By Jerry Hill
Baylor Bear Foundation
Decked out in a slick gray suit and a new green tie, Matt Rhule looked more like an evangelical preacher than the new Baylor football coach.
And he sounded like it at times, too, bringing some of the same passion and fire that I'm sure his dad, Denny, has brought as a minister and coach himself.
Complete with the Golden Wave Band and Baylor spirit squad, the 41-year-old Rhule was introduced as the Bears' 27th head football coach at a campus celebration Wednesday afternoon at the Ferrell Center that attracted an estimated crowd of 2,000.
"You saw who he is," said Mack Rhoades, Baylor's Vice President and Director of Athletics. "That's the real Matt Rhule. He's as genuine a person as you're going to meet. That's why he resonates with people, that's why he resonates with all walks of life. He'll resonate with Texas high school football coaches, he'll resonate with donors, he'll resonate with people across campus, just all walks of Life. He's genuine."
Rhule even called his hiring at Baylor a "calling."
"I know people are saying, `Why Matt Rhule?' And people are saying to me, `Hey, Matt, why Baylor?''' said Rhule, who was 28-23 in four years at Temple University in Philadelphia, leading the Owls to the program's first back-to-back 10-win seasons.
"I had some opportunities. We sat there, my wife and I, in a restaurant in New York City -- one phone in one hand, one phone in the other. And we said, where do we go, what do we do, where are we being called? Where does God want us to be? We looked at each other over a plate of ponzu shrimp, and figured out right then in our hearts we were called to come to Baylor."
In a coaching journey that has taken him to Reading, Pa., Buffalo, N.Y., Cullowhee, N.C., and Philadelphia, Pa., Rhule said that each stop was "such a blessing in our lives."
His passion to serve, Rhule said, comes from a father that was an inner-city minister and youth sports coach and a mother that was a social worker.
"They told me that serving others and excellence and greatness knows no borders," he said. "So, when the call came to come here, we came. And we came because we have one purpose. I'm here very simply for this: To develop and work with these young people. I'm here to coach football, and I'm here to be the best partner that I can for Baylor."
While Baylor football has been through a trying year on and off the field, Rhule said his plan is just to build.
"In uncertain times, when there's transition, I think you just take your two hands and you start to build," he said. "Each and every year, you build a new team. No matter what you did the year before, you start from scratch and you build. You know it's going to be hard. You know it's not going to be easy. You know it takes time. You know it takes energy. You know there's going to be adversity along the way, but you just keep trying to build."
Ultimately, though, Rhule's goal is to win championships at Baylor.
"We want to win the Big 12 championship. We want to win the national championship," he said. "I didn't come here for anything else. We want to win at the highest level, because we should."
That was the same sentiment shared by Rhoades, who headed up the search committee for Baylor's new coach.
"Winning a national championship absolutely should be our goal," Rhoades said. "But we also talked about the kind of person, the man that we were looking for in terms of leading our program. And we used the `L' word. Somebody that was going to love them as a football player, but also love them as a person. Somebody that is extremely demanding, that is going to push our student-athletes, our young men, to be the best that they can be in everything we do."
With most of the 2016 football team in attendance at Wednesday's event, Rhule got a big thumbs-up from the players.
"I thought he had a great message, a lot of energy, a lot of excitement," said sophomore offensive tackle Patrick Lawrence. "And as players, we feed off of that. Looks like he's ready to get going and start building, and that makes us excited as well."
Junior defensive end K.J. Smith said he is "ready to get to work," his eyes lighting up about playing for a man whose Temple defense ranked No. 3 in the country this season. The Owls (10-3), who won the American Athletic Conference title with a 34-10 win over 19th-ranked Navy in Saturday's conference championship, gave up just 275.9 yards per game.
"If you can come in and do that in the Big 12, where there are great offenses, that's going to go a long way," Smith said.
As far as building a coaching staff, Rhule said he will meet with the current assistant coaches and other coaches with Texas ties, "and I just want to make a very deliberate decision, much like the decision I made to come here. . . . I'll hire the people I think I'm called to hire."
With scholarship numbers down, Rhule said he has some work to do on the recruiting front, "but at the end of the day we're going to make sure we take the right kids and the kids that fit Baylor and what we're doing.
"There aren't many guys committed right now, but kids are reaching out left and right -- kids that are committed other places, they want to come to Baylor."
At Wednesday's introduction, Rhule was joined by his wife, Julie; 12-year-old son, Bryant; and his mom and dad, Denny and Gloria. His two daughters, 3-year-old Vivienne and 1-year-old Leona, were "banished back to the hotel because they couldn't handle this."
"We are truly honored to stand here with you and for me to stand here as the head coach at Baylor," he said. "I promise to take care of this program that belongs to so many of you, and I'm so grateful that you guys would entrust me with this tremendous team and tremendous group of young men."