By Jerry Hill
Baylor Bear Foundation
Matt Rhule still has plenty of pieces to fill in a coaching staff puzzle that includes the four staffers he’s already brought with him from Temple University and the three Texas high school head coaches he’s hired since taking over the reins on Dec. 7.
But, the Baylor head coach made it clear that his top priorities are recruiting new players and trying to retain the ones that will finish out the 2016 season with a matchup against Boise State (10-2) in Tuesday’s Cactus Bowl in Phoenix, Ariz.
“As important as recruiting has been, my No. 1 priority has been the current players on the Baylor team,” said Rhule, who posted back-to-back 10-win seasons at Temple before being named the Bears’ head coach. “Not trying to convince them to stay, just getting to know them and making sure they understand exactly what we’re doing. I want them to be excited to be here and I want them excited about the future.”
Rhule returned to Pennsylvania earlier this week “to see my kids, open some Christmas presents,” but he’s been hair-on-fire busy during his first two weeks on the job at Baylor.
“I wake up every day just so excited and so blessed to be here and to be doing this,” he said. “There’s nothing like a new challenge to really invigorate you. And really, every year is a new challenge. If I was still at (Temple), I would be challenged about the new year. But, to start from scratch, to start from Day 1, is exciting.”
Part of the challenge is restocking a Baylor roster that was down to 70 scholarship players after only half of last year’s signing class showed up following the firing of former head coach Art Briles. Rhule said it will take two or three years to get back to 85 scholarships.
What he’s been encouraged by, though, has been the response of potential recruits. Baylor’s only commit for the 2017 class is safety Jalen Pitre, a safety from Stafford, Texas, who signed a financial aid contract and will enroll in January.
“The unique thing is that kids from outside the state of Texas are clamoring to come to Baylor,” said Rhule, who reached out to make scholarship offers within hours of being hired. “There’s kids from California, kids from Arkansas, there’s kids from Florida. That’s the thing I want Baylor Nation to know is that coming and playing football at Baylor and getting an education at Baylor is so unbelievably attractive to kids across the country.
“Now, we’re going to focus our recruiting efforts here in Texas. We’re not coming here to go out and recruit kids all across the country. I just want to make sure everybody understands just how excited kids all across the country are when they see Baylor. But, there are a lot of great football players here in Texas that we’re going to get a chance to recruit.”
And because of that, Rhule says, there’s still time for the Bears to recruit an outstanding 2017 class.
“Our approach has always been to evaluate,” he said. “You’re never going to see me recruiting based upon stars (recruiting experts’ ratings) or based upon offers. I’m going to go find the right kids. My track record is I’ve taken a bunch of kids who had no recruiting offers at all, and they’re going to be first-, second- and third-round draft picks. . . . When I went to Temple, I recruited a kid named Dion Dawkins. He’ll be a Day 1, first-round pick, and it was us and air. He had nobody else.”
With players committing earlier and earlier, most of recruiting is based off “what they did in their sophomore and junior year,” Rhule said. “But really, your best football is played as a senior.”
“In the old days, when I was playing, you got recruited off your senior year,” he said. “A lot of kids develop late. So, we’re having a tremendous opportunity to go out there right now and watch kids in their senior year and evaluate them. We’re going to offer kids who have 100 offers, and we’re going to offer kids that have no other offers, but they have the talent and also the character to come be a Baylor Bear.”
One of the keys to hitting the ground recruiting was hiring Evan Cooper, who was Temple University’s Director of Player Personnel.
“He’s kind of like my right-hand guy, he’s my GM,” Rhule said. “At a time when I’m being pulled in a lot of different directions, he keeps me focused on recruiting. Even if it’s 5 o’clock in the morning or 11 o’clock at night, he and I are recruiting. . . . We’re kind of working day and night, but it’s a fun, fun time.”
As far as inroads to recruiting in Texas high schools, Rhule took big steps in that area by hiring three-time state championship coach Joey McGuire from Cedar Hill and former Baylor players Shawn Bell from Cedar Ridge and David Wetzel from San Antonio Reagan.
“I think the biggest thing is that Texas high school football coaches love their kids and they love football,” Rhule said. “And that's what I love. I love coaching kids and I love football. So, it was a natural connection with Joey, with Shawn and with David. Two of those guys love Baylor and they’ve been here before, so it’s been a lot of fun getting to know them.”
Rhule’s recruiting process actually began with the 2016 team and getting as many of the returning players as possible on board with the new regime.
“Everyone has to do what’s right for them. So, we’re just sort of saying, ‘Hey, here’s what the future would look like. And you can choose to be a part of it, or you can’t,’’’ he said. “We hope everyone stays, we hope that everyone has a great feeling about Baylor. But I also understand that it’s not about me. This was a really hard year for them. So, if someone feels like they need a new start, a fresh start, we certainly understand that.
“But, as I told them, the guys who stay will be remembered. Ten, 20, 30 years from now, you’ll remember the guys who had a chance to walk away and had a chance to start afresh, but Baylor meant too much to them.”
Back at Temple, Rhule was dealing with a similar issue, hearing from players that they were leaving, “and me trying to convince them, ‘Hey, you’re going to stay and you’re going to be happy. Everything’s going to be OK.’ It’s just a unique situation when you have transition, but in the end it usually works out.”
“This has been a hard year for these kids (at Baylor). We’ve just tried to say, ‘Hey listen, we’re always going to look back to the past and learn from it, but let’s look ahead and have our eyes to the future.’ And I hope that most kids take that approach. But like I told them, it’s their decision. We want everyone saying I was just a part of moving forward. Every year, you look to the future, so this will hopefully be the beginning of a great future.”
As far as filling in those pieces of the coaching staff puzzle, Rhule said he hopes to have it completed by Jan. 2.
“There are a lot of people that want to come here. It’s just a matter of making sure it’s the right fit,” he said.
Rhule and his wife, Julie, will fly to Phoenix for Tuesday’s bowl game and “have a chance to meet as many parents of the current team as possible and meet as many Baylor Nation.