On Saturday, Nebraska announced that Matt Rhule had been hired as the 31st permanent head coach of the Cornhusker football program. Rhule signed an eight-year contract with Nebraska.
There’s plenty of other outlets that will tell you who Rhule is and what to expect from him in Lincoln. We won’t try to duplicate that.
But given that the coaching search went on for some months – and given the long-suffering Nebraska fan base since the 1990s – many fans have expressed concern and anxiety about Rhule. Specifically, many fans pointed out similarities to former head coaches Mike Riley and Scott Frost, which is not a compliment in this neck of the woods.
Look, there’s no such thing as a guarantee. No one – not Matt Rhule, not Scott Frost, not Urban Meyer – is a guarantee of success. But let’s take a deep breath, Husker Fan, and at least see how catastrophizing comparisons between previous failed head coaches are misplaced.
He’s not Mike Riley
Rhule’s college experience consists of four years at Temple and three years at Baylor. Some Nebraska fans hear echoes of Riley’s experience at Oregon State as a justification for optimism. Much like Riley, Rhule’s teams overperformed at smaller schools but were never able to reach the elite levels Nebraska fans yearn for.
But there are three significant differences between the coaches. First, Riley coached at one place, Oregon State, for 14 years. In that time, Riley’s teams won ten games only once, in 2006. Rhule coached at Temple for four years and Baylor for three. In three of those seven years (twice at Temple, once at Baylor), Rhule won at least ten games.
Both Temple and Baylor were huge rebuilding programs, for different reasons. Rhule went 2-10 and 1-11 respectively at his two stops before building 10-win programs by the third year. Oregon State in Riley’s 12-year tenure plateaued at 10-wins in 2006 before drifting back to 5-7 in 2014, his last season in Corvalis.
The other obvious difference is age. Rhule is taking over Nebraska at age 47. Riley was 61 when he was announced as Nebraska’s head coach, and referred to the move as his “last great adventure.”
Finally, Rhule is taking over a Nebraska program that is significantly more unified that what Riley inherited. Outgoing coach Bo Pelini infamously poisoned the water of the team Riley would lead before departing. Additionally, there were still many within the Nebraska athletic department that were upset about Pelini’s dismissal and did his replacement no favors in his attempt to be successful.
Riley did himself no favors, of course, in his management of the program. But Rhule will not be inheriting the headwinds Riley had upon his arrival in Lincoln.
He’s not Scott Frost
Anxious Nebraska fans also see echoes of Scott Frost in Rhule. Much like Frost, Rhule is a young coach with a brief resume of success at a smaller school. What evidence is there, those fans fear, that Rhule will not hit the same ceiling that Frost did?
Again, there are significant differences. Most importantly, there is no evidence that Rhule is anything like the fraud Frost turned out to be.
Additionally, Rhule’s second stop was at Baylor, a member of a Power-5 conference, as opposed to Central Florida. In three years, Rhule was able to take Baylor from near death’s door to the Big XII conference title game.
And the “death’s door” part of Rhule’s resurrection at Baylor should not be underestimated. Rhule took over a Baylor program led by Art Briles that was riven with a culture accepting sexual assault. More than perhaps any other rebuilt in modern college football history, Rhule had to start from absolute scratch when he arrived in Waco.
Three years later, the Bears were in the Big XII conference title game.
In addition to being the prodigal son returning, Frost was thought to be a can’t miss prospect given his success at Central Florida. But as a smart and particularly handsome analyst pointed out, Central Florida wasn’t exactly a disaster when Frost arrived.
But there’s more to the story. Yes, going from 0-12 to 13-0 is an amazing feat. But let’s broaden the lens a little and look at UCF’s performance over the last seven years.
YEAR UCF RECORD 2017 (Frost) 13-0 2016 (Frost) 6-7 2015 (O’Leary/Barrett) 0-12 2014 (O’Leary) 9-4 2013 (O’Leary) 12-1 2012 (O’Leary) 10-4
Yeah, UCF was terrible in 2015, enough to get previous head coach George O’Leary fired mid-season. But it’s not like UCF was a year-after-year disaster that Frost resurrected. The squad that Frost inherited was only a year removed from a nine-win season. It was only two years removed from being a three-point loss to South Carolina away from being in the mix for the final BCS title game.
Now, let’s be clear. This doesn’t take any credit away from Frost’s accomplishments at UCF. Going from 0-12 to 13-0 is remarkable, regardless of context.
But UCF’s 2015 debacle was clearly the outlier. So to assume Frost is a necromancer that can raise the football dead based on two years of work in Orlando ignores the platform upon which Frost stepped when he arrived at UCF.
He’s Matt Rhule
I get it, Husker Fan. You’ve been burned so many times, and it makes sense that you’re going to be leery of letting your heart be broken again.
And Rhule is no guarantee. Heck, Temple was only two years removed from consistently winning 8 and 9 games before he arrived in 2013.
But there’s lots of reasons to think Rhule can be successful in Lincoln. Keep an open mind about those reasons. Just don’t let the echoes of the past drown out the hope of things to come.