Baylor football may very well go 0-12 this year, depending what happens on November 4th in Lawrence, Kansas.
Circle that one on your calendar. It’s Bears vs. Jayhawks for ninth place in the Big 12 Conference, a matchup between the movable object and the stoppable force.
It’s sad to think about because I really like Matt Rhule.
My first interaction with the Baylor head coach was two years ago while working at CBS 3. I was producing “Sports Zone” at the time, the half-hour special that aired on Sunday nights after the late news.
Rhule had just started his third Temple season with a 27-10 home win against Penn State, which was probably the biggest victory of his nascent head coaching career. He did every interview that weekend, from ESPN, to the Associated Press and Action News and all of the local papers. Rhule didn’t have to make time for us, but he did, showing up in person at 9 p.m. the night after the game to tape a segment for our 11:35 p.m. show. I took him to our studio after he got off the elevator and we spent 10 minutes just bullshitting about college football in general. He seemed like a grounded and genuine person.
Ask around and you’ll hear similar stories about Rhule, who left for Baylor after taking the Owls from 2-10 to 10-4. The guy made college football relevant in a parochial pro sports town. We had College Gameday on Independence Mall, for Christ’s sake.
But Baylor was a curious choice.
Here was a program mired in a deceitful sexual assault scandal. The Big 12 didn’t seem like a stylistic fit for an east coast guy who won with stout defense and a downhill running game. This was a conference of space and pace. Could he even recruit in Texas? The challenges were numerous.
As Dan Hawkins once said, “it ain’t intramurals!”
IT’S DIVISION ONE FOOTBALL!
IT’S THE BIG 12!
The Bears are 0-3 as they prepare for this weekend’s home game against Oklahoma. They’ve fallen to Liberty, UT San Antonio, and ACC powerhouse Duke. Rhule is apparently sleeping on his office floor as he thinks of ways to slow down Heisman candidate Baker Mayfield. If a miraculous turnaround does take place, it probably won’t be on Saturday.
I do think Rhule will make the Bears better, but that’s not really the point. His first job is to clean up this program and make it respectable again.
The Baylor scandal is complicated and shadowy, but the short version is that the prior regime was alleged to have covered up years of rape and sexual assault, as many as 52 incidents according to a lawsuit filed earlier this year. Fallout included the firing of head coach Art Briles and University President Ken Starr. The Athletic Director resigned, as did the school’s Title IX coordinator, who said she couldn’t do her job properly because of interference from school leaders.
All of this spawned more legal wrangling as the football program’s 2016 recruiting class decided to go elsewhere. Rhule is playing 14 true freshmen as the Big 12 withholds 25% of conference revenue pending an audit of Baylor’s revamped athletic procedures. The NCAA hasn’t interfered, at least not yet, probably because of lessons learned from the Penn State sanctions (they reversed course in 2014).
So why wade into this mess?
Rhule admitted, when he took the job, that the scandal was far from over. He watched his alma mater, PSU, go through a similar situation when the Jerry Sandusky situation unfolded.
“Maybe I can be part of the solution,” he said after taking the Baylor gig.
The culture shift starts in the locker room, where communication has been pointed and blunt.
Speaking with ESPN in May, Rhule said that his conversations with Baylor players have been “graphic” and “explicit:”
“I think one thing I’ll say — and I feel very passionately about this — is so often football coaches say, ‘Of course, I’m against rape. I have two young girls.’ To me, it’s not just the fact that I have girls in my life is why I don’t believe in rape. When you communicate like that with football players or any young people, they begin, in my mind, to differentiate between women they know and love and women who they don’t know, and then they don’t place any value on them.
“We talk about what it means to be a man, and a major part of that is not just how to treat your mom, but how to treat all women, the way to be respectful to all women, how to look at women, how to speak to women and how to treat women each and every day.”
Rhule signed a seven-year contract at Baylor, so it looks like he’s in it for the long haul. But we thought similar things about Bill O’Brien, who left Happy Valley just two years after taking over for then-interim coach Tom Bradley. Did he bail on recruits? Did he break promises to players who stuck around? O’Brien described conflict with Joe Paterno supporters as part of his waning enthusiasm for State College.
“You can print this: You can print that I don’t really give a (expletive) what the ‘Paterno people’ think about what I do with this program. I’ve done everything I can to show respect to Coach Paterno. Everything in my power. So I could really care less about what the Paterno faction of people, or whatever you call them, think about what I do with the program. I’m tired of it.”
The positive for Rhule is that there are no “Paterno People” in Waco, at least not from what I can tell. David Koresh ain’t walking through that door. I haven’t come across anyone in the Baylor community that feels like the school was wronged, or that the prior regime did nothing wrong. This situation is more cut and dry than the one at Penn State. Nobody is taking down statues or removing wins from the record books. These guys (allegedly) did a lot of abhorrent things.
It’s also worth noting that Rhule is going to get some leeway in the win/loss category because of circumstances. That might sound shallow, but it’s true. He’ll be given more time to rebuild the Bears, as opposed to a coach coming to a clean program. Would Mike Riley get seven years at Nebraska? Probably not.
Rhule can learn the Big 12 game and build a recruiting network without the pressure of having to go 9-3 or 10-2 right out of the gate.
Could it be that this is the beginning of…
— Bears B12C (@Bears_B12C) September 11, 2017
— Tyler Bouldin (@tylerbouldin) September 10, 2017
Rhule can help himself by settling on a quarterback. Creating a QB controversy right off the jump doesn’t move things forward.
And he can also start to figure out how much he’s going to have to adapt to the Big 12 style. Baylor has run the ball more than they’ve thrown it in two of these first three games. Rhule doesn’t have a Jahad Thomas or Tyler Matakevich on this team, not yet, but he does have a lot of speedy and athletic skill players. Chris Platt looks like an all-conference performer so far.
He touched on the style topic with Sports Illustrated’s Pete Thamel:
“I would say before (at Temple), I started with the big stuff, the power, pro-style stuff then I would say 40% of the time we were in some sort of spread type of a deal. All I’ve done now is flipped those percentages. So now we’re probably like 60 percent of the time in the spread stuff and then 40 or 30 (in pro).”
He’ll figure it out.
Temple went from 2-10, to 6-6, to 10-4 and 10-4 in Rhule’s four years at the helm. He turned a walk-on into a first round draft pick and built the best defense in the AAC. I don’t have any doubts about his football acumen.
But football is a sidebar topic. The first order of business is cleaning up that program, which he’ll do. I never heard anyone say a bad thing about Matt Rhule. He proved himself to be a high-character coach in Philadelphia and character is what Baylor needs most right now.
This guy gets it: