Matt Rhule can repair Nebraska: Why ex-Panthers coach is perfect fit to resurrect Huskers program

The Carolina Panthers fired Matt Rhule Monday following a miserable 1-4 start to the 2022 season. His 11-27 record in a little over two full seasons is comparable to so many other college-turned-NFL coaches who flamed out spectacularly in the pros. Regardless, Rhule should be the No. 1 target at Nebraska as it tries to move on from the failures of the Scott Frost era. 

Wind the clock back six years. Rhule — a New Yorker by way of Philadelphia — stood in front of a crowd in Waco, Texas, and brought the house down. At his introductory press conference, which co-opted as a pep rally, Rhule calmed a Baylor program split into factions following the Art Briles Title IX scandal. 

Rhule, though a Yankee in every sense of the word, spoke almost as a preacher at this gathering at the Baptist university, blending tribute to the Texas High School Coaches Association with affirmations of the players on campus. He gave fans hope, ex-players tribute and boosters a vision. 

“When you watch us play, I want you to say to yourself, ‘That’s my team,'” said Rhule. “They play the way I want them to play. Every game doesn’t go your way. But win, lose or draw, I want us all to be proud of the way that our team plays the game.” 

If it was a stump speech, Rhule could have been elected mayor of Waco that day. Within three years, results came to the point that even NFL teams were bidding against each other for his services. Rhule ultimately got an offer he couldn’t refuse with the Panthers, but now he’ll have a similar situation as Power Five programs line up for a potential return to the college ranks. 

A bonafide program-builder

While Rhule failed at the NFL level, his college coaching credentials are unimpeachable. Rhule took over a flailing Temple program in 2012 and went 2-10 in his first season. Two years later in 2015, Rhule led the Owls to only their second 10-win season. He did it again the following year, this time winning the AAC championship. The Owls are just 29-34, including 6-18 over the last three years, since Rhule’s departure. 

At Baylor, a 1-11 debut in 2017 hindered by roster attrition was followed by a winning record in Year 2 and an appearance in the Big 12 Championship Game in Year 3. Many of the players on last season’s Big 12 championship team, led by second-year coach Dave Aranda, were recruited and developed by Rhule’s staff, including NFL Draft picks Jalen Pitre and Terrel Bernard. 

Nebraska isn’t in quite as deep a hole as the ones Rhule inherited in Philadelphia and Waco. Despite spending the better part of the last two decades trying to recreate the success of the Tom Osborne era, investment in football is as high as ever. Even during the bad times, the 60-year Nebraska sellout streak remains alive. 

And from purely a football perspective, Rhule’s teams should excite Nebraska fans. Rhule would bring a physical, defensive persona back to Lincoln. Temple’s defense ranked No. 3 nationally in 2016, behind only Michigan and Alabama. Baylor posted 46 sacks in 14 games during its run to the Sugar Bowl in 2019 — tied for seventh nationally. Tough and physical defense would quickly be back in vogue for a program that prides itself on the Blackshirts mentality. 

An adjusted recruiting strategy

One thing that could work against Nebraska in a pursuit of Rhule? Recruiting terrain. Rhule picked Baylor over Oregon in 2016 because he loved the idea of having major talent within driving distance. He doubled down on in-state recruiting by hiring three former Texas high school coaches, including current Texas Tech coach Joey McGuire, who openly considers himself a branch off the Rhule coaching tree. 

At Nebraska, Rhule would have to update his strategies and recruit California, Texas and the entire Midwest. The highest-rated players in Nebraska’s 2022 recruiting class came from Illinois, Georgia, Louisiana, New Jersey and New Mexico. Luckily for Rhule, getting talent to travel to Nebraska is possible; the team typically ranks in the top 25 of the 247Sports Talent Composite. He would also have a deep recruiting budget and massive investment from boosters into name, image and likeness programs. There’s little question that Rhule would find a strategy that leverages all the advantages Nebraska has to offer. 

Rhule has also done a tremendous job of developing recruits for the next level. Blue-blood Nebraska has not had a first-round draft pick since 2011; Rhule turned former walk-on Haason Reddick into a first rounder while at Temple. The ‘Huskers have not had more than three players picked in a single draft since 2016; six players from Rhule’s 2017 transitional recruiting class at Baylor were drafted. 

Getting Nebraska to believe

More than anything else, Rhule, a consummate politician, would address the program’s most pressing issue: making every corner of Nebraska feel good about itself again.

“I have always believed great coaches are people of character,” Nebraska athletic director Trev Alberts said after Frost was fired. “I think they are people managers. They are culture builders. I think they are grinders … is this somebody that the players are willing to follow?” 

Look up all those characteristics in the dictionary and you might as well see a giant glossy photograph of Rhule on the page. 

There are other quality candidates for Nebraska to consider. Interim Mickey Joseph won his last two games over Indiana and Rutgers, though the ex-Nebraska quarterback could stick around as an assistant following a new hire. Kansas coach Lance Leipold is another turnaround artist. Iowa State coach Matt Campbell would build a strong, competitive roster. 

But if Nebraska wants to build a foundation on solid rock, trust the guy who has done it twice before. With a history of competitiveness and NFL bonafides, Rhule is set to be the belle of the ball of the 2022 college football carousel. Nebraska should act now. Rhule is a perfect fit to bring the Huskers back. 

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