Matt Rhule takes big risk by going to Baylor

Stephen Hawkins
Associated Press
Matt Rhule

Matt Rhule is taking on a Texas-sized challenge at Baylor after leading Temple to unprecedented success.

After consecutive 10-win seasons with the Owls and a roster filled by kids from Pennsylvania and New Jersey, and a football life spent mostly near those areas, Rhule will be introduced on the Waco campus Wednesday as the new coach of a Big 12 Conference program hit hard by scandal and suddenly struggling on the field.

Rhule heads to the Lone Star State, one of the most highly competitive recruiting areas, with only days to talk to potential recruits before a month-long quiet period begins Monday.

"I am truly honored and humbled to join the Baylor family," Rhule said in a statement Tuesday. "I am excited to get started."

Rhule becomes the full-time replacement for two-time Big 12 champion coach Art Briles, who was dismissed after a scathing report over the university's handling of sexual assault complaints, including some against football players.

After that report and Briles' departure, Baylor lost half of its highly touted 22-player class from last spring. With recruiting on hold since then, the Bears have only one firm verbal commitment for signing day in February. They have only about 70 scholarship players this season on a roster with a dozen seniors.

Rhule will also have to put together a coaching staff since it is unlikely that any of the current assistants will remain. Briles' staff remained when former Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe put his retirement on hold in May to serve as Baylor's acting head coach this season. The assistants include Briles' son, Kendal, the offensive coordinator, and son-in-law Jeff Lebby, the running backs coach.

While Rhule lacks deep Texas ties, athletic director Mack Rhoades said the 41-year-old former Penn State linebacker has many of the qualities that he sought in a new coach.

"We wanted a coach who shared our values, who had demonstrated success, who showed a true commitment to the overall student-athlete and who we believed could lead Baylor to a national championship," Rhoades said. "We found all of that and more in Matt and I know that he will be a perfect fit with the Baylor family."

Baylor is 6-6, and headed to the Cactus Bowl despite a six-game skid that included the loss of senior starting quarterback Seth Russell after season-ending ankle surgery. Grobe told Rhoades back in September, before the Bears had lost a game, that he didn't want to be a candidate for the full-time job.

Rhule was 28-23 in four seasons at Temple, his only previous head coaching job. The Owls are 10-3 this season and won the American Athletic Conference title with a 34-10 win over Navy last weekend after a 10-4 record in 2015.

After first going to Temple as an assistant under Al Golden in 2006, Rhule spent the next decade there — except for the 2012 season in the NFL as an assistant offensive line coach for the New York Giants. He returned to Philadelphia as the Owls head coach in 2013 , and had a contract through 2021 after an extension last year. His resume includes stints at UCLA, Western Carolina, Buffalo and Albright College in Pennsylvania in 1998, his first year out of college.

Briles took Baylor from the bottom of the Big 12 to back-to-back conference titles (2013, 2014) and six consecutive bowl games that ended a 16-year postseason drought. Robert Griffin III won the school's only Heisman Trophy in 2011, and the Bears just missed the first four-team College Football Playoff in 2014, the same year a new $264 million campus stadium opened on the banks of the Brazos River.

But the nation's largest Baptist university was rocked by scandal earlier this year and an investigation by the Pepper Hamilton law firm determined that the school mishandled assault claims for years. The firm's report in May led to the immediate suspension of Briles, who had eight seasons left on his contract and reached an undisclosed settlement with the school a month later.

The school still faces several federal lawsuits by women who say the university ignored or tried to suppress their claims of sexual and physical assault. School regents recently disclosed that 17 women had reported domestic violence or sexual assaults that involved 19 football players since 2011.

Two women who reported being gang-raped reached a settlement with the school last month. While details of the attacks weren't disclosed, Baylor interim President David Garland said then that players implicated in those cases were no longer at the school.

The Bears haven't won since becoming the only FBS school to start 6-0 each of the last four seasons. They play Boise State (10-2) on Dec. 27 in Phoenix. Their six-game skid is the longest since losing nine in a row — the final eight games of the 2007 season and the 2008 opener in Briles' debut.