As Matt Rhule stood on the sideline after a 2015 Temple preseason practice wrapped, you could hear Rhule’s words and miss the depths of his ambitions. When his Owls knocked out Penn State a couple of weeks later … Wait, what had he said again?
“I think it’s a chance to blow people’s minds,’’ Rhule had mentioned about opening with Penn State and playing Notre Dame later on.
Minds were sure enough scrambled that afternoon as Penn State’s QB kept getting sacked. And they were confused for a long time that October night when Notre Dame was in, Temple still undefeated, ESPN GameDay shutting down Market Street. The Owls were up deep into the fourth quarter, before a Notre Dame wide receiver from Philly, now in the NFL, got behind Temple’s defense and saved the Irish.
So here we are … and damned if Rhule, now at Baylor, has not done it again. Baylor, undefeated. Maybe the 2019 Baylor season plays out like 2015 Temple — not quite ending in perfection -- but as of November 10, Rhule’s Baylor Bears are unbeaten and bound for the top ten, the college football playoffs no longer an outrageous pipe dream. Baylor winning out might -- let’s argue, should -- have a better shot at making the four-team playoff than Alabama winning out.
It all counts as maybe the single craziest story in college football this year.
So it turns out Rhule didn’t just take the money and run down to Waco. Those ambitions included seeing what happens if you get it going in a Power 5 league.
The football world now knows this isn’t fluky stuff. Rhule was a hot candidate for the New York Jets head coaching job last year, with a report that he could have had the job but wasn’t going to be given full control over staff.
Silly Jets. The next NFL franchise that looks toward Rhule won’t make the same mistake. And yes, college powerhouses all know what is going on in Waco, Rhule taking over a scandal-ridden program, going 1-11 in Year 1, 7-6 in Year 2, 9-0 so far in Year 3.
Sure, potholes remain, deep ones, with Oklahoma and Texas coming in next, and a trip to Kansas and then a possible Big 12 title game. Baylor managed to beat TCU Saturday without scoring a touchdown in regulation. It’s easy to think fairy dust has been sprinkled on this season, 60 minutes or more of it at a time, then have Ed Foley lead them in singing High Hopes, just like back in Philly.
That’s obviously not it. For starters, Rhule is the type to think through every angle. In the midst of the hiring process, Temple’s former president got a text from his personal physician in Indiana, Matt Rhule will make a great football coach. (Rhule knew somebody who knew that doctor.)
Nope, Rhule didn’t just think he could snap his fingers and beat Penn State in 2015. That same August practice, the last play had been a completed pass to the sideline. Rhule had the team gather around him. The last play looked fine -- wasn’t the right result. There had been a miscommunication. That was the fail-safe check-down option. Rhule talked about needing to see grown men. Everything counts, he told his gathered players.
What was that about?
"My whole point, this was the first time we practiced when classes were going on," Rhule said. "I just felt like too many of the young guys, their minds were elsewhere. . . . I thought our veterans knew how to come out here and be prepared when school starts. But I expect them to make sure our young guys understand. We're 10 days away from our first game, and we're acting like we're a month away. "
A minute later, Rhule was talking about the chance to blow people’s minds. You just didn’t understand the full extent of the words, of his ambitions. Maybe he didn’t either at that point. It’s getting clearer every year.