The specifics of the situations inherited by West Virginia University football coach Neal Brown and Baylor coach Matt Rhule were very different, but do share a common goal — changing the culture of a major-college football program and building a winner.
Brown has been taking some lumps during his first season on the sidelines for the Mountaineers, but he doesn’t have to look far for an example of what is possible with perseverance and some patience. On Thursday, Brown will only need to look across the field to Rhule to see what’s possible when WVU (3-4, 1-3 Big 12) visits unbeaten No. 12 Baylor (7-0, 4-0 Big 12). The game will air on ESPN starting at 8 p.m.
“That’s a unique situation,” Brown said of what Rhule has done in not quite three full seasons with the Bears. “He’s done a phenomenal job.”
Consider what Baylor football was before Rhule’s arrival after a very successful run at Temple.
Between 2011 and 2015, Baylor won at least 10 games four times and in 2014 there could be an argument made that the Bears should have been included in the inaugural College Football Playoff — BU beat Big 12 co-champion TCU in the regular season and finished 10-1, with the one loss coming against WVU in Morgantown, before losing a wild Cotton Bowl to Michigan State by one point.
Then in 2015 a noteworthy scandal hit the Baylor football program hard. It was determined the school had failed to take proper action on reports of BU football players allegedly committing sexual and other assaults on females.
Art Briles, the coach who led Baylor to all that success early in the decade, was dismissed in 2016 while university president Ken Starr, athletic director Ian McCaw and Title IX coordinator Patty Crawford all resigned.
West Virginia native Jim Grobe took over as BU’s interim coach for the 2016 season, and when Rhule arrived in Waco the cupboard was mostly bare. Baylor went 1-11 in 2017, then last season posted a 7-6 record with a win against Vanderbilt in the Texas Bowl. Now, in Rhule’s third full season as head coach, if the heavily favored Bears beat WVU they’ll finish October as the Big 12’s last undefeated team with a leg up on a spot in the conference title game and a chance to start thinking about a possible CFP berth.
“I think people recognize that I didn’t have to take this job,” Rhule said. “It [was] a hard job, not just for me, but the 30 other people who work for me who all made the decision to come to Baylor and come to Waco because we believed that we could do it and we could do it the right way.”
Three years ago Rhule, like Brown was last offseason, was one of the hot names on the coaching carousel. It was viewed by some as a bad move on Rhule’s part to take over a program in the shape Baylor’s was in 2017, but the new Bears coach went to work recruiting and, in a move familiar to those who have followed the 2019 Mountaineers, was forced to play with lots of young players early in his tenure.
That paid off. BU has been among the league’s best at recruiting since Rhule arrived, and those young players who were forced into prominent roles the last few years are experienced veterans now.
“He has not blinked,” Brown said. “He had a plan, and I think that speaks to him, really. He had a couple opportunities at a couple different Power 5 jobs leaving Temple, and he chose that Baylor situation. I think he went in there with a vision of what he wanted. He didn’t blink.
“He never lost his way throughout a 1-11 season, then they grinded it out to go 7-6 last year, and now, you look at their roster, they start eight seniors on defense maybe, a couple of juniors, and five seniors and a couple of juniors on offense. Those two years have really hardened those kids.”