WACO, Tex. — To the cheerless question about just who in the world took over the Baylor football program, it’s this outstanding conversationalist with a 2-10 season writhing four years in his past. On the matter of who guides Baylor after its sprawling scandal and wretched exodus of 2016, it’s a 42-year-old man who can recollect a meaningless game that had lasting meaning. About who oversees Baylor at 0-5 heading into Oklahoma State, it’s a man who can handle it because he grasps one of the great human truths.
Sometimes in life, people wind up grateful for times that seemed only lousy.
Matt Rhule has completed his move from Temple, where he went 2-10 in 2013 before rising, to Baylor, which went 32-7 from 2013 to 2015 before sinking. The sexual-assault epidemic from that era hovers on, as it should given its importance, and figures to keep regenerating, as it did Sept. 22, when a court filing relative to a lawsuit revealed another grotesquerie, that departed interim president David Garland had referred in an email to women “who may seem willingly to make themselves victims.”
The failed figures of the past — including football coach Art Briles, athletic director Ian McCaw and university president Kenneth Starr — have exited. Now the mere football of it has gone to Rhule, who grew up largely on Roosevelt Island in the East River between Manhattan and Queens and who revels in a childhood rich in friends both from rent-control housing like his and from families of diplomats, from Kenya, Ethiopia and elsewhere. This adorer of the rich tapestry of one Manhattan (the one in New York) just lost Sept. 30 in another Manhattan (the one in Kansas) to reach that 0-5, with a game Saturday at 14th-ranked Oklahoma State, followed by West Virginia and Texas.
He can handle it.
A meaningless game in Memphis helps more.
In life, that meaningless game with lasting meaning can sit tucked and buried four years into the past where almost nobody sees it and almost nobody has any reason to look. Just noting the particulars might turn you forlorn: Late November. A 1-10 team playing a 3-7 team. A stadium seating 61,000. A crowd announced at 25,671 sprinkled about. If by chance you remember Temple 41, Memphis 21, at Memphis on Nov. 30, 2013, the chances are that you are either a Temple fan, a close relative of a Temple player or some kind of savant.
“It’s funny, it’s in my house, I used to have it in my office; it’s a picture of me, in the huddle, talking to the team before we took the field,” Rhule said from the living-room couch of his office at Baylor. “And my son’s right next to me” — he was 8 then — “and it was just such a great moment. I remember my son went, ‘Dad, there’s a tiger outside.’ I was like, ‘I know. Memphis Tigers. You’ve seen mascots before.’ He was like, ‘Dad, I do not want to leave the locker room. There’s a tiger outside.’ Literally, you walk out, and there’s this big cage, and there’s a tiger outside.
“It was like: us, them, a couple of their fans and the tiger.”
Three memories prevail from that 2013 season, his first at Temple, before he pulled off the Galileo feat of getting the Owls — the Temple Owls! — to 10 wins in 2015 (with ESPN’s “College GameDay” coming to Philadelphia for the Notre Dame game) and 10 more in 2016 (with an American Athletic Conference title).
One memory is set in Idaho, where a 26-24 loss left Temple 0-4, and where Rhule prepared for “the angry-coach speech,” but then, on the way into the locker room, saw both his son and one of his players looking dejected. So he said, as he remembers: “This will all pass, and all this work is not for naught. You’re just accumulating it, and it will eventually pay off.”
Another happened in his office in Philadelphia, where the phone rang one day and it happened to be Dick Vermeil, a man who won both a Rose Bowl and a Super Bowl and whose voice suddenly was there saying, “Trust your gut, and do what you think is right.”
“So that’s why I never panicked,” Rhule said last week. “After that year, people said, ‘Are you going to fire coaches?’ I said, ‘No, I’m just not going to panic.’ ”
The third came in Memphis, after which the coach of a team that had just gone from 1-10 to 2-10 said that barren day, “It’s unbelievably satisfying.” The rising coach on the other end, Justin Fuente, nowadays at Virginia Tech, said, “Matt and his staff did a great job of keeping those kids committed.”
“So I always look back, and as coaches at Temple we would always say we felt like we did our best coaching job the first year,” Rhule said in late September. “You know, we took a team that lost to Fordham” — and lost to a Fiesta Bowl-winning Central Florida with particular agony, in the closing seconds, by 39-36 — “and we always felt like we did our best teaching and coaching that year.
“So as we go through this now, my challenge to our staff [which includes two former players from that Memphis game] is to make sure we do our best teaching and coaching right now, because this is when the players need it. This is when the players need to be brought along, and they need to be mentored and coached and helped through this. So our staff is trying to embrace these moments. When you’re going through hard times is where you build relationships. You build a foundation for a program, where, ‘Hey, this is what we stand for.’ ”
He says all of this, of course, as a former walk-on. He finished high school in 1994 in State College, Pa. He tried to play at Penn State. He flunked the first physical with a bum shoulder. He rehabbed that and helped the equipment managers. He kept calling or visiting Joe Paterno’s office, begging or pleading. His uncommon persistence landed him on the scout team, then on the team, even after a nadir before his junior year when Penn State did not include him among 105 players. (Then somebody got hurt.)
“I’m not perfect, but I try to make sure I give everyone an opportunity,” he said. “And, also, I think the biggest thing is that we just try to find value in guys, even if it’s just their toughness and their dependability. And I think if you have enough guys like that, then I think your team can become a tough, dependable team, because teams are not built with stars. Teams are built with, you know, the glue guys, and then the stars, you know, take you over the top.”
So with a Baylor program that hemorrhaged players last year in the wake of scandal — one of them, quarterback Jarrett Stidham, now leading the nation’s 10th-ranked team at Auburn — and now includes 78 freshmen and sophomores among 116 roster players, through loss after loss, Rhule finishes games and goes home. He conks out almost involuntarily for two or three hours. He wakes, usually around 3 a.m., and he evaluates everything.
When Baylor fought hard Sept. 23 and nabbed a second-half lead against Oklahoma, stunning anyone who was looking, he thought about everything from the insufficient tackling to the booming postgame crowd noise. Sometimes, at more reasonable hours, he welcomes the input of his wife, Julie, who noticed earlier this year he didn’t look quite himself while coaching.
Still, he doesn’t resonate suffering. He’s a guy who once went 2-10 and won a game nobody saw at Memphis.
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