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Rhule Trib’s Central Texas Sportsperson of the Year

December 25, 2018

Perhaps it was all those hours of watching his father minister to less fortunate people on the streets of New York City that heavily influenced Baylor coach Matt Rhule.

Maybe it’s his desire for his players to not just enjoy success on the field, but to also make an impact in the community and represent Baylor the right way.

Inspired by his motivation, Rhule’s players relish the time they can spend reading to children in Central Texas, working on projects with Mission Waco, and interacting with people in the community in other ways.

“We all take it very seriously, trying to put the best foot forward and make sure we can spread the wealth around to everybody else,” said Baylor offensive lineman Blake Blackmar. “It’s not like coach told you, ‘Hey, you should go do this.’ We were presented with an opportunity and it’s the right thing to do.”

It would have been a major achievement if Rhule had done nothing else besides cleaning up Baylor’s problems off the field in the two years since he took over a football program that had been wrecked by a sexual assault scandal.

But his players aren’t just serving the community, they’re graduating at a high rate. And now they’re winning.

A year after the Bears finished 1-11 in Rhule’s debut season, they’ve gone 6-6 this year and earned a berth in the Texas Bowl against Vanderbilt on Thursday at NRG Stadium in Houston.

It’s all these aspects that make Rhule the Tribune-Herald’s Central Texas Sportsperson of the Year.

“Matt Rhule is a heck of a football coach,” said Baylor athletic director Mack Rhoades. “But first and foremost, he’s an unbelievable leader of young men.”

When Rhoades hired Rhule in December 2016, he knew he needed a coach who understood the totality of the job.

It wasn’t just a case of putting a winning team on the field, it was imperative that Rhule recruit players that would represent Baylor well off the field after all the issues that dragged the football program into the national news for all the wrong reasons.

“I thought it needed a person that was grounded and would be prepared for the enormity of the situation because this wasn’t just a football coaching position, I didn’t think, when we were hiring,” Rhoades said. “There was so much more to it. All the noise and some of that is still around the program, and the doubters, and the litigation, and all of that stuff. It needed somebody who could withstand that and look at it in its eyes and say ‘Hey, we’re going to be OK. We’re going to get through this, we’re going to get past this.’”

While Baylor is still awaiting the final ruling in the NCAA’s investigation for the issues preceding Rhule’s arrival, he’s done a remarkable job of getting the football program back on its feet.

Numerous players who had off the field issues before and during Rhule’s regime are no longer with the program. The current players have represented the university well. The Baylor football team’s 87 percent graduation rate in 2017-18 led the Big 12. During the 2018 regular season, Baylor had 14 players on its roster who had already graduated, the fifth most in the nation and the most in the Big 12.

Following December graduation, Baylor has 24 graduates on its roster, the second-most among bowl teams behind Clemson’s 26.

Rhule believes it’s important for the older players to set the tone for the program, whether it’s in the classroom, in the community, or on the field. Discipline and details matter to Rhule.

“They’ll see other guys graduate, in graduate school, having success,” Rhule said. “All of the things we do, all of the things they say: Why do I have to get up for breakfast, coach? Why can’t I wear my hat? Why can’t I have a cell phone in the hotel? They now start to, hopefully, say it works. We’re a tough, disciplined team. That’s what you hope.”

While last year’s one-win season was difficult for everybody, Rhule saw hope and promise in the effort his team put forth every week. With all the player defections from previous seasons, the Bears played with an extraordinarily young roster in Rhule’s debut season.

Still it was something of a shock after last year’s 45-22 season-ending loss to TCU when Rhule boldly said, “We will go to a bowl game next year.”

After winning the first two games this fall against Abilene Christian and UTSA, Baylor’s bowl chances didn’t look very promising after a 40-27 loss to Duke at McLane Stadium.

With the Bears looking unfocused out of the gate, the Blue Devils jumped out to a 23-0 halftime lead. The Bears played much better in the second half, but it was a disheartening loss.

Baylor had to win four Big 12 games to become bowl eligible, and they made immediate progress toward that goal by beating Kansas and Kansas State to start 2-1 in Big 12 play.

The Bears nearly beat Texas in Austin before falling 23-17, but a 58-14 thrashing by No. 13 West Virginia in Morgantown was a bad omen heading into November.

Next up was an Oklahoma State team that was coming off a 38-35 win over Texas in Stillwater. In the pivotal moment of the season, sophomore quarterback Charlie Brewer threw a 6-yard touchdown pass to Denzel Mims with seven seconds remaining to lift the Bears to a scintillating 35-31 win at McLane Stadium that gave the Bears a 5-4 record.

Now they didn’t have to dream about bowl eligibility. It was right there in front of them.

“I think beating Oklahoma State was a defining moment for the year that gave us three cracks down the stretch to get that sixth win,” Rhule said. “They just won the week before and beat Texas, and for us to battle back the way our guys did was big. I felt that from that point we had multiple opportunities to earn the chance to get bowl eligible.”

After a 28-14 loss to then-No. 23 Iowa State in frigid Ames, the Bears’ bowl chances again looked shaky following a 16-9 loss at McLane Stadium to a struggling TCU team that was down to its third-string quarterback.

The Bears’ postseason fate was on the line when they faced Texas Tech in the Nov. 24 regular season finale at AT&T Stadium in Arlington. This time, Baylor delivered as Brewer rebounded from his struggles against TCU with a 308-yard, three-touchdown performance in a 35-24 win over the Red Raiders.

Yes, the Bears were going bowling a year after they produced just one win. Their five-game improvement matched the best in the country among Power 5 conference teams.

“Last year was a hard year, but at the end of the day I could see all the signs of maturity and growth even as we were going through a one-win season,” Rhule said. “They were a special group and worked hard. After seeing how they handled adversity, I thought they could have a good season. It’s really exciting for me to see how the players are excited about playing in this bowl.”

Beyond this season, the future of the Baylor football program looks bright. The Bears are bringing in another solid recruiting class, and have built enough depth with veterans players where they can groom the younger players.

But even more importantly, Rhule has produced good men who will take the lessons they learned at Baylor and be productive citizens long after they’ve graduated.

“Even though we are football players, we’ve got to use our image to affect the community in a good way,” said Baylor senior receiver Chris Platt. “I completely understand him stressing the community service part because I know I want to affect my community in a good way also.”

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