No sooner had Temple football coach Matt Rhule ended his 2016 season than he began hearing from universities who were searching for a coach. No wonder.
The State High and Penn State alum had guided his Owls to a remarkable ascendance during his four years as head coach. From a starting point of 2-10 in 2013, the Owls had soared to 10-win seasons in 2015 and 2016—including a 27-10 thrashing of Penn State in ’15 and an American Athletic Conference title in ’16.
Given his success at a non-power like Temple, Rhule could surely pick a coaching plum for his next job. But on December 7, 2016, he stunned the world of college football when he was introduced as the new head man at Baylor University. Yes, Baylor — at that time, more of a pit than a plum. Allegations of sexual abuse had hovered over the football team for several years, and an external review prompted the chairman of the school’s Board of Regents to say in May of 2016, “We were horrified by the extent of these acts of sexual violence on our campus.” That month, the school terminated its head football coach, put its athletic director on probation and removed its president. Then, prior to Rhule’s arrival in Waco, the team fell to a record of 7-6, and all but one of the program’s initial recruits for 2017 chose to de-commit.
So why did this former Little Lion and Nittany Lion accept a job with a program that was in shambles? Here’s a portion of the comments offered by Rhule at his introductory press conference. “People are saying to me, ‘Hey, Matt, why Baylor?’ We sat there, my wife and I in a restaurant in New York City, one phone in one hand, one phone in the other. We said, ‘Where do we go, what do we do, where are we being called? Where does God want us to be?’
“And we looked at each other over a plate of ponzu shrimp and figured out right then in our hearts we were called to come to Baylor…”
A Penn State walk-on who lettered in 1997, Matt is here shown battling Temple, a team he would later coach. (Photo provided by Temple University)
EXAMPLE FROM NEW YORK CITY
At that point in the press conference, Rhule began talking about his parents — Denny and Gloria — who moved their little family to New York City in 1980 so Denny could share the love of God with those who battled financial and/or spiritual poverty.
“I remember sleeping in a two-bedroom apartment in New York City,” Matt told the assembled sports journalists. “Not the glamorous, not the high-rise where the person comes to the door and says, ‘Come on in.’ I’m talking about the place where you buzz yourself in… But see, my dad was a football coach, and he was a minister… And he showed me at an early age that we serve God in whatever way we’re called to do it, and it doesn’t matter where you go.”
Indeed, the Rhules of both generations play by a special set of rules. To them, it’s not about fame and fortune, but it’s about family and faith. And they certainly don’t shrink back from a challenge. Even to this day, I still have a memory or two from Denny’s gutsy quarterbacking for State High in 1965 and 1966. Both those teams posted records of 4-5, but Denny was a never-give-up leader who helped the Little Lions defeat Bellefonte in 1965 while breaking his collarbone in the process.
Employing that same perseverance during his New York days, Denny developed a successful ministry, though he had to serve as a teacher and coach to pay the bills. Finally, in 1991, he and Gloria knew it was time to leave the city for State College, a place where Matt and his sister, Dana, could flourish in their teenage years.
Back in State College, Denny coached football — one year as an assistant with the varsity team and many years with Coach Doug Arnold’s 9th grade team — and he taught school until his retirement in 2011. He also served as the pastor for Calvary Church’s gathering in Warriors Mark (now in Tyrone).
Denny and Matt Rhule have spent countless hours of enjoying the game of football together. (Photo provided by Temple University)
ON TO WACO
During Matt’s four years as Temple head coach, Denny became increasingly involved with the Owl program — offering encouragement to his son, giving spiritual guidance to individual players and conducting pregame chapel services. He and Gloria then accepted Matt’s invitation to move to Texas after he accepted the Baylor job.
Says Denny, “I thought, ‘I’m retired, and my son wants me to come to be with him, and it’s football, and it’s ministry. What could be better?’ ”
I recently took advantage of a free slot in Denny’s schedule to get an update on this father-son team and their efforts to rebuild the Bear football program. Perhaps overly fixated on Penn State’s fortunes, I knew only that the roster-depleted Bears had struggled last year (their record was 1-11) and that they’ve enjoyed a better start this year (2-0 with wins over Abilene Christian and University of Texas at San Antonio). Here are portions of my conversation with the man who is “Papa Rhule” to Baylor’s football players:
I’m sure Matt had a lot of attractive offers after his two straight 10-win seasons at Temple. How did you feel about his decision to accept the Baylor job?
Rhule: Well, we talked about it a lot and prayed about it a lot. I tried to teach my kids not to always choose the easy and the safe place to go or decision to make. And he feels that he’s called here; that God wants him to be here even though it’s got a difficult past and present. He and the people he brings with him are here for more than just wins and losses. They’re here to help make Baylor the kind of place it should be. So he did have other places he could have gone but he and his wife, Julie, really felt this was the place they should go.
It seems like your 11 years in New York were a formative time for everyone in the family. Is that how you view it?
Rhule: The time in New York City was demanding and difficult, but as I look back on it, I would do it again in a second. I learned so much about myself, about God and about trust. I wouldn’t have learned those things as easily in another place like State College. And I think our son and daughter saw those things. They went to a private school with the children of international diplomats but our church was in Times Square before it was ‘Disney Square’—it wasn’t a good place. So they saw a lot of the homeless and very poor people. They had experience on both sides of the spectrum, seeing people who had a lot and people who didn’t have very much at all. And I think, in the long run, that’s been very, very good for both of them.
It's obvious that your faith is central to all you are and all you’ve done. How did that faith develop?
Rhule: I had an older brother, Kenny, who was tragically killed when I was 22. He and some friends were in Maryland, and they were returning from some kind of Blue Band thing. And they were in a terrible car crash and all six of them were killed. That was the impetus for me becoming a believer. I went to church all my life; my parents were strong Christians and I went to church because they made me. I really didn’t want to go. But when that happened—my brother and I were close and it was a tragic time—but through the tears and pain I saw something in my parents’ lives that was really special. I knew they were suffering, but I saw a faith that was grounded, unlike mine. I knew what it was, and all the Bible stories and sermons I had heard came back to me. And I knew that I needed to ask the Lord to forgive my sins. So I went to the pastor and we talked, and we prayed together and I accepted Jesus into my life. So God used it for good even though it was a terrible, terrible thing.
Some people might call it a cliché to say that football builds character. But what have you actually seen in your life?
Rhule: My coaching style was to try to teach the kids the game, but at Temple and now here at Baylor, we’re concerned about on the field but more important than that, we’re concerned about off the field. We’re developing young men morally and ethically and spiritually to become men who will love their wives and their children, do the right thing and love God. As I look back and see how God has shaped me through all of my football experiences — whether playing or coaching or developing relationships with the players and doing Bible studies with them — if it didn’t involve building character, I probably wouldn’t be doing it. It’s a great opportunity to touch people’s lives.
I know you went on to play quarterback at Lock Haven State, but I wondered if you’d take me back to your days at State High. What do you remember about playing on Memorial Field?
Rhule: Playing on Memorial Field in State College, it was always a really special thing to walk down those steps onto the field and to see the crowd and the band and the cheerleaders and the students, it was always a wonderful thing. And then to be able to go later in my life and coach there, and to walk down those steps, I got the same feeling as when I played. It was a real special place in my heart. I just felt like I was home there. I loved coaching with Doug (Arnold); he’s a special man, and with Kurt Haushalter. And then watching my son play there, it was another continuation of football in my life. And in his senior year how good they were — with (Mike) McQueary and (Jeff) Nixon, they were really, really good.
You must have been really proud of Matt when he was introduced as the new Baylor head coach…
Rhule: We were here with him, so it was a good day. It’s funny that any time he speaks in an official way — it was the same when he got the Temple job — this is the little boy I used to make clean up his room. And now he’s up there and talking about leading this university’s football program and helping kids become men. It’s kind of amazing, what God has done in his life. Those two times were really special.
How do you and Matt feel about the current process at Baylor? You guys struggled to a 1-11 record last year.
Rhule: I think the kids are starting to buy in. When you come into a new program — especially one that had problems — you have a hangover in many areas. So I think the kids who are here are buying in, and looking back, we have much more depth, we have more speed and more strength. So I think it’s going to be kinda the same movement as what we had at Temple. We’ll get better this year and keep getting better. We play in the Big 12, and there’s a lot of good teams in the Big 12. It’s a challenge, but I think we’re moving the right way. I think we’re going to make significant progress. I’m hoping we’ll be bowl eligible to reward the kids who have stayed and have worked so hard. I think we can do that if we play our game and don’t beat ourselves and keep developing. We have a young team.
All of my questions have been serious. But Doug Arnold tells me you are quick to tease and quick to laugh…
Rhule: I always try to be light-hearted if I can. In my life, my philosophy is “Love and Laughter.” So I try to make situations better if I can. Last year, we could have gone 0-12, so I tried to look on the bright side of things. I try to encourage players. We played so many young kids last year. Those kids came right out of high school to a major university, and instead of sitting out for a year they were having to play. Some of them can be fragile, so you just have to get close to them and listen to them and joke with them and make things fun. Keep it in perspective.
What is your greatest dream for Matt’s tenure at Baylor? Not just this year but his overall time at Baylor.
Rhule: I want to see the program turned around, to have really good success on the field. But more than that, and most importantly, to have great success off the field in touching young men’s lives to help them understand their potential — physically, emotionally, mentally, socially and especially spiritually.
Denny Rhule roams the Baylor sideline to offer spiritual guidance and encouragement to his son’s young players. (Photo provided by Baylor University)