EDITOR’S NOTE: In the two weeks leading up to the 2017 college football season, Franchise columnist and co-host John E. Hoover previews the Big 12 Conference. Today: Baylor.
It sure seems like a legitimate question.
Why would Matt Rhule and Mack Rhodes and the whole lot rush to Waco with the dumpster fire burning at Baylor University? Seems more practical for one’s career as a Division I football coach or athletic director to just stay away, doesn’t it?
Turns out, maybe it was all the smoke that attracted them.
“I don’t know everything that happened, but I just know something happened that was wrong. I know that you first get in there, and you’re kind of like a first responder,” Rhule said. “Mack was the first one that made the decision to come here and say, ‘I’m going to leave the SEC and go be the athletic director at Baylor.’
“I feel like I’m called to be here and to be here in this moment and to kind of fix this.”
The transformation needed at Baylor isn’t unlike other significant fixer-uppers around Waco: There’s a great investment up front, and it will take a lot of work, a lot of sweat equity and a lot of emotion to make things at least appear improved. And while the ugly but necessary repairs are underway, there will be television cameras and armchair critics from around the country critiquing the whole thing.
Rhule’s first order of business would seem to be to fix the football team, the actual product on the field. Baylor dipped to 7-6 last season — six consecutive wins to start the season, six consecutive losses to end the season, capped off by a victory over Boise State in the Cactus Bowl.
But Rhule thinks Job One lies elsewhere. After recruiting and spring football, Rhule spent the offseason reaching out to Sic Em Nation.
“I think for a lot of them it’s been emotional,” Rhule said. “You hope that you can share a message that good days are ahead. This is a university that’s been here since 1845, since before the state of Texas was even formed. So I try to make sure that I let them know this wasn’t my only option. I came to Baylor because I knew this was the right place for me and I believed in it.
“I cherish being their coach just like they cherish their university. I think that there’s a lot of pride. I think that there’s a lot of — there’s been a lot of sadness, but hopefully there’s hope, and hope that we can have a great new future and respond to the things that have happened.”
Don’t misunderstand. There’s plenty of work to be done on the field, too, and Rhule has been swamped.
The offensive line appears in good shape on the surface, but there is so little depth behind a largely experienced unit that Rhule has three true freshmen and two former tight ends on the two-deep.
“That’s one of the storylines this year,” Rhule said. “Really, no one can get hurt on the offensive line. They’re just not allowed to. But, we have young players; we recruited them for a reason. They saw an opportunity to come here, and they have to be ready to play.”
Also on offense, Baylor must find a way to replace all-time rushing leader Shock Linwood, quarterback Seth Russell and dynamic receivers KD Cannon and Ish Zamora, among others.
“I think it’s a little bit of a youth movement we’re going to see,” Rhule said. “We’re going to see some young players that have waited their turn at the receiver position. In the spring, that was one of the things I was most concerned about, losing a couple of great receivers to the NFL. But I think we have some young kids, Denzel Mims, Pooh Atkinson (and) Chris Platt), who’s on the depth chart at both offense and defense.”
Terence Williams rushed for 1,048 yards and 11 touchdowns last season, and JaMycal Hasty contributed a 100-yard game.
At quarterback, Zach Smith had some ups and downs as a freshman, completing 59 percent of his passes for 1,576 yards with 13 touchdowns and seven interceptions. Smith would be a lock to start if not for former Arizona quarterback Anu Solomon, a graduate transfer. And true freshman Charlie Brewer has shown great potential.
“The quarterback battle, I feel great about all three of them,” Rhule said. “Anu Solomon has been there. He’s been to the Pac-12 championship game. He’s got a certain something about him. Zach Smith, I think, has, all the talent in the world. He just needs to continue to play. And Charlie Brewer from Lake Travis, he should have been at the prom, should have been in math class, and he was out there with us and still completing about 70 percent of his passes in the spring.
“I think all three of them are great players, and I’m going to let them battle it out. I don’t think it’s fair to name a starter as a new coach until you absolutely, absolutely know.”
Rhule doesn’t know what his offense will look like at Baylor. Last year at Temple, the Owls were good enough to win the American Athletic Conference (they won the East Division the year before), but ranked only 63rd nationally in rushing offense and 66th in total offense.
“I don’t know if we’ll be a smash-mouth team,” he said. “I hope that myself and our staff (are) smart enough to kind of play to the talent that we have. We have a bunch of fast kids that were recruited to a system, so we’ll just make sure we take the best advantage of the talent that we have, and we’ll have to count on some young players on the offensive line.”
Rhule played at Penn State, came up as a defensive assistant, then switched to quarterbacks when in his second season at Temple in 2007. He coached offense for five seasons in Philadelphia (the Owls twice set the school record for rushing yards), then joined Tom Coughlin’s staff for the 2012 season before returning to Temple in 2013 as head coach.
With that background, Rhule’s reliance would seem to be on punishing defense and a time-consuming running game.
Talk about changing the narrative at Baylor.
But there are other, far more important avenues by which Rhule hopes to address far more important changes. Rhule says university leaders have been intimately involved with programs designed to produce better people from the young adults that arrive on campus.
“I know Mack is and (president) Dr. (Linda) Livingstone and Kristan Tucker, our esteemed Title IX coordinator, with Alison Kiss at the Clery Center, a renowned organization (for campus safety), and with Neil Irvin at Men Can Stop Rape, and we’re trying to develop this nationally leading a curriculum (against) sexual assault in athletics and really in university settings in general to train us.”
Whereas Art Briles enabled the football program’s heinous rape culture and the leadership around Briles ignored it and even interim coach Jim Grobe last year denied it, Rhule and the new administration have embraced Baylor’s sordid past in an effort to change it.
“Because that which we don’t acknowledge, we’re doomed to repeat,” Rhule said. “If we don’t talk about it, if we don’t learn from it, then what was the point of it? I want to move forward, but I want to move forward ways acknowledging the past.
“And you know what, this issue of sexual assault and gender violence, this isn’t a Baylor issue and this isn’t a college football issue, it’s an everyone — it’s a higher education issue.”
Columnist John E. Hoover is co-host of “Further Review with Hoover & Rew” and can be heard every weekday on The Franchise in Tulsa from noon to 3 p.m. with co-host Lauren Rew. In Oklahoma City, catch him Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday mornings at 10:25 and every Friday afternoon at 4:05. Listen at fm107.7 in OKC, fm107.9/am1270 in Tulsa, on The Franchise app, or click the “Listen” tab on The Franchise home page. Visit his personal page at johnehoover.com.
2017 BAYLOR SCHEDULE
- Sept. 2: Liberty
- Sept. 9: UTSA
- Sept. 16: at Duke
- Sept. 23: Oklahoma
- Sept. 30: at Kansas State
- Oct. 14: at Oklahoma State
- Oct. 21: West Virginia
- Oct. 28: Texas
- Nov. 4: at Kansas
- Nov. 11: Texas Tech *
- Nov. 18: Iowa State
- Nov. 24 at TCU
* at Arlington, Texas