Baylor’s Undefeated Bears: A Football Miracle with Happy Valley Roots
With a record of 8-0 and a national ranking of fifth, Penn State’s football success is viewed by many as a near-miracle. But the Nittany Lions aren’t the only team of local interest that has performed beyond expectations. And when talking about the Baylor Bears — yes, they have a strong Happy Valley connection — there’s no need to limit the superlatives.
Having posted a Thursday night victory over West Virginia, Baylor is currently sitting at 8-0. Given the program’s background, that is fantastic, amazing, incredible. Of course, Baylor is a long way from State College, but please take note: these Texas bruins are led by a bunch of Bears who come from central Pennsylvania. Head coach Matt Rhule played center for State High and linebacker for Penn State. Co-offensive coordinator Jeff Nixon was a running back at State High and Penn State. And last but not least, Matt’s father, Denny Rhule, quarterbacked State High in the mid-60s and now serves as a key source of behind-the-scenes wisdom within the Baylor program.
This Baylor saga began with a tragedy— a horrific scandal of sexual assault that involved numerous football players. Shaken and humiliated, the Baylor administration sought for a leader who could address such a crisis, and on Dec. 7, 2016, the Baptist school introduced Matt Rhule as its new head football coach.
Rhule had inherited a weak program at Temple but built it up steadily — from a record of 2-10 in 2013 to 6-6 in 2014 and then a pair of 10-win seasons in ’15 and ’16. Could he replicate that kind of progress in a more difficult context?
Yes, he could. The Bears went through a 1-11 season in 2017 but then posted a record of 7-6 last year before this year’s stunning start of 8-0. Here’s how Fox Sports’ Tim Brando summarized the program’s recovery during the Bears’ Oct. 19 triumph over Oklahoma State:
“We’re talking about one of the great transformational stories in the history (of NCAA football), and this is the 150th year of college football. Think of where this program was four years ago and where it is now. This is amazing.”
Maybe it’s because a prophet never finds honor in his own hometown. Or maybe we’re just too fixated on our wonderful Nittany Lions. But I know that lots of folks in State College are unaware that a college football miracle is happening in Texas and that it has local roots. So that’s why I decided to pick up the phone and have a conversation with my friend Denny, a pastor, coach, teacher and all-around good guy. Here are excerpts of our wide-ranging conversation:
If I had told you guys back in August or September of 2017 that you'd be sitting at 8-and-0 right now, what would you have said to me?
Denny: Well, I don't think we’d say we would be surprised. We would be grateful, yes, but we knew that if the kids could buy in and trust the process that, with the coaching staff we have, then some great things were possible.
So obviously they did buy in…
Denny: Yes. The ones who stayed and the new kids who came here did buy in, and now it’s a great locker room. Kids are working hard and they’re excited. They’re excited to play Big 12 football and be successful, to play for their teammates and their school and their parents and the Lord.
What would be some examples of the difference in Baylor football between now and when you guys first arrived?
Denny: Of course you've read of the problems that were here, so my son and the other coaches knew it was not going to be easy. It was going to take time and effort and patience. And so they approached it that way and just kept preaching hard work. So if I had to describe the whole thing in one word, it would be “patience.” And the other word is “preparation.” Just getting kids to get better, to become better men in all kinds of ways. So the coaches have been great and they really prepare their players. They're really good teachers.
Denny Rhule (right) confers with his son Matt before a 2018 game. On the right is Sean Padden, director of operations, and on the left is Matt’s son, Bryant. Photo provided by Baylor Athletics
If we compared the won-loss record at Temple and the won-loss record at Baylor, we'd see the same upward stair-step effect at both. What is it about Matt’s coaching style that allows such amazing progress?
Denny: I think he's learned that if you trust the process and come to work every day to become better, maybe 1% better every day, good things happen.
The Oklahoma State game was definitely one for the scrapbook. You go against a good opposing team, the game is in their stadium and it’s their homecoming, and your top tackler (linebacker Clay Johnston) is out because of injury. And you guys get out of there with a win—only the second Baylor win in Stillwater since 1939…
Denny: It's a very difficult place to play. The crowd is right on top of you. But we knew if we played our game that we would have a good chance. Our kids played the whole 60 minutes. I remember two years ago when we went there with a bunch of freshmen and sophomores, they beat us really, really badly (59-16). And I remember Matt said to me, “In two years, we're going to come back here and we're going to beat these guys.” So we played our way back from a 10-point deficit. The kids trusted the process again, trusted their coaches, made some adjustments and got a gigantic win.
If you had to capsulize your feelings after that Oklahoma State game, what would you say?
Denny: It was amazing. It was just so good to see the players in the locker room afterwards, singing and dancing and just coming together as a team from where things were three years ago.
I know that in Matt's thinking and your thinking, a lot of this comes from spiritual development, getting people connected to God. What's been happening on the team in a spiritual way?
Denny: Well, it's nice, you know, coming to Baylor, which is a Christian school. So we have chapel services on Saturdays before the game and then when they report back on Sunday evening, we have chapel again… So the kids are hearing the gospel and hearing good moral and ethical and spiritual values throughout the week. I'm very fortunate to be here, and I lead devotions for the staff two or three mornings during the week. And if kids or staff want to talk, I just try to build relationships and represent God each day. We’ve seen some good growth, and the kids look forward to the chapels.
The thing that I pray every day is that our staff people and our athletes will have a spiritual birth in Jesus and those who already have will grow and mature to his likeness and fullness. We want our guys to leave here to be godly men and godly husbands and godly fathers and godly professionals in whatever they do. Football just lasts for a small piece of your life.
How have things gone in your own life since you moved from State College to Waco?
Denny: It's been really good. We go to The Church Under the Bridge, and it’s 27-years-old. It developed from a person here who saw these seven homeless people living under a bridge, so he became close friends with them. Then he started a Bible study and now on Sunday mornings we meet under Interstate 35 outside, and there's probably 250 people there — Baylor students and homeless people and all different races. It’s really good. It stretches people who have not been rubbing shoulders with the marginalized and the poor and the homeless. And for the homeless and the poor, it’s a place to come where they can love the Lord and feel at home. When you talk to people at The Church Under the Bridge, they talk about being arrested or addicted or facing other difficulties, and God has come into their lives and completely changed them. I think it's kind of taken Gloria (his wife) and I back to our New York City days, when we ministered in Times Square.
Denny and some players ask God to grant confidence to Baylor kicker, John Mayers, before he attempts a field goal against Iowa State. Mayers’ kick with 21 seconds remaining provided the winning points for the Bears. Photo provided by Baylor Athletics
Back to things on the football field. How does Matt help the players keep their feet on the ground with an undefeated record? Here at Penn State, James Franklin always talks about how the goal this week is to be 1 and 0…
Denny: He does the same kind of thing. He talks again and again to the staff and to the players about the need to just go 1-0 this week. Don’t think about the past, and don’t get too puffed up. Just think about getting better each day and doing your job, doing your job correctly for yourself and for your teammates.
Matt's got emotions like we all do. So how do you help keep him grounded?
Denny: I try to be around him and stop in and see him every day to see how he’s doing and what's new. If he gets wound up during a game, I try to get in his view so he can see me. That usually calms him down a little bit. I just try to keep him grounded and be there for him if he needs me.
When I talked to Mike Archer last week, he said that what you guys have accomplished is phenomenal because you had so much negative recruiting against you when you first arrived at Baylor. What were things like at that time?
Denny: Well, I think when we first came, when Matthew first took the job, everybody in that recruiting class dropped out except for one person. So you can see that what happened at Baylor really affected that recruiting class. So when the coaches came in, they scrambled to get enough players to have a recruiting class. But our coaches are excellent teachers so they can take somebody who's maybe a two-star, three- star or even lower and with time and effort turn him into a pretty good player.
Have you gotten some congratulations from people here in State College?
Denny: Oh yeah, I hear from people all the time. A lot of people I know from State College, a lot of people I coached with. Matt Lintal (State High’s head football coach) and Mark Baney (an assistant coach) are good friends and Chris Weakland (State High athletic director), and I always write to them each week and they write back to me.
And you coached in the ninth grade program alongside Doug Arnold for how many years?
Denny: I think 17 or 18. We had a good long run there. Wow, that was a wonderful time. We had Doug and Kurt Haushalter and myself. And we worked hard to try to win. But you know, we just had such a unity among us that it was fun to go to practice. That was one of the best times of my life.
What about some of your memories from State High football in 1965 and 1966?
Denny: I always remember walking down those steps (at Memorial Field) with my cleats on and walking down onto the field. And how exciting that was. And I was so excited and nervous that I would throw up before every game. Every game. And then I remember when I coached, I walked down the same steps and I wouldn't throw up. But I had the same kind of thrill that I had when I was playing. What a privilege it was to be able to play there and then to be able to coach there and be in a town that offers so many wonderful things. The dances, the pep rallies, the Kettle Game against Bellefonte. And how neat it was to be able to grow up in State College with the same kids in junior high and then junior varsity and then on varsity. That truly is a special experience because in college, you know, kids come from all over the place and you come together and try to be a team.
Moving back to the present, what can you say about this year's Penn State team? What have you noticed?
Denny: Well, I really haven't watched them that much because we're usually playing when they're playing. I like the quarterback and it seems like they’re flying around on defense, playing really hard. It’ll be interesting to see how they’ll do when they play Ohio State. That’ll be a good test for them.
What would it be like if Baylor met Penn State met in a bowl game this year? I guess with the conference alignments, it couldn’t happen unless they both got into the playoffs.
Denny: Well, I’d like to tease and say we’d take it easy on them. Actually, I think that would be a good matchup. Who knows? We’d be challenged because they're a good team. I know that.
And of course the way the conference match-ups are for bowls, it would be unlikely. But in the playoffs it could happen.
Denny: I’d be rooting for Baylor. I’ve just got to say that. You know what’s funny, Bill? When we were at Temple and we played Penn State once in a while, some of my State College friends actually would say, “Who are you rooting for?” And I’d think, “Are you kidding me? My son is the coach at Temple. And blood is thicker than Blue and White.”
Backup quarterback Gerry Bohanon celebrates with Matt Rhule after a season-opening win over Stephen F. Austin. Photo provided by Baylor Athletics