Tri-State Coach of the Year Matt Rhule made Temple football relevant
By Joseph Santoliquito
When everyone else was losing, his team was winning. When the Philadelphia’s pro sports landscape looked like a spewing, bubbling quagmire, his program gave every sports-loving fan hope. And though the magical season had a few chinks and fissures in the end, Temple football coach Matt Rhule still had a lot to be satisfied about.
Rhule’s Owls did many amazing things this past season—first and foremost toppling Penn State for the first time in 74 years. Under Rhule’s guidance Temple went 10-4 overall and won the American Athletic Conference East Division championship, reaching a bowl game.
He did something once thought of as an impossibility in Philadelphia: He made Temple football relevant.
It’s why the prestigious Maxwell Club named Rhule the Tri-State Coach of the Year, presented by Philadelphia Insurance Companies Philadelphia Insurance.
“I felt we had a chance to be successful, because I thought we had the right group of kids and the right mentality to first go out and beat Penn State, which was a major hurdle for us, and from there, we had the kind of season that we did,” Rhule said. “I think for us, we didn’t go to a bowl game the previous year, and when everyone came back, there was a completely different feel and approach.
“It started to click for the guys, but it wasn’t until we beat Penn State—and the way that we did it—that you began to realize these guys are really figuring out they’re a special group.”
Phil Snow, Temple’s defensive coordinator, was able to pick up early what makes Rhule special. Snow’s first encounter with Rhule came when Snow was the defensive coordinator at UCLA in 2001. Snow came over from Arizona State, and there was a position open on the UCLA coaching staff that this guy Snow never heard of kept bugging him about. Snow knew the guy had a Penn State background. So he went to the Bruins head coach at the time, Bob Toledo, who knew Penn State’s legendary coach Joe Paterno, about seeing about this guy who’s calling all of the time.
Toledo contacted Paterno, and the first thing Paterno told Toledo was hire the guy.
The guy happened to be Matt Rhule.
Rhule came in and Snow saw the special relationships Rhule quickly formed with the players and coaching staff. That UCLA team opened the season by beating Alabama and Ohio State in two of their first three games.
“It was a great hire and that’s how our relationship started. When I first started coaching, players didn’t even associate with the head coach,” Snow recalled. “Players were afraid of them. They didn’t talk to them. If you were in the head coach’s office, you were in trouble or getting your position changed. Today, the head coach is really involved with the players. You have social media and all of that today, and Matt is really good with the social media and really close to all of the players. One of our coaches was with a recruit and it was around 3:30 in the morning. Our coach asked the kid to call the head coach of another school who was in on that player—and the coach didn’t pick up. Then he asked him to call Coach Rhule. Matt picked up. He’s that special. You don’t find a lot of head coaches doing that. He’s very passionate about the school, but his players. If your kid is at Temple, he would care about that kid like he is his son. The other things, too, with Matt is that he’s very bright, very smart.”
As the season progressed in 2015, the Owls battled through adversity. They lost to Notre Dame, 24-20, in a nationally televised game that made many Owl converts. They lost to South Florida—then came back to beat nationally ranked Memphis.
“No matter who was injured or who we played, this is a team that fought, scratched and clawed to get us to the (AAC) championship game,” Rhule said. “And when we didn’t win those games, and we will in the future, these guys got a taste of what it was like.
“I was pretty angry we lost to Notre Dame, and I still am, because we knew we could play with them. None of the guys were happy about just playing with Notre Dame. We wanted to win that game and proved to ourselves and I think the country that we were capable of winning that game. We felt we could have played better than we did. It was a great college football game. They made one more play than us. It hurt. It was painful.”
But overall, Rhule was pleased with how the season went.
This is a Temple team that didn’t trip over itself, like previous Owls’ teams and every other team in Philadelphia did. For the 2015 Owls, it was always about what’s ahead. Their fearlessness was derived from Rhule, though he won’t take any credit for it.
No, the first thing Temple’s coach does is remind you that it’s the players that made this season special—and it’s his staff that made his players better.
Rhule speaks in ‘we’ and ‘us.’ Never ‘I.’ And his humility comes from a genuine place, nothing orchestrated or contrived. It’s from playing under one coaching legend, Penn State’s Joe Paterno, and coaching under another, two-time Super Bowl champion Tom Coughlin.
“Both of those men had a very special influence on me,” Rhule said. “I think this year I really learned to trust the kids and listened to them. That was a real key for me. Before the season, I had about 3,000 things that I narrowed down to about five things. Some college football coaches like to put themselves out on the front cover. It’s not about me. It was about those kids. They stayed focused and I’m really proud of them. I’m proud of the job that our staff did.”
It’s also what Matt Rhule did, too. He did something once thought of as an impossibility in this city: He made Temple football relevant. For that, he’s the Maxwell Club’s Tri-State Coach of the Year.
Winner: Tri-State Coach Award – 2015