knowing how much you care about them, that’s of the utmost importance.
What did you learn from your biggest failure?
I think some of the biggest failures in my life, not football, but in dealing with players, is when I let anger, emotion, get in the way, lead my thoughts, and lead the things that I’ve said. So I think as I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned to think and speak in a more measured way. There’s probably things I’ve said to people over the years that I wish I could take back.
What does your wife mean to you?
She’s the love of my life. She’s smart, she’s intelligent, she keeps me grounded. And she’s tough as nails. Where I’m the leader here, when I go home, I’m not. She’s runs the show. She’s a really, really special woman. She’s a great mother. But she’s just been so patient with me over the years, allowing me to kind of become the husband and man that I’m supposed to be. And I’m very grateful for her patience with me.
What’s your superpower?
I think if I’ve done anything well it’s that I have been able to reach a lot of kids. And a lot of kids who would normally feel disenfranchised, or would not feel over the years I’ve been able to reach enough of them that I can only get the best side of those kids, and develop them.
What’s your kryptonite?
Oh. The barbecue tacos here in Waco. (LAUGHS) I have to force myself to be patient. I can say process a lot, but then I’m also very demanding of how fast we get there.
The word I’ve seen most often to describe you is authenticity, that people just trust you and feel comfortable with you. Is that something you have to work at?
I’ve gotten a lot better at it in recent years. There comes a point in your life where you just kind of recognize, “Hey, this is who I am. And I’m going to try to try to continue to be a good version of myself.” But I do think if people feel that way, if they’re comfortable around me, it’s because my parents’ whole life was spent being around other people, giving to other people. I grew up in New York City. People lived over here in government assistance housing. People lived over there in million-dollar condos. Pretty soon you realize people are people. So I really enjoy meeting new people. And so if that comes across as authentic, awesome.
What’s your favorite place on the Baylor campus?
The area around the Immortal Ten Memorial is a beautiful place. I mean, I’ve worked on UCLA’s campus, which is one of the most beautiful places in the world. They film movies there. I think our north campus is as beautiful as anywhere we’ve been. As we’ve begun recruiting here, we have really incorporated the beauty of campus into the recruiting process. I’m not saying it wasn’t that way before. I’m saying we’ve tried to feature that. And because I think the natural beauty of that area, all of campus really, is peaceful and calming.
What advice would you give to your 25-year-old self?
If I could go back, I would tell myself that in the first 15 years of coaching to spend more time enjoying life, and enjoying my family, and enjoying all things. You can do everything that you do to be excellent, but it doesn’t have to consume you day and night. And there’s a peace that comes once you realize that. And if I could I would steal back some of that time.
And I’m grateful that I figured it out. And I really owe a lot of that to two coaches, Steve Adazzio and Tom Coughlin. I went to work for them and saw that you can be wonderful family members. When you left the office, your mind could turn off a little bit. And I’m much more at peace after having done that.
Okay, your team is down four points, less than a minute to go. You’ve just gotten the ball on your own 20. Eighty yards to go. One timeout. What are you thinking?
Okay. I’m saying that’s plenty of time to execute. I’d probably walk in the huddle, I’d laugh and say, “Isn’t this awesome? Let’s go.” We had 70 yards to go down six to Central Florida this past season. We went 70 yards in 30 seconds. And so if you’re not saying, “Hey, let’s go have fun,” then you can’t expect your people to execute.
When you looked in everybody’s eyes that day, did they believe?
I don’t know. (LAUGHTER) I don’t know.
Did you believe?
It’s my job to believe. When you live a process-oriented approach, then as long as there’s time on the clock, you know that you just keep playing.