LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — A year ago, Matt Rhule was not in a good place. He was about to break training camp with the Carolina Panthers and dealing with a host of injury and personnel issues that hastened his firing five games into the season.
Six days before his first game as Nebraska's coach, he showed a sunny demeanor much like he has in previous meetings with the media since he arrived in Lincoln almost nine months ago.
“I’m having the time of my life, I really am," he said Friday. “So this is as happy as I’ve been in a really, really long time. My family’s here now. My girls are happy, my family’s happy, my wife’s happy, the son's doing well. I really enjoy this team.”
It's been a whirlwind for the 48-year-old Rhule since Nebraska landed him as one of the splash hires of the 2022-23 coaching cycle.
Rhule and his assistants have visited towns and cities across the state to immerse themselves in its passion for football and build relationships with high school coaches. He signed a recruiting class judged best in the Big Ten West and fifth overall in the conference. He even played a role in bringing Frank Solich back into the Husker family 20 years following Solich's controversial firing.
“He's done everything right so far," said 86-year-old Tom Osborne, who coached the Huskers to three national titles in his Hall of Fame career and stopped by Rhule's office this week to wish him good luck.
Rhule said he has no doubt the Huskers are ready for their opener at Minnesota on Thursday.
“I’m confident we’re going to play hard. I’m confident we’re going to be a physical team. I’m confident that if things don’t go well early, that we’re not going to panic. I’m confident that if things do go well early, we’re not going to celebrate," Rhule said. “And I’m confident we’ll have fun together.”
The Huskers haven't had much fun for a while. Their most recent winning season was in 2016. They never won more than five games, or three in conference play, in four-plus seasons under Scott Frost and just over a half season under interim coach Mickey Joseph.
“I don’t want to say anything negative about the people that were here before me,” Rhule said. “I think Mickey did a great job. I just think they haven’t won. When you haven’t won, you’re like, ‘Man, are we ever going to win?’"
Rhule said he has been impressed by the team's resiliency in making the adjustment from the way things were done in the past to accepting the culture of accountability he and his staff have tried to put in place.
Rhule acknowledged that in previous programs he rebuilt, at Temple and Baylor, the trend was for his first team to not win much while young players were developed. He often says he wants to lay a solid foundation to give the program staying power. But he also wants Nebraska players who are nearing the end of their college careers to experience success.
“Their care for the program is so strong that I feel a tremendous obligation,” he said. “We have to find a way to help these guys win. I don’t know if they’re beaten down as much as I would say they want this so badly and they haven’t been able to get it.”
Rhule said “caring but not coddling” is his program's mantra, and fifth-year linebacker Luke Reimer said it strikes the right balance.
“Especially for the old guys, there’s all this change and we don’t know what to do with it,” he said. “But they've done a great job acclimating those old guys like, ‘Hey, we know this is what you’ve done in the past, but this is what we're doing now.' It's a get-on-board or get-out type of deal.”
Even though Rhule won only 11 games in two-plus seasons with the Panthers, he said he doesn't regret the experience. He brought back to the college game some new ideas on how to teach schemes and incorporated them into routines that worked well for him at Temple and Baylor, where his final season included an 11-3 record and a Sugar Bowl loss.
“I think my time in the NFL really prepared me to do this better, right?” he said. “The (players) playing for our staff or being recruited by our staff, they're probably better prepared for things at the next level than maybe before.”
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