14 May, 2023
LINCOLN, Nebraska — For Trev Alberts, the day Matt Rhule was introduced as the football coach at Nebraska will always be a milestone.
After firing Scott Frost, he finally saw the man he had designated as target No. 1 standing on Nebraska’s large red stage. The 76-day courtship, which was based on a massive three-ring binder of notes hidden in the athletic director’s desk, involved 13 candidates, countless phone calls, Zoom meetings with power brokers, and touch-and-go negotiations with Rhule and his agent.
The man Alberts had wanted as Nebraska’s head coach since mid-October was in Lincoln on November 28 when it was all over. As Nebraska’s boss wrapped his fingers around a black-and-red podium, glanced at his notes, and produced a grin for the cameras, everything appeared fine amid the sea of red. His eyes grew bright and turned toward the dazzling camera lights in the distance.
This was a time for joy and a pause to recognize a turning point in the tale of a proud program lost in the woods. A turning point had been reached after several turns, and at that point Alberts was no longer seated on a stage.
The AD of Nebraska was looking over the brink of a large, crimson cliff.
“The program is in danger. Nearly five months later, in his office, Alberts said to 247Sports, “We have a decision here. “We can either get back to being Nebraska or… I don’t want to know what the alternative is,” the speaker said.
The substitute? Irrelevancy. It is no longer exaggerated to suggest that Nebraska is in danger of losing not only the interest of the country, but also that of an entire generation of Husker supporters. The foundation of the program, 46 conference titles and five national championships, hasn’t been broken in 24 years. Nine of the 10 winning seasons that the majority of the 18-year-old first-year students at Nebraska who will be enrolled this fall had already happened before they finished elementary school. Most of what they are aware of is disappointment, suffering, scorn from the public, and a string of poor choices made by administrations beginning with the ouster of Frank Solich in 2003 and leading up to the dismissal of Bo Pelini, who was thrown to the wolves despite leading the team to nine or more victories in each of his seven seasons in charge.
It appeared that individuals who had lived and breathed Nebraska football no longer understood it, for a variety of arguments that the Husker faithful may make. Even Frost, the Huskers’ championship quarterback, went off the deep end during the current six-year losing streak, the worst run for the team in the previous 60 years. The DNA Tom Osborne imparted, who was the sport’s most successful active coach when he departed after 25 years and won three national championships (1994, 1995, and 1997) in his final four seasons, gone. With an appalling average national rating of 90th in turnover margin over the last 10 seasons, Nebraska has not been the most physical team on the field, the Huskers have not been disciplined with simple assignments, and they have committed far too many turnovers.
When we left that winning experience, we were hooked on the question, “When are we going to win our next championship?We lost sight of what made us the kind of program that succeeded,’ Alberts added. “Glitz and glitter weren’t the focus of this presentation. We are in Nebraska. If people are proud of the way we conduct ourselves, it shows that we are extremely hard workers, dignified, wonderful teammates, and opponents are highly respected. Nebraska is that.
Actually, the queries are signs of a developing illness. The Huskers have gone through coach after coach in search of solutions, but success is ephemeral. The results are shocking. According to The Athletic, Nebraska’s program ranks dead last among Power 5 teams in developing bluechip talents into NFL Draft picks over the previous 10 years at a clip of only 6.2 percent. Over the last six seasons, Nebraska has a terrible 9-28 record in one-score games.
We have to have the courage to challenge ourselves. What has been done? How do we modernize it? How do we tweak it? And how do we share a similar vision regarding work, culture, and toughness? “Well, we’re Nebraska,” Alberts said. “You know what? Nobody else cares.
He appears to have mastered the old/new school concept at Temple and Baylor, where he flipped programs with double-digit losses in his first season into double-digit wins in Year 3 by being both malleable in philosophy and consistent with a practice-as-you-preach approach in a laser-focused, player-first environment. Rhule, Nebraska’s new hope, is coming off a failed two-year stint with the NFL’s Carolina Panthers.
Terrance Knighton, the defensive line coach for Nebraska, who played for Rhule at Temple, said of Rhule, “He’s going to hate that I said this, but he is borderline genius. He does everything with a purpose. He knows how to get things out of certain guys and coaches. He builds a competitive nature within a locker room. He’s just got this way to express himself. You can feel it’s authentic.”
While at Baylor, Rhule tried to implement a Spread offense in Year 2. The Bears improved and won six games, but should have won more with a top-10 defense. Rhule sought advice and asked predecessors Al Golden and Steve Addazio how to win at Temple. “Power football and defense,” he said. “We won 10 games.” Rhule admits he didn’t succeed right away at Temple and Baylor because his initial plans were off the mark.
After a 1-11 debut, Rhule sought advice from Baylor sports scientist Andrew Althoff on how to alter practices and implement GPS technology to monitor players’ exertion and recovery rates. “The heat in Texas was something we had to manage,” he said. Rhule based his plans on the on-field methods of Art Briles, his illustrious and contentious predecessor. The Bears won seven games in Year 2 and then competed for the Big 12 championship in Year 3.
“Everyone has a philosophy on how to win,” Rhule said. “I’m always saying: how do I win here? How do I win here with the wind in Nebraska, with the cold, with the travel? How I win here is completely different from how I won at Baylor. So I’ve tried to lean on Coach Solich and Coach Osborne. I’ve tried to study the past to best build a new future.”
If you don’t believe Rhule, just look at his computer. Rhule claims Nebraska used run-pass option plays in 1985, years before it was popularized by Osborne and Solich’s I-formation offenses. The Huskers frequently walked to the line of scrimmage with the option to throw to a slant route or run the ball. They used 32 personnel (three r-backs and a quarterback).
In this day and age, when you turn on the film and everyone is in 11 personnel, they’re in the Shotgun, and they’re running zone with an RPO — that’s all fantastic football, and I love it — we’re just going to try to be a little bit different. “They really taxed you,” Rhule remarked.
Fullbacks might not be a focal point of Nebraska’s offense under coordinator Marcus Satterfield, who previously called plays for Rhule at Temple and was most recently at South Carolina, but it will look familiar to both old-school Nebraska fans and others who studied him at Temple. The Huskers’ first play in their spring game was a fullback trap, a decision made to honor Solich, who returned to Memorial Stadium for the first time since he was fired in 2003.
“We’re going to be more old school, get in the huddle, control the clock, pound the football, take shots, play great defense, win special teams, and let the elements help us as well,” the player declared.
Sports science and fullback dives. Analytics and toughness. Sophisticated recruiting strategies and a return to the tried-and-true Texas pipeline.
The New Nebraska is that.
Rhule wasted little time in re-orienting Nebraska’s recruiting strategy, focusing particularly on Texas, which has faded from the Huskers’ recruiting radar since the team switched from the Big 12 to the Big Ten in 2011.
The last two Nebraska teams to win conference titles were led by a combined 14 Texans, including Hall of Famer Aaron Taylor and All-American Keyou Carver. As much as homegrown offensive linemen were essential to Nebraska’s success in the 1980s and 1990s, Texans were just as important and became superstars on those national championship teams under Osborne.
In the 12 years before to the Huskers’ switch from the Big 12 to the Big Ten, Texas produced an average of 4.2 signees per year, but from 2012 through 2022, that number dropped to 1.9 signees per cycle, and Frost only brought in eight Texans in five recruiting classes.
In the 2023 cycle, the Huskers signed six Texas players, the most since 2011. In the current 2024 class, three of Nebraska’s six verbal commits are Texans. Rhule turned the tide over night.
Nebraska implemented a player-grade system for intangibles that was used by tight ends coach Bob Wager, a head coach for 26 years at Texas high schools. Wager’s son, walk-on running back Gage Wager, also helped lead the recruitment of one of his father’s little-known players, Jeremiah Charles. Gage also directed Rhule’s attention to an explosive basketball player while recruiting. Rhule also hired six staffers with ties to Texas, including two position coaches and his
If you don’t play football but are 6-foot-4 and run the 100-meter dash in 10.4 seconds, chances are Rhule wants to talk to you. “We have good coaches. They should be able to teach you how to play the game,” he said. Rhule’s evaluation process is centered on a “confirmation of numbers” based on height, weight, speed, change of direction, and explosiveness.
Charles (6-2, 170) meets the criteria since he competes at a championship level in track and field as a triple jumper right out of the gym.
Someone who is incredibly big, someone who is really fast, and someone who is really explosive – that doesn’t go away with time. “Sometimes it’s hard for me watching tape of guys and deciding whether we should offer them…. I don’t trust myself enough to build my program just off of watching tape,” Rhule acknowledged.
Nebraska has never been a refuge for top prospects, despite all the hoopla there. Rhule isn’t moving the cards around.
We’re starting to attract some of the top players in the nation, he said. “We will always trust what we believe in. I hope we can do here what we did at Temple and Baylor, which is win championships and turn out a lot of pros. We’ll continue to recruit the 5-star but we’ll continue to recruit the 2-star, too.”
Nebraska is banking on Rhule’s track record of turning 3- and 4-star recruits into NFL Draft picks to turn the Huskers’ fortunes around after signing just two 5-star players since 2000 and none since running back Marlon Lucky in 2005.
Since 2013, Rhule’s first season as a college head coach, Nebraska has produced 21 draft picks, and he hasn’t coached college ball in four years. Twenty-three players from Rhule’s seven seasons at Temple and Baylor were chosen in the NFL Draft.
“You have to be really strategic because you’re not going to have everything given to you,” Alberts said. “Yeah, we have resources, but you’re not going to have 5-star after 5-star. Coach Osborne came up with a strategy on how to compete against the elite teams in college football.
In the professional ranks, NFL coaches frequently lauded players from Temple and Baylor for their pre-draft preparation, according to Rhule, who believes the input helped him land a job with the Carolina Panthers in 2020.
“I mean, I sat through all of those draft meetings and had guys get on the board and they couldn’t draw a thing. That hurts you,” said Rhule, who was fired by the Panthers after a 1-4 start to the 2022 season. “If you want to be a doctor, you would go to medical school. If you want to play in the NFL, you better go someplace that prepares you for the NFL.”
Linebacker MJ Sherman transferred to Nebraska after winning two national championships at Georgia, where coach Kirby Smart successfully changed the culture and ended the school’s 41-year title drought. Several players from Nebraska’s No. 27 ranked transfer class circled that selling point as the primary reason they selected the Huskers in the winter and spring.
Nebraska offers ideal ground for growth, as Sherman noted. “I knew once I stepped out of Georgia I’d never find another place like Georgia again, but I came to a nice melting point when I came here because the staff has a lot of credibility.”
If Nebraska is able to win once more, it will be due to Rhule’s recruiting efforts and the present players kicking negative habits, especially the losing attitude that was evident after so many games ended by one score. Too frequently, players expressed regret after defeat, delivering a message of solidarity to a devoted but tired fan base that last season came perilously close to ending the 389-game, 60-year streak of sold-out games at Memorial Stadium. Heck, some players still hold the opinion that they were the nation’s top 3-9 club in 2021.
In the spring, Rhule declared, “We’re not here to try hard, we’re not here to lose and thank the supporters. We’re here to succeed. And winning occurs right now. Fall is not the time for it to occur.
In Nebraska, football transcends most other things. It serves as an identity rather than merely a diversion.
If the West is the flashiest and the South has the most devoted following, Nebraska may have the most devoted, intelligent, and understanding fan base in the nation. In losing seasons, more than 40 media people cover Nebraska practices there, far outnumbering the coverage given to other schools as they advance in the College Football Playoff.
Success in football at a place like Nebraska is essential, according to Alberts. “In our state, some may describe it as unhealthy. Being the head coach is such a tremendous honor, but it also carries a tremendous amount of responsibility. The football team and his leadership are what actually propel this state, its vision of itself, and its confidence.
It’s debatable how quickly Rhule will be able to put Nebraska back on the national map after it fell off. It took him several seasons to build up talent and develop players for his turnarounds at Baylor and Temple, but both rosters were far less skilled than the one he took over in December. The Transfer Portal can also be of use to him. The Huskers have added 40 new players to their roster, which ranks as the seventh-largest signing class in the FBS.
This year, we have a potential to be significant, remarked Rhule.
Since Bob Devaney was hired in 1962, Rhule is only the third head coach to be hired at Nebraska who has no connection to the state. The native New Yorker, however, has a talent for quickly acclimating to his environment. He consults persons knowledgeable about the history of the program for advice and recommendations. Consider the fact that prior to being hired by Baylor, he never recruited the state of Texas. Some high school coaches in the state signed a petition opposing his candidacy, but by visiting as many high schools as he could and meeting with coaches all around the state, he was able to win them over. Every time he made a mistake, he called the coaches and apologized. High school coaches were welcome to see him at any time, and he even let them do so the day before a game.
At Nebraska, Rhule largely adheres to that same strategy. Of the 320 high schools in Nebraska, special teams coach Ed Foley has already visited around 100 of them.
“[Rhule] operates in a manner that Nebraskans can truly relate to. What he is, he is. He is so sincere. He is sincere. He is approachable, according to Alberts. “To find a guy who is from Nebraska, we had to go to New York City.”
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Rhule sat in his office, which was cluttered with paper, notebooks, helmets, and jerseys bearing various Nebraska logos, 72 hours after Nebraska’s spring game. On this day, 72 hours after the Huskers’ final spring practice, he conducted farewell interviews with the players. Two quarterbacks had used the Transfer Portal by day’s conclusion. Three Sears national championship trophies are displayed on a flat pathway outside Rhule’s door as a reminder of what was accomplished in the past and what might one day be feasible once more in Lincoln.
As his new coach had said, “I understand those numbers are significant, but it has nothing to do with right now,” Sherman agreed. “We can’t act like 1960s-era champions right now.”
A few hundred yards away, workers hurried to finish Memorial Stadium’s northeast side’s state-of-the-art, $165 million football performance complex. The Osborne Athletics Complex’s office, according to Rhule, is the nicest place he has ever lived. He will soon receive the keys to a new office within the nearby 315,000-square-foot building, giving him an upgrade.
Rhule remarked that the university, the resources, and the talent were all excellent. We need to “awaken a beast,” to use the analogy.