Nebraska Football: Why Matt Rhule is Neither Mike Riley nor Scott Frost

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.

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.

GBR, baby.

Nebraska Football: An Essay On Rivalry

rivalry (noun): competition or fighting between people, businesses, or organizations who are in the same area and want the same things.

Collins Advanced Learner’s Dictionary

I am 53 years old, and have been a Nebraska football fan since my father took me to Memorial Stadium for the first time in 1976. So, yes, it’s his fault.

In that time, I have watched Nebraska be a dominant national power in college football. I’ve watched it rise to the top of its conference, only to be frustrated at attempting to reach the pinnacle of the sport. I’ve watched it reach that peak, and stand astride the mountaintop for five glorious years. I’ve also watched Nebraska fall back to earth, slowly at first, then faster as the descent steepened.

But in all those decades of watching college football, I never really understood what a rivalry meant. Not until Friday night.

Growing up, Nebraska fans liked to fancy themselves as a rival to Oklahoma. And sure, Nebraska-Oklahoma in the days of the Big 8 produced memorable games and storylines.

But Oklahoma wasn’t ever really Nebraska’s rival. In part, it’s because Oklahoma never really thought of Nebraska as a rival. Sure, things usually came down to beating Nebraska for Oklahoma to win a conference title and play for a national championship.

That was (and is) different, though, than Oklahoma beating Texas. Beating Texas was (and is) everything for Oklahoma. In college football terms, Nebraska was just a side piece for Oklahoma.

I always thought that was the reason why Oklahoma-Nebraska never felt like a rival the way “real” rivalries like Ohio State-Michigan, Cal-Stanford, Ole Miss-Mississippi State, or any other of those rivalries were. But I was wrong, because I didn’t understand the missing piece.

When Nebraska joined the B1G and Iowa took up the Black Friday spot, I remember there being lots of talk about how Nebraska-Iowa could become a natural rivalry. In my hubris at the time, I remember saying that we’d only know if it was a rivalry when Nebraska had a losing record and was still overjoyed to beat Iowa to keep the Hawkeyes from a conference title.

How silly, I thought at the time. How impossible that scenario seemed a mere decade ago.

We know where Nebraska football has been since then. Losing season after losing season. Losing to Iowa again. And again. And again. And after each loss, living with friends, family, neighbors, and co-workers wearing black and gold and reminding us (some more politely than others) of the scoreboard.

When I was younger, I thought winning nine or ten games then losing just before reaching the pinnacle was pain. I thought I understood what that frustration and anger was having to settle for “minor” New Year’s Day bowl games.

That wasn’t pain. Husker Fan. You know what pain is now. You’ve lived it for the last half-decade.

(To be clear, we are talking pain in a sports-fandom context. It’s obviously not real pain, and to confuse it as such is an insult to the truly suffering. But the joy of sports is to be able to invest such passion in something so utterly meaningless. And in that context, Nebraska fans’ pain has been searing).

That’s what made the fourth quarter so gut-wrenching. A 24-point lead going into the fourth quarter should have felt insurmountable. But we’ve seen this movie before. We knew when Rahmir Johnson fumbled that Nebraska had found oh, so many creative ways to lose games and break hearts. At some level, muscle memory kicked in and we were ready for yet another preposterous, mind-boggling, soul-melting ending that would see the Heroes Trophy in Iowa’s hands yet again.

And then it didn’t happen. When Chris Kolarevic intercepted Alex Padilla with 42 seconds left – and when Casey Thompson executed a victory formation snap without fumbling – Nebraska fans finally got to feel what it is to end seven years of misery and frustration against your neighbors who would have gladly smashed their metaphorical boot in your face forever.

I can only speak for myself. I’ve watched Nebraska try to get past Oklahoma for years. I’ve watched Nebraska get oh-so-close to titles for years and come up short. I’ve watched Nebraska finally win national titles.

But I’ve never felt the way I did when Thompson’s knee hit the Kinnick Stadium turf that one last time on Friday.

Because now I finally get it. Rivalries are born out of pain. They’re forged in the crucible of all that defeat and frustration that comes from watching your neighbor experience the joy you ache for, and remind you about it every day for the following year.

The University of Nebraska has played college football since 1890. Nebraska has been nationally famous for football for over half a century. But Nebraska has never truly had a rival, at least not in the modern era of college football. It does now. That’s how a sloppy victory to end a 4-8 season can reduce a grown man to tears.

Thanks, Dad. Without you, I never would have experienced any of this.

GBR, baby.

Nebraska Football: The Optimal Pre-Game Plan

There really is no experience quite like Memorial Stadium on game day. The sights, the sounds, the history, the band, the balloons, all of it makes for a culture-defining experience.

But, let’s face it Husker Fan, the games themselves haven’t been all that fun. I have not witnessed Nebraska win a game in Memorial Stadium since October 02, 2021 – and it’s not for lack of going to games.

Of course, I keep going. We keep going. The Wisconsin game on Saturday is officially a sellout, keeping the streak alive.

Some of going to the games is tradition – it’s just what we do as Nebraskans on an autumn Saturday. Some of it is the belief that something glorious will happen – even if that belief has been harder and harder to maintain over the last few years.

But getting the pre-game right is a guarantee of an experience. You can be undefeated in the pre-game. You can scratch that itch, connect with your history, and feel good about being a Nebraska fan in the pre-game, and bring that good feeling in … well hopefully for a quarter or two, at least.

Many of you are tailgaters, and I am constantly amazed at the creativity – and investment – that tailgaters put into their get-togethers. I’ve done it in the past, and it’s fun, but it’s not really my jam.

I have, however, over the years put together what I believe to be the optimal pre-game routine that gives you the best experience, both logistically and experientially. And because we’re a full-service content provider, we’re going to let you in on the pre-game hack.

Park at the baseball stadium

This is for those of you coming from Omaha, or at least east of Lincoln. You turn off I-80 going towards downtown, but before you reach it (and the inevitable traffic snarl) you pull off at the turnoff for the baseball stadium. As you drive towards the baseball complex, you’ll pass by a number of surface parking lots that are without charge if you’re up for a walk. You can go a little farther and there are pay lots to shorten your hike to the stadium.

The advantage to parking here is twofold. First, you avoid having to drive into Lincoln proper and dealing with all the traffic. Second, when you’re leaving the game, you’re also avoiding the Lincoln traffic leaving the city. You’ve got basically three turns to get onto I-80 and head home.

Also, the restrooms on both sides of Haymarket Park are open and operational, which is a nice option both departing and returning.

Choices over the bridge

Once you cross the bridge over the railroad tracks, you’ll have a number of options. You can head straight to the stadium, walking under the interstate, if you’re pressed for time. If you have a lot of extra time, you can walk right into the Haymarket and choose from any number of options for food and drink before the game.

But the optimal choice is to go just a few blocks east and walk onto the campus. Specifically, you walk to the open area outside the Glenn Korff School of Music to the southeast of the stadium. Make sure you’re there an hour before kickoff.

Listen to – and watch – the band

You’ll see the crowd assembling, waiting for the band to come out. An hour before kickoff, the band will assemble and rehearse their halftime show, ending with Hail Varsity. The band is cool to see from the stands. To be right up next to them, hearing the sounds, seeing the sights, and letting Hail Varsity wash over you is pretty amazing.

Don’t leave once the rehearsal is over, though. Within about ten minutes the band will assemble and prepare to process to the stadium. You can walk along with them through campus as they make their way.

Once the band reaches the stadium, they’ll sing the band song (“let the team all know the band is here!”) and then play Hail Varsity again – and sing you the words to the song too (yes, there’s words to the song!)

At this point, not only have you gotten a really neat experience, you’ve also timed your appearance at the stadium perfectly. You’ve got enough time to go in, get your hot dogs and popcorn (but not a Runza because, come on, that’s gross) and get up to your seats. By the time you sit down there will be about 20-25 minutes before kickoff. You’ll be able to relax for just a bit before the pregame spectacular starts and Sirius plays the team onto the field.

Once the game is over (because you’re not leaving before the end of the game, one way or the other, right?) then you can make your way out of the stadium. If you’re feeling good (or have time and need to drown your sorrows), the Haymarket is right there for you. If you’re just ready to go home, you can walk right back to the car and hit the road without having to navigate downtown Lincoln traffic.

There you have it, Husker Fan. I can’t promise you that the result of the game will make you happy. But follow this routine, and at least you’ll win the pre-game.

GBR, baby.