Nebraska’s Matt Rhule is entering year 2 with a clear vision — and outsiders are noticing

LINCOLN, Neb. — Hints of spring are here. The ice and snow have disappeared. The NFL combine is on deck. One month from Saturday, players at Nebraska return to the practice field.

Until then, or at least until spring break arrives in two weeks, the Cornhuskers remain stuck in the most grueling period of their offseason. It’s also the most revealing and perhaps the most important time on the football calendar, according to coach Matt Rhule, before the season begins.

“Don’t tell me you want to beat Iowa after we lose to Iowa,” Rhule said. “Tell me you want to beat Iowa today with your actions.”

He’s talking about culture. It’s the buzzword that will not go away. Fans hear it. Players hear it. The media repeats it. But what is culture, really, and how can it help the Huskers when every head coach at every program preaches its significance?

An impactful culture, Rhule said, requires complete belief.

“I think we’re headed in that direction,” Rhule said. “It’s been night and day, significantly better than it was last year.”


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The culture around Rhule’s program last year was not poor, the second-year coach is quick to mention. It was just something new.

“Now everyone knows what to expect,” he said.

Anxiety levels drop when expectations are understood. Performance, in theory, improves.

With these steps forward comes added responsibility. The reshaped culture of Nebraska extends beyond the glow of Memorial Stadium.

Wednesday night, Rhule met with more than 100 high school coaches in a room with seating for 70 on the Sandhills Global campus in northwest Lincoln. He offered a few words and introduced quarterbacks coach Glenn Thomas and secondary coach Evan Cooper.

Rhule then drove to Omaha for a similar event with coaches from the Metro Conference.

Half of his staff went to the Lincoln engagement, the other half to the one in Omaha.

Among Rhule’s messages? Don’t make excuses.

Instead, make football enjoyable. Many coaches in attendance Wednesday have seen participation numbers decline in sports at their schools, said Jim Hansen, an organizer of the gathering and treasurer of the Lincoln Football Coaches Association.

“Let’s create football programs that kids want to be a part of,” Rhule told the high school coaches, according to Hansen.

Another Rhule message during this offseason: Culture isn’t measured solely by attendance or performance. It’s measured by what happens in the quiet moments.

“I know guys are watching the quarterbacks,” Rhule said recently. “We lost five games (last season) by three points or in overtime. So we’re fighting for every single point. We’re three points away from being a good team in our brains.

“So am I going to follow a quarterback that doesn’t win all the drills, that’s not out there throwing at 6 a.m., that’s not there on the weekends? I’m not following that guy.”

Likewise, the Nebraska coaches expect that they’re being watched. Wednesday in Lincoln, Thomas and Cooper impressed the high school coaches with their knowledge and attitudes. The program started at 7 p.m. The Nebraska assistant coaches stuck around until 9:45.

Coaches in attendance ranged from some of the largest schools in the state to Parkview Christian, which plays six-man football.

After some fluctuation over the past two decades at Nebraska, Hansen said “adults are back in the room.”

A former assistant coach at Lincoln Pius X, Hansen said he recalls years ago when a Nebraska coordinator scoffed at him for seeking insight on the Huskers’ scheme. Hansen told Rhule the story. If anything like that happens at Nebraska with this coaching staff, Rhule said, find him and let him know.

“This staff has just been different in the sense that they’ve really tried to connect with us,” Hansen said. “It’s great to see that the guys you watch on Saturday are going through the same things that we do on Friday night. They are one of us. They really are.”

As Thomas said last week in an introductory session with the media, Rhule’s process of building a culture has worked with multiple college programs. Rhule directed Temple to four-game improvements in his second and third seasons. Baylor went from one win in his first year to 11 in Rhule’s third.

“There’s a lot of value in that,” Thomas said. “But he’d be the first to tell you, every day we come in the building, we’re looking for the best way.”



Glenn Thomas is a culture fit for Matt Rhule’s Nebraska program

The best way might be a new way. Rhule and his coaching staff stay involved during winter with the Huskers’ mat drills. Two weeks remain of the culture-growing exercise.

“You do the offseason so you can get in better shape,” Rhule said. “But I want to see who shies away from competition and who attacks it. When things really get hard, that’s what I want to find out.”

In this time of year, Rhule said, “you show your teammates, ‘Hey, I’m a playmaker, I’m someone to watch. I’m going to compete in everything. I’m going to be tough.’”

Next season, with a strong culture in place, when Nebraska drives into scoring position tied late in the fourth quarter of a November Big Ten game — see Maryland in 2023 — Rhule said he doesn’t plan to hear complaints about how he made the wrong call to go for a touchdown.

“Those days are over,” he said. “Every team in the country throws touchdowns on those plays. And on our team, we need guys who will go get the ball. We need guys to throw the ball.”

The guys they need are made inside the football complex in February — and outside of it as the culture expands through the outreach on display this week in Lincoln and Omaha.

(Photo: Dylan Widger / USA Today)

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