Q&A with Matt Rhule
LINCOLN, Neb. (KOLN) - Matt Rhule is entering his first season as Nebraska’s head football coach. He’s currently guiding the Huskers through summer workouts with anticipation ahead of the 2023 campaign. Rhule recently sat down with 10/11 NOW Sports Director Kevin Sjuts for an off-season Q&A.
Kevin Sjuts: Matt you’ve been on the job for a little over six months now, how do you feel about your decision to be the head football coach at Nebraska?
Matt Rhule: I’m fired up. It’s been awesome; been better than I ever could have thought.
Sjuts: What fires you up?
Rhule: I think the players first. I walked in the weight room this morning and they were working. They really want to win and that tone, that relationship between the players and the coaches can go a lot of different ways and to be amongst a group like this has been awesome and just getting out and about in Nebraska going all over the state, meeting people, how much this program means to so many just trying to build it the right way and feel like you did something good for the state, good for the state of football I think would be phenomenal.
Sjuts: Is your family here now?
Rhule: They aren’t here yet we’re packing up and finishing up. I was home this weekend packing up boxes and finishing up the school year and looking to get them here soon.
Sjuts: As you’ve been here and you’ve learned about the city and you’ve learned about the people that live here, what have you shared with your family about life in Lincoln?
Rhule: That they are just going to meet a bunch of really kindhearted people. I mean, obviously people are interested in the program, but people are really, really respectful and just want to see the best and so for me I’m a father first. To have two young daughters and an older son, I wanted them to go somewhere people are going to treat them well. There is going to be good times, there’s going to be bad times and taking them somewhere was really important to us.
Sjuts: You’ve been very visible in this community already - Matt you’ve attended WWE Smackdown, dropped the puck at the Lincoln Stars game, went to the rodeo, do you have a favorite event that you’ve been to?
Rhule: I’ve enjoyed them all, I really have. I’ve enjoyed just getting out and being around people, Kenny Chesney has become a friend over the years, so being out there with him was pretty cool. I think the whole thing has been great. I would say honestly going to the different Husker events though, watching our men’s basketball team battle, watching our women’s team set a record against Iowa, watching our wrestling team and the guts they have. I really enjoy just getting back to being a part of the campus community as well.
Sjuts: That’s just kind of who you are, right?
Rhule: I don’t sleep a ton. I’m either working or doing something with my kids and right now with my family gone I was walking downtown in the Haymarket at the farmers market a couple of Saturdays ago and people were like ‘what are you doing here?’ I was like ‘this is my community, I’m a Lincolnite, I’m a Nebraskan so I want to get out and meet people and do fun things.’
Sjuts: You and your staff have done so many things to endear yourselves to this fanbase. Talk about the fullback, you’ve gone to the small towns, Frank Solich being back for the Spring game. Has there been a conscientious effort from you and your staff to hit all the right notes with this fanbase?
Rhule: I don’t think it’s been conscientious to hit the right notes, I think it’s before we took the job it was more about who are we and how do we want to do things and will that match here. There’s no use fitting a square peg in a round hole and so we talk about the fullback, well we’re a team that’s used a fullback. So, we knew that would resonate here. Coach Solich, that’s just about doing what’s right for football. Coach Solich has been so unbelievably kind to me. I think we recognized that we wanted to come back and be a part of this state, we thought we knew but we really didn’t know how important Nebraska football was to the state of Nebraska. So, early on we wanted to get out and meet people and by doing that we now know how important it is and what a responsibility we have.
Sjuts: How’d you learn about that so quickly, about all the things that people value here?
Rhule: You know I think it’s going out to Scottsbluff and sitting downtown and talking to people. It’s going to Ainsworth and going into VFW or Elks Lodge and talking to people, it’s really just that. I mean if all I do is talk to the people I know I’m not going to learn anything new, so getting out and meeting people and talking with people across the state you learn a lot about what it means to be a Husker.
Sjuts: Let’s talk football, the scholarship limit everyone wants to know about getting to the number of 85, are you guys there?
Rhule: Yeah, we’re fine I didn’t know that was a thing but yeah, we’re fine we’ll be at 85 no problem. But that was a challenge throughout the course of the Spring but we’re in a really good place.
Sjuts: I know you really like Casey Thompson, you didn’t get to coach him this Spring, were you surprised he left?
Rhule: No, I think when you’re a veteran player and you’re a guy like him that’s done so much coming off an injury you want a chance to guarantee yourself a chance to play as a senior and there was going to be a competition there, Jeff had great Spring. I was fully in support of Casey, Casey’s one of the hardest working guys I’ve ever been around, would have loved to have had him here. But I also want him to be happy and have no regrets so I’m happy he has a chance to go and play.
Sjuts: You’re regarded as a program rebuilder, but I think a lot of people don’t recognize that year one at some of those stops they came with some challenges. At Temple your first year you were 2-10, Baylor 1-11. What are your expectations for year one at Nebraska?
Rhule: I think the thing that we did at those places was we established sort of the culture of what we were going to do, established our process. We didn’t play guys that weren’t going to do exactly what we asked, and we took our lumps, but we were building towards the future. The biggest thing was we took no shortcuts. We just kind of were like ‘hey, they’ll get us now’, but we’ll get them in the long run and even at Baylor at the end of that year we were almost beating teams. So, we’re going to do the same thing, I don’t think that means that we have to lose but we’re not going to take any shortcuts, we’re going to build it the right way and establish our culture. I think what’s been cool here is these players, these older players, they’ve been through a lot and battled through a lot and I think a lot of them are coming back because they want to get back to a bowl game, they want to do something. We’re just going to work hard every day and see what happens. I would hate if we went 1-11 or 2-10 but I’d hate even worse if we cut corners because I don’t want next year to be the same as this year. I want to improve every year that we’re here.
Sjuts: You just mentioned the bowl game, it’s been since 2016 that Nebraska’s gone to a bowl game. Having been here for six months and understanding the resources and the fan support, why do you think it’s been so long since the program has played in the postseason?
Rhule: It’s hard for me to talk about what I don’t know. I just know how important it is. I was walking to a basketball game and a bunch of students were walking next to me and we started talking and they were like ‘coach, I’ve been here for five years man please let’s just get to a bowl game.’ They want to experience that, and I’ve had other students tell me they are coming back for fifth year just because ‘I want to experience that.’ I think for me it’s about understanding how much this matters to people but being disciplined to keep myself in today. I’d sure love for all those kids on campus to experience that because it’s fun going down and playing a team from another conference and laying it on the line, so we’ll work hard to get it down.
Sjuts: How excited are you just to have them a part of your daily routine? This is your team for 2023.
Rhule: When you recruit those guys you get close to them, and you get to know them and get to know their families. I’m excited for them, this is the beginning of a journey and I want them to have the same approach I’m having, take it day by day but I’m glad to get them here and get them on the team. We have to do a really good job of now integrating this team. Taking the guys who have been here for five years, adding in some guys who transferred in, bringing in these freshman that were at the prom two weeks ago and turning it into a team, not just a collection of talent.
Sjuts: You’re about to hit camp season, I know that’s a busy time for year. You’re hosting a fullback camp, does anyone else host a fullback camp and why are you guys doing this?
Rhule: I don’t think anyone has and just as I got here a lot of guys reached out to me and said ‘hey coach I heard you might play with a fullback; I’d love to do it.’ So, we can certainly do that in our camps and we will but I kept thinking about the kid that plays tight end and he’s going to camp to play tight end but man I think I can be fullback, or what about the linebacker, what about the guy from somewhere in the country that’s a wing-t fullback or what about the kids in Nebraska that have heard about this forever? Giving them a chance to come and really dialing down and having a great day just for that position. I talked to Coach Solich about the idea early on and he thought it was a good one and I figured well if he thinks it’s a good one it probably is so we’ll see how it goes.
Sjuts: Does your fullback block or does he get to run the ball at all?
Rhule: Oh, no our fullbacks going to block. There’s not a position on offense that won’t block. At the end of the day the game comes down to blocking and tackling so we’ll try to find someone that can do it. If we have a great one we’ll play a ton with him, if we don’t then we’ll play more with other positions and try to get our best guys on the field.
Sjuts: You like your team?
Rhule: I definitely like them, I do. There’s a lot of things we got to work on and a lot of work to be done but I’ve liked them since the day I started here. That’s probably been the biggest surprise and I don’t mean that in a disrespectful way, just how committed they are to working every day to get better. I think it’s a credit to the staff that was here before. These guys know how to stay in it and stay in the fight and I’m grateful to them for that.
Sjuts: Back in April when the transfer portal opened, I’m going to quote this, you were quoted as saying ‘I hear other schools saying they can’t wait for today, I can’t wait to coach my guys.’ Some people thought that was perhaps a shot at one of the teams on your schedule for this upcoming season because they are portal focused, was it?
Rhule: It was certainly not a shot at them, I mean obviously I’m referencing those teams, but they’ve got to do what’s right for them. I have the right though to send the message to my team and I have the right to send a message to my teams’ parents and I certainly have the right to send a message to the guys I’m recruiting like, ‘hey if you come here we are built this way. If you like this, then go here. But if you want to come somewhere that’s built on player development and coaching you every day and all those things then it’s going to be about us.’ If I’m talking about the portal opening, then that means I’m also talking about guys leaving too and I don’t want guys to leave. Sometimes it’s right for them to leave and we’ve tried to help guys find places where they can play but I was just, more than sending a shot at someone else, I was sending a message to our own people, hey think about this. It’s the same thing I did putting Nate and John on scholarship. Instead of just running out and getting someone from the portal, the first thing we did was take care of our own and that’s something that to me, it just seems that’s intrinsic to being a Nebraskan is taking care of your own and we did that and that was a message too.
Sjuts: I’m sure you saw picture of the last time Nebraska played in Boulder and how over half of the stadium was red, and their athletic director said, ‘we want to try and not let that happen here in 2023.’ Tickets went on sale last week, they were selling at $400, what do you expect for the scene when you guys play in Boulder in week two?
Rhule: I hope we play well. I know coach Sanders, they sold out their spring game so I’m sure they’ll have a great crowd. You know Nebraska, we travel, so we’ll have a great crowd. I just hope it’s a great day for college football. When I think about the heyday of college football, you’re thinking of Nebraska, Colorado. I think about Texas, Texas A&M, I think about those games nationally and I’m a kid in Pennsylvania and I’m watching these game way out here in places I had never been and now football is moving into just a couple of areas and so I think it’s great that we rekindled this game and play it for the next couple of years and maybe even beyond because coach Sanders will certainly do a great job and we’re going to try our best to do a great job as well.
Sjuts: What’s your number one offseason priority? Is there one thing you’re going to say over the next couple of months we got to get this accomplished?
Rhule: I have two or three things that I’m going to ask them to really concentrate on, some I’ll keep internal. I think one of them though is just really trying to build brotherhood and build a team. Coaches are here for a couple weeks and then they go away and have some time to themselves. These guys have a lot of time on their own hands and they can be on the phone talking to someone somewhere else, they can be playing a video game or they can spend some time with each other and teams that really get to know each other, care about each other or at least understand each other. Those are the teams that win in the fourth quarter I believe. Those are the teams that when the season could just start to go right they come back left because they built those connections, and we’ll do a series of things on our end to try and help that but our guys have to be very intentional about building brotherhood which leads to great teams.
Sjuts: Your first two games are on the road so the first game here this fall will be the volleyball match inside Memorial Stadium which I’m sure you know has sold out. What do you make of that, one you’re sharing your venue but secondly they are going to fill it just as much as you guys will?
Rhule: I think it speaks to what John Cook has done. I mean he’s been someone who’s put me under his wing and helped me a lot so far and I’m grateful. I think it speaks a lot to women’s volleyball in Nebraska. I know my daughter is moving out here and that’s all she wants to do. I know coach Foley’s daughter is moving here and that’s what she wants to do. I think it’s awesome, I think it’s great. My only regret is that I won’t be at the game because it’s the night before we go. But I’ll tell you what I think, what a wonderful thing for women’s sports to set a record like that, and I think it also speaks to not only what we are capable of but what we can do in the future. So, Trev and John’s vision is awesome.
Sjuts: About your staff, you have a very young coach in Garrett, you have the veteran in Ed, you have an NFL experience guy in Terrance. Did the staff assemble the way you really had envisioned?
Rhule: Anytime you’re putting together a staff there’s a couple of guys you think are going to come and they don’t so you pivot. There is always those things but I think the biggest thing for me was people who had the same mindset. I don’t want the same guys, I don’t want cookie cutters, I want everyone to be themselves but guys that I think their best days are ahead of them not behind them, guys who care deeply about the players, so I think it’s an excellent staff that’ll produce a lot of wins.
Sjuts: Has some of the newness for you worn off, being the head football coach at Nebraska?
Rhule: I’m very much in the moment. I wake up everyday with a panic sense of urgency like ‘what do I need to get done today?’ There are some moments that you look back on and enjoy, like the press conference. I think being at a party and having three Heisman trophy winners there was pretty cool, taking a picture with Tom Osborne, Frank Solich, Lance Leipold, Barry Alvarez, Tim Albin, it’s been some pretty cool moments. But I’m always thinking about tomorrow because I know that’s the best chance I have at doing the things we want to get done.
Sjuts: What do people tell you on the streets when they see you out at an event, down at the farmers market, just around Lincoln when people come up to you what do they say?
Rhule: Besides can I take picture, usually people are surprised that we’re out, but a lot of times people will just ask how my family is or they’ll ask where we’re living. That’s what I mean, it’s such a kind group of people that I’ve met. It makes you feel humbled and honored and want to do well but people go out of their way. People also know that I like food, so they always ask me if I’ve tried this place or tried that place so I’m constantly trying to build my resume of restaurants that I love.
Copyright 2023 KOLN. All rights reserved.