I have covered several college and NFL coaching searches in my career, but I can’t recall one that had as many twists and turns as the one that just ended at Baylor. On Monday, I was told Oklahoma State head coach Mike Gundy was talking to Baylor about its opening. I had first mentioned Gundy’s name two months ago via Twitter due to his strained relationship with OSU billionaire benefactor T. Boone Pickens, but it became more of a possibility Monday.
But a little after 9 a.m. Tuesday, I started fielding calls and text messages about Temple coach Matt Rhule. Baylor athletic director Mack Rhoades had flown to Philadelphia on Monday, but Rhule’s name hadn’t been prominent in the search. This morning I tweeted not to rule him out, and a few minutes later Ashley Hodge of sicem365.com broke the news that he’d been hired.
“We could not be more excited,” Rhoades said in a statement. “When we set out on our search for a new leader of our football program, we wanted a coach who shared our values, who had demonstrated success, who showed a true commitment to the overall student-athlete and who we believed could lead Baylor to a national championship. We found all of that and more in Matt and I know he will be a perfect fit with the Baylor Family.”
The reviews have started to pour in from folks such as ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit, who called it a “GREAT hire.” The one thing that puzzles most Baylor alums, including this one, is that Rhoades had placed a lot of emphasis on hiring a coach with Texas ties. He told a small group of us two weeks ago that it would take an extraordinary individual to overcome that hurdle in his eyes.
A source told me Tuesday morning that “You can’t be in a room with Rhule and not hire him.” Apparently his interview had a profound impact on Rhoades. Now, Rhule will have to hit the ground running since the “dead period” for recruiting begins Sunday. I’ve already had sources tell me that Charlie Strong could be considered for defensive coordinator if he doesn’t land a head-coaching job, although Rhule could bring his coordinator at Temple, Phil Snow, who has an excellent reputation. One Philadelphia columnist is already calling for Temple to hire Strong to replace Rhule.
No matter what, Rhule will hire some assistants with Texas ties. Former Gilmer High School coach and Texas assistant Jeff Traylor has already been mentioned as a possibility. He was an outstanding recruiter for Strong and has a great reputation on the offensive side of the ball.
Sources have also told me Oregon made a strong play for Rhule over the past couple days and that it was his job to lose. He chose Baylor, which is shocking for a lot of reasons. Oregon had become a national power under former head coach Chip Kelly and it’s still a desirable job. Baylor is dealing with a sexual-assault scandal that could take years to recover from. Rhule was a walk-on under Joe Paterno at Penn State and is close friends with current Nittany Lions coach James Franklin. I think he’s coming into this job with his eyes wide open and knows he has to change the culture of the program.
“This is a 10-year hire, not a 10-month hire,” a source familiar with the search told me.
Rhule inherited an awful program at Temple. He went 2-10, 6-6, 10-4 and 10-3 in his four seasons. I think Baylor liked SMU coach Chad Morris quite a bit, but his 75-31 loss to Navy the final week of the regular-season gave the Bears pause. Rhule’s Owls then beat Navy, 34-10, in the American Athletic Conference title game. Morris checked all the boxes when it came to his Texas coaching ties, but Rhule’s had more experience and success as a head coach. There’s a belief among AAC athletic directors that Rhule was the best coach in the conference, and he backed that up on the field.
Baylor fans should be somewhat patient with Rhule since they just witnessed a season in which the coaching staff openly feuded with the school’s board of regents. Those coaches were part of the golden era at Baylor in terms of wins, but they were also on campus for a horrible scandal that has caused a lot of division at the school. It’s ridiculous for anyone to suggest Rhule’s hire will be part of any healing process because that trivializes the victims of this scandal. What it allows Baylor to do is add a new chapter to the program’s history. Rhule is a minister’s son who watched his parents travel overseas to do mission work. He will embrace Baylor’s religious heritage and hopefully take part in cleaning up this mess.
You can’t turn the page from this ugly scandal, but the university can try to atone for its sins. A 41-year-old coach with no ties to this state will try to take part in that process. Come to think of it, maybe a complete outsider is exactly what this school needs.