How Temple’s Matt Rhule became a hot coaching commodity
We often hear about whenever a recruit picks a college team he’s joining a “family” but at Temple, the lessons from his parents — and his own children — are precisely why 41-year-old Matt Rhule has led the Owls to the greatest two-year run in school history. Not that Rhule needs any reminders but he gets a pretty good one every morning when he picks up his dad Dennis at 6:30 so he can join him at work at the Owls football office.
This weekend Temple plays in the AAC Title Game against Navy with a chance to win 10 games for the second consecutive season. The school’s previous best win total for a two-year stretch was 17. Ask Rhule about the thing he’s most proudest of about these Owls and he pauses for a few moments to size it up.
“The way they overcame adversity early in the year and then came into their own,” he said referencing a 3-3 start that included a loss as a heavy favorite against Army in the opener. “Last year, they had Tyler Matakevich and that senior class (that included three NFL draft picks in all). These guys fought and fought, and to see them emerge as players and as leaders has been really gratifying for them.”
When Rhule was hired to take over the program, one of his assistants Francis Brown, a holdover from the previous regime, recommended bringing Reddick back. The player moved from cornerback to safety and then to linebacker before moving to defensive end this season, where he’s emerged as a dominant force, leading the nation with 21.5 TFLs to go with 9.5 sacks. The 6-1 Reddick, who figures to light it up the NFL Combine this winter, has clocked a 4.47 40, broad jumped 10-10, verticalled 36 inches, benches 400-plus and is now weighing in at 235.
“He’s played himself into the Senior Bowl because he kept getting better and better,” Rhule said. “He exemplifies 'the Temple Way,’ because he practices so hard. When people talk about developing guys. That’s how it happens. They practice so hard and are willing to be physical and he only has one speed.”
That one speed, he adds, is all out. A week after Temple had lost a game to Memphis in part because of a long kickoff return, Reddick saw how his team struggling again covering kickoffs and in the game’s final seconds against UCF, Reddick demanded to jump in to help his team, saying ’That’s it. I’m not going out like that,' and he raced downfield and made the tackle.
The Owls are a lot more than Reddick. Their defense just short-circuited ECU, limiting the AAC’s top passing game to just 225 total yards and held Zay Jones, the FBS single-season receptions record holder to seven grabs, a season-low. Temple leads the AAC in total defense and is allowing less than half the yards of the conference’s new stingiest defense for the month of November.
“They’re always well-coached,” USF head coach Willie Taggart said. “They just play so hard. They’re about playing great defense and being able to run the football. (Rhule) always coaches toughness. You see it in warm-ups before the game (when Temple players are matched in a mano e mano ‘bull in the ring’ style hitting drill that the Owls call “rampage” to ramp up their energy level.) You see that and you think, ‘OK, that’s what they’re about.’ I think it’s part to intimidation to the other team and getting their own team ready.”
Taggart said Rhule is the coach in the conference he’s grown closest to. They are two of the hottest coaching commodities in the league and in all of the Group of Five. Taggart, a Jim Harbaugh disciple sees some parallels between Rhule and his mentor in that they’re the same person all the time and there is no sugar-coating. “Matt's real. That’s probably why we’ve hit it off so well.”
Rhule is flattered by such praise, but says it all goes back to his parents. His father was an inner city minister who also coached youth sports. His mom was a social worker. They still travel to Rwanda for three or four weeks every year to do mission work. Rhule relishes having his dad, a former college QB and baseball player at Lock Haven, around his team.
“I come from two parents that spend their lives giving back to other people,” Rhule said. “They told me to put people first. That’s how we try to run the program.”
As much as Rhule’s parents have shaped him and his coaching style so has his 11-year-old son Bryant, who was born eight weeks premature when the coach was an assistant at Western Carolina. The first 16 days of Bryant’s life his father described as “harrowing.” He has dyslexia. His dad has realized that kids whose motor skills are challenged can learn but it just may have to be triggered in different ways. Years earlier, he’d brought Bryant to a swim coach. His son was afraid of the water, but Rhule said slowly his son became a good swimmer.
“It’s not just patience but it’s also the belief that he could do it. And that’s the thing. It’s what can he do? You don’t look at his deficit but what can he really do well? I’m gonna find out. It’s the same with players. You find out what can he really do well?
That flexible approach also relates to developing players. “We found out that Haason Reddick as a pass-rushing defensive end is something he can really do well. It goes back to how you teach guys.”
Rhule’s other big influences were two of his old coaches. He grew up in State College and walked on at Penn State in the '90s. He went there just to be around Joe Paterno so he could learn how to coach. “That’s where a lot of the blue-print started,” Rhule said. “He really challenged you to be the best you could be as a player and as a student. And, he held the best players the most accountable. At other places, it isn’t always that way. As a young walk-on, that had a tremendous impact on me.”
Rhule later coached under Tom Coughlin with the New York Giants. Rhule said he learned more in that one year from Coughlin than he did from any other coach.
“I saw that he had a plan that he stuck to. Win, lose or draw, the plan was the plan.
“He was also fantastic dealing one-on-one with players.” That's why Rhule makes a point to meet position groups in his office or at home to strengthen those bonds.
In addition Rhule's had the unique perspective of having coached on both sides of the ball. He spent the first decade of his coaching career on defense and the next six years on offense and has worked with just about every position on the field even having coached special teams back in his Western Carolina days. Everything, it seems, comes back to trying to get the best out of people and helps explains why Temple football has never been better.