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Sparks fly – literally – ​as Nebraska coach Matt Rhule leaves lasting first impression

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LINCOLN – A hush came over the crowd of a few hundred people at 1:29 p.m. The next man to lead Nebraska football had finally arrived.

Matt Rhule was right on time Monday for a program thirsty for success and clarity after a sixth straight losing season and 76-day coaching search. The 47-year-old strode out from behind a black curtain inside the Hawks Center and across the turf on a path illuminated by red lights toward the podium and his next rebuild project.

Sparks flew – literally – along the stage that straddled the 50-yard line as Rhule took a front-row seat next to his wife, Julie, and their three children. Cheerleaders cheered. Assembled band members played the fight song. Herbie Husker loitered off to stage right, nodding and pumping his padded fist.

Nebraska’s introduction of its 31st permanent head coach was nothing if not ostentatious. Invited fans and students – perhaps shirking normal weekday obligations – gathered by the hundreds outside East Stadium as Rhule and his family arrived in a van. The new $72-million coach clad in a blue suit with a red tie autographed a few miniature footballs and heaved them into a roaring crowd.

That was before he got inside. Silver balloons spelling out “WELCOME” hung over arriving Nebraska dignitaries that included governor-elect Jim Pillen, a host of donors and former star Huskers like Johnny Rodgers and Steve Warren. The Huskers Radio Network broadcast a one-hour “pregame” show from the balcony. Pictures of a screaming, celebrating Rhule filled the surrounding screens.

Everyone took their seats and the brief hush set in. Then – after a 30-second pause waiting for BTN to carry the event live – the public declaration of the future of Husker football was underway.

A seven-minute introduction from Athletic Director Trev Alberts set up Rhule, who hit on myriad points that surely had Big Red backers nodding along. Emphasizing defense and a solid run game. Establishing a culture of hard work and hard-nosed football. Building outward from the trenches that allows for building – and keeping – a lead on the road and in the elements.

“We’re going to be a little bit more of an old-school type of a team,” Rhule said. “We’re going to be a physical team. We’ll be balanced and we’ll always try to do what the players do well. But at the end of the day I don’t believe you can win if you can’t win the line of scrimmage.”

Rhule said that because of his teenage son, Bryant, he’s seen YouTube videos of the Tunnel Walk “maybe 5,000 times.” The coach who transformed both Temple and Baylor into top-25 programs in three years has a respect for what Nebraska has been as well as a knowledge about what is necessary to get it back to national relevance.

There’s plenty to do. Rhule has begun assembling his staff and will meet with Mickey Joseph and others about what’s next. He’s getting to know current players and plans to be out recruiting by the end of the week. This wasn’t a job he had to take – he could have collected buyout checks from the NFL’s Carolina Panthers for a year or longer, he said – but one he’s inspired to take on.

“Here’s what I know: The future of Nebraska football is not hanging on one decision,” Rhule said. “It’s hanging on the accumulation of day after day after day of great recruiting, great development, great coaching, great teaching.”

Rhule turned down other offers to come to Lincoln, he said. He knew it was the right choice when his wife teared up at the prospect of not ending up there. The family executed a successful covert tour of the town during one Husker game day earlier this year.

“We did not come here to live in seclusion,” Rhule said. “We want to be a part of this community.”

The former Penn State linebacker said winning in the Big Ten isn’t easy. The margin for error is thin, and bad defense might cost a team four games. His staff will lean on recruiting ties in Texas, New Jersey and Florida along with in-state talent and the 500-mile radius to build something that can be competitive in a coast-to-coast league. The transfer portal and name-image-likeness landscape – non-factors the last time Rhule coached in college in 2019 – will be assets too.

A turnaround in some ways feels within reach for Nebraska, which beat Iowa last Friday and has resources to add talent quickly. But it’s also lost 21 straight games to ranked opponents, dropped 18 of its last 21 to Big Ten West competition and sits outside traditional recruiting hotbeds. NU’s on-field identity for years has been not having one.

“Let’s be honest: We’re at a critical juncture in our history as a football program,” Alberts said. “And having somebody who has a track record of understanding how to build a program at multiple levels and at multiple locales with multiple strengths and weaknesses was really, really important to me.”

Of the 13 coaches Nebraska “interacted with” during the search, Alberts said, Rhule was always “candidate 1A” for him. Within a program that wants to be built on development, toughness and a clear vision, the son of a preacher who grew up in New York City fit all the criteria.

Rhule mixed in some humor throughout a 13-minute opening address and question-and-answer session. Nebraska left him in tears as a young Penn State fan in 1983 when the Huskers won the Kickoff Classic in a battle of top-five teams. Then again in 1994, when he was a freshman on an unbeaten PSU squad that finished second in the polls to Big Red.

But most of his impassioned sermon was about the process of what’s next. A bowl game should be a “bare minimum,” he said. He issued no bold prediction or timeline for a turnaround – nobody wants to win right away more than him.

Rhule said he would ditch the suit by the end of the day as he rolled up his sleeves and got to work. But Monday was fun too – a spectacle that made obvious how excited both he and Nebraska were to have each other.

“I am here because this is the right fit,” Rhule said. “It’s the right time. If have one message for you, we can absolutely do it. … It will be hard. It may take time. But it will be done.”

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