He must be something magical.
Yet armchair Rhule-ologists, studying back through the years, might find a thread, a thread that might just matter in any line of work. It’s football, sure enough, but the whole whiplash seven years, right down to Baylor’s knack this year for wriggling out of close-game thickets, seem so richly human.
Take it back to when Rhule worked as an assistant at Temple, from 2006 to ’11, before he left for one year to assist the New York Giants, before he returned. Anthony Robey, a former Temple defensive back and four-year letterman (2011-14) and nowadays a vice president at a multinational security company, met Rhule late last decade in Rhule’s role as Temple recruiting coordinator.
In describing his visit with Rhule in Robey’s hometown of Norristown, Pa., Robey used the word “authentic,” which seems paramount from then to now. Converse with Rhule just once, and you might echo a refrain commonly held among those who have: Were there an NCAA statistical category for real-personhood among major-college coaches, Rhule might rank No. 1. He possesses charisma, yet not slickness.
To hear Robey tell it, it fit Temple — and also would seem to fit Baylor — that Rhule’s path to being a head coach had been gradual and painstaking. Rhule had been a walk-on at Joe Paterno’s Penn State whose journey to the roster was not brisk, and after that an assistant at Albright (Pa.), Buffalo, UCLA, Western Carolina and Temple.
Robey said this: “He was one of us. He’s been through what all of the players have gone through.”
And: “Oh man, I think there were always humble beginnings for him, coming from Temple, being overlooked and just grinding, grinding, grinding and making a way for himself and others. I just feel like who’s gone through Temple has been overlooked at some point in their career.”
Upon Steve Addazio’s departure for Boston College in late 2012, Robey said, “When [Rhule’s] name popped up, it was a no-brainer.” Soon thereafter, Rhule took the lectern at age not-yet-38, thanked Athletic Director Bill Bradshaw and said of Bradshaw, without a trace of fakery, “He turned me down two years ago, and he was right.”
Now Robey looks from afar and sees the Baylor players marshaled behind Rhule on the sideline and sees “a guy that just brings his guys behind him, people wanting to play for him. It’s just awesome.” He said he can just see how “those guys just really want to give it all they’ve got.” He knows this because, like many former Temple players, he’s watching Baylor whenever he can.
Rummage far enough on Twitter, and one can find those unforeseeable hybrids, Temple men who are Baylor fans. The former Temple defensive back Abdul Smith retweeted a ranking of the top 10 and commented, “Where’s Baylor at?”
The former Temple and NFL receiver Brandon Shippen retweeted a speculation about where Rhule might end up in the NFL. Praise Martin-Oguike, an XFL defensive end formerly of Temple, went for a Baylor football video of the triple-overtime win at TCU last week with the message, “Never quit.”
Go further back, with bountiful Temple players in the NFL these days, and there’s Arizona Cardinals linebacker Haason Reddick, the surprise first-round pick of 2017 who invited Rhule to draft night and told NBC Sports, during that draft run-up, “He’s a great guy, a great coach, and he brings out the best in his players, not only from a playing standpoint but also a maturity and growing-up-and-development-into-a-great-man standpoint.”
And there’s Tyler Matakevich, the Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker who, upon Rhule’s move from Temple to Baylor, wrote: “This man changed my life. Gave me an opportunity when no one else would. He believed in me, and that’s why I love him. Happy for you, Coach!”
Reddick went from a walk-on to a first-round NFL draft pick, and Matakevich went from a broken foot in high school that helped leave him with just one college offer (Temple) to four seasons now with the Steelers. They’re outliers as are all NFL players, really, but the way the Temple players so clearly cheer for one another shouts some sort of rich, shared experience.
Rhule has been through both that 2-10 season in 2013 and that 1-11 season in 2017, and has valued both. In 2017, he said: “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.”
Teams are not built with stars …
Temple went from 2-10 in 2013 to the unthinkable — “GameDay” in Philadelphia! — in late October 2015, and Baylor has gone from 1-11 in 2017 to the unthinkable — “GameDay” in Waco, even after all the mid-decade scandal and decline there — in mid-November 2019.
Anticipating Oklahoma’s runaway No. 1 offense and quarterback Jalen Hurts this week, Rhule told reporters in Waco: “And I think, you know, for us, we’re better when we just kind of play, when we don’t overthink it. So I’m hopeful that our guys will go out there and we’ll kind of go play football and play our defense, not do anything special, do what we do.”
In that and in all of it, there might be an explanation of Rhule’s uncommon and winding paths, from New York to Waco, from 2-10 to 10-4 and 1-11 to 9-0, from coaching men who love having played for Temple yet also root for Baylor. It seems he just really likes people.