College Football
Matt Rhule expects to turn Nebraska into title contender: 'It's a matter of when'
College Football

Matt Rhule expects to turn Nebraska into title contender: 'It's a matter of when'

Published Jul. 1, 2024 10:46 a.m. ET

The buzz is building in Nebraska ahead of Year 2 of the Matt Rhule era.

So, for this week's edition of "Big Noon Conversations," I spoke with the Nebraska head coach about what he's building in Lincoln and his expectations for the program entering Year 2. We also discussed what he's seen from highly-touted freshman quarterback Dylan Raiola through spring ball and the lessons learned from his NFL stint.

Here's a snippet of my conversation with Rhule:

(Read more from "Big Noon Conversations:" Sherrone Moore, Steve Sarkisian, Deion Sanders)


It's an exciting time around your program right now. I personally think that you guys are going to be a really good football team next fall. It's your second year and there’s optimism around the program. What excites you about not only this season, but what you're building and the momentum that you're creating?

When I looked at Nebraska, I saw the facilities, I saw the fan base, I saw the financial situation, I saw a school that had no debt - one of the only Big Ten schools with no debt - and in the age we're getting ready to move into I thought, "Well, this place is uniquely positioned." I saw a history of excellence.

My question was, can we recruit there? I had people telling me like, "Hey, you know, it's in the middle of the country. It’s going to be hard to recruit. Why don't you wait for a job in Texas or Florida or something like that?" 

I kind of fell in love with the place, but that was always my question. So, getting there and seeing how cool of a town Lincoln is, how big of a city Omaha is, the football is pretty good in that area. There's a lot of Division I players coming out of that area and saying there’s still a national pool, and I can still wear [Nebraska gear], I can go to a Florida airport, and I’m gonna get a, "Go Big Red!" I promise you. 

So, we still have some pull. Now, we have to play well. But we can get players to come to Nebraska. We can get players who want to play in those facilities. That's why I'm excited, because we have a pretty good team. I’m a coach. I’m not gonna say too much. But I think we have a pretty good team. I have a kind of quiet confidence while I walk around about where we're headed.

Is it this year? I think it is. Is it the next year? Definitely. So I'm really excited about that. 

How much of that confidence stems from your own history? I've said this several times on this show, and it’s why so many programs have been enamored with the thought of trying to get you in their program as their head coach, but you did it at Temple. You did it at Baylor. Those are places that were not easy to do that. Baylor had won before you got there, but people forget what happened there and what you actually took over. That was a difficult job. So, my confidence level is in you as a builder. Is that what you see? 

Yeah. First of all, thank you. But I think so. I think it’s because of our staff. We are not afraid of failure. We’re not afraid of going 2-10, 1-11 in our first year. Everyone talks about building a culture and they don't even know what that is sometimes. Well, to me, it's getting the best people possible and setting high standards for how you do things. If that means that I'm gonna play the guys who will do things right early on and we might not lose or we're trying to recruit freshmen that take a quick fix, we’re willing to go through that. Our bad year here was 5-7 instead of 2-10, which is much better than 2-10, thank goodness. 

I think once the players realize like, "Hey, these guys are for real man. Coach Rhule would rather lose than win doing things the wrong way, so we’re not going to buy into doing things the wrong way." And the staff, I've never fired a coach after the first year. If you go 1-11, 2-10, everyone thinks you’re going to fire them. But I’m like, "What are you talking about? We did our best work this year."

In those triage years, we are setting the program up quietly, to have long-term success. Baylor won a [Big 12] championship after we were gone with those same kids because they had been trained the right way. The first thing you do when you want to build a building is, you do what? You’ve got to dig, and you’ve got to dig down.

Matt Rhule explains how Nebraska football will grow & learning through failure

The guy should go the wrong way to go the right way, and not everyone’s willing to do that, especially nowadays with NIL, the transfer portal and all that. 

Yet, you went 5-7, and maybe from the outside that doesn’t look like success. OK, fine. However, if you actually dig into your season and you see what you were to begin the season and what you were to end the season, the games you were in and the ways you lost those seven games, your turnover issue was wild. You had 15 turnovers, I think, in five of your losses. If that goes the other way, it’s not even just a 5-7 season in a triage season. It’s something much better and you’re going to a bowl game. That's why I have confidence moving forward. The margins were really small between what you did at 5-7 and a really good year.

I always love when Phil Steele's magazine comes out every year. One of the things he uses to predict success the next year is close losses lead to close wins and turnovers usually lead to turnarounds. Let me say this right now, if we are minus-17 again [in turnover differential] this year, I'm gonna be playing golf, OK? They won't have me back, and they shouldn’t. It was a phenomenon that just kind of built on itself. Obviously, I didn't do a good enough job, but we won't be that this year. 

We talk about building. How do you do that? I think you just don’t panic. You go through that year and you say, "OK guys, listen: If we just fix a couple things, we're going to be a really good team."  

I know we'll be better on offense. We were really good on defense. We were pretty solid on special teams. We don't take into account enough in the Big Ten the weather. People think it’s whatever. No, there were games where it was 30, 40, 50 mph winds in our face for two quarters a game. I adapted as the year went on. I really watched [Iowa] coach [Kirk] Ferentz. I told him last night, I know Nebraska and Iowa are rivals, but I look up to Coach Ferentz and how he played the field position game. 

Now, we enter Year 2. We will be better with the turnovers. We have a better idea of how to win in the Big Ten. I know the Big Ten has changed, but we have a better idea with most of the teams and how to win with our players.

Most importantly, a lot of people don't transfer out of Nebraska. Most of our guys want to stay and be a part of those moments. We have a lot of guys who were there during those moments, who will make different decisions this year so that we can win.

A lot of the excitement surrounding your team is going to center around signing a five-star quarterback. Here comes Dylan Raiola. What was it like to land him and what has it meant to your team and offense?

Dylan's talent is only matched by who he is as a person. His father was a great Husker, played 14 years in the NFL as an offensive lineman, the most unselfish position there is as a center. He has a great mom, sister, younger brothers and his uncle’s our offensive line coach. 

The great thing for us was in recruiting. He came because he knew what the program was really like on the inside. That sends a message to everybody else in recruiting that, "Hey, this was a good place. I was gonna go somewhere else. I know what's happening here. You should trust it. You should come."

I think the second part of it is, now you're attracting players from all across the country that want to come play with him. 

But at the end of the day, it comes down to football. He has a unique feel for the game. You always hear about Tom Brady and those guys say when your best players work the hardest, you have a great team. Well, Dylan’s one of those guys who tries to work the hardest. 

People talk a lot about turnovers last year, which we should. I go back and say if we can throw the ball better, if we can complete third-and-5, if we’re not throwing interceptions and if we can be more aggressive because we can trust our decision-making. That's been one of the challenges for Dylan, Danny [Kaelin] and Heinrich [Haarberg].

He certainly has helped us raise the level of play and I think he's gonna be a guy that all of college football knows.

Do you have benchmarks you want to hit?

I expect us to make a massive jump from Year 1 to Year 2 and I expect our best jump to be from Year 2 to Year 3. I think you go from playing losing football to winning football to championship football. The question I’ve said since I’ve been at Nebraska to our guys is make Year 2, Year 1 and make Year 3, Year 2. Let’s not go through the 2-10, fight and [ask], "Why are we doing this?" Just buy into it and do it. 

In many ways, last year was like a second year for me. I expect us to have a really good team this year, make some runs and to be a team people don’t want to play. I want us to win a bowl game, to be in the conference title race, to fight to go play in the College Football Playoff and win it.

So, where are we there? I certainly expect us to be a bowl-eligible team. Can we be a team that challenges to go play in the College Football Playoff? I don't know. If we weren’t minus-17 and all of a sudden we were plus-seven [in turnover differential], we might make some noise. 

That's really my challenge to the guys: Let's fix the turnover issue, get really good on offense to match our defense and then we’ll see what happens.

I grew up as a rival to Nebraska, but I could not imagine what your fan base would be like if you put together a season if you were in the CFP race in November. 

Here’s my confidence level: That’s going to happen, whether it's this year, the next year or what year it’s going to be.

The thing I always go back to, just trying to be a very grateful person, is they deserve that. They’ve shown up when we’re 3-9 or 4-8. We were 0-2 this year. We lost to Minnesota and Colorado. I'm still down about those two games to be very focused on what's next.

I show up to the next game. The inspiration you felt from that crowd for the Northern Illinois game, they were there for the entire warm-up. I was like, "We better put together a good team." There’s 5,000 little kids that want to shake your hand as you're walking out to the field. They need to grow up. The best parts of the game can’t be meeting the players. It’s got to be championship-caliber football.

That will happen. To me, it's a matter of when, and I sure hope it's this year.

You mentioned it, but the Colorado-Nebraska game from a year ago is going to be at your place this year. For the first time in a long time, it feels like both teams have high expectations. That game, early in the season, is a monster game.

The one thing we have to always remember when we talk about Colorado is how great Shedeur [Sanders] is. He’s one of the best football players I’ve ever coached against. We blitzed them and I think we sacked him 10 times. We hit him a ton and he stood in there. 

I know everyone sees Shedeur in commercials and the swagger that he plays with, but he's an unbelievable competitor and he's tough. You take Shedeur, Travis Hunter, all the players they have and [Deion] Sanders, they’re going to come into our place. They’re a really good football team with dynamic players that you have to compete with.

Nebraska Cornhuskers vs. No. 22 Colorado Buffaloes Highlights

What Deion has done, in my opinion, is he's made football relevant to maybe people that weren't watching it. It's our chance to come into that game, and people are gonna tune in to see them, and they'll have a chance to watch us too. If we play well, maybe people will have that same energy about us nationally that they have about them.

What did you learn with the Carolina Panthers and in your experience in the NFL?

I learned a lot of things. I would not be able to be the head coach of Nebraska had I gone through that. Every decision you make is magnified in Nebraska, 10 times over, and if you're not really confident in who you are, I can see it really affecting you. I can see you compromising. 

I have such a different relationship with our players now. When I'm able to tell them, because you know, this generation is so concerned with how people see them. I've been National Coach of the Year, I’ve been "Hopefully, we can have him as our head coach," I’ve been a meme and laughed at on "SportsCenter." As Rudyard Kipling says: "If you can meet with triumph and disaster and treat those two impostors the same." I’ve been able to teach my own kids that. 

What I learned through all of that is I just want to make it about my players. It's not about me. Coaches say that they mean it is about them, it’s really not about me. I came back to college football because I knew young people needed coaches that cared about them, coaches that don't want to throw them away, coaches that don't want to give up on them, coaches that want to make an environment where they can be safe to have failures but grow.

If I learned anything during that time there it was … all these amazing players I had a chance to coach, they’re just people. You see them as superstars, but they’re just people. I lost a little bit of that during COVID. One of the worst things that I did is, early on there, you go into be a head coach, you don't know anybody, COVID hits, then when it came back, I didn’t connect enough. My last year, I did an amazing job, I think, of connecting with a lot of those players and they battled for me until the very end. 

I come back to college now and it’s all about human connection.

For more of my conversation with Rhule, head over to Spotify, YouTube or wherever you listen to your podcasts.

Joel Klatt is FOX Sports' lead college football game analyst and the host of the podcast "The Joel Klatt Show." Follow him on X/Twitter at @joelklatt and subscribe to the "Joel Klatt Show" on YouTube.


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