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Matt Rhule embrace of Nebraska tradition fuels popularity — so far

NCAA Basketball: Purdue at Nebraska

Dec 10, 2022; Lincoln, Nebraska, USA; Nebraska Cornhuskers head football coach Matt Rhule talks to the crowd during halftime of the game against the Purdue Boilermakers in the first half at Pinnacle Bank Arena. Mandatory Credit: Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

LINCOLN, Neb. -- Nebraska coach Matt Rhule has quickly endeared himself to one of the nation’s most ardent fan bases in the five months since his hiring.

Rhule has yet to coach his first game for the Cornhuskers, though, and the true test of his popularity will come in a year or two, when his work to bring back one of college football’s biggest brands is fully underway.

So far, he’s proved to be a fast study and served up big portions of red meat, frequently referencing the program’s traditional staples of hard work, physical practices and a pounding run game.

Unlike some previous coaches, Rhule has made a point to pay homage to program standard-bearer Tom Osborne, the 86-year-old Hall of Fame coach who won national titles three of the four years before his retirement. Osborne has already done a roundtable discussion with Rhule and athletic director Trev Alberts and accepted Rhule’s invitation to be featured speaker at the annual coaches clinic.

Rhule also played an important role in helping Alberts get former coach Frank Solich to agree to be honored at the spring game. Solich, whose ties to the program date to the 1960s, has been mostly estranged since his controversial 2003 firing.

Rhule and Solich have known each other since Rhule’s time as an assistant at Temple (2006-11), when the Owls were in the Mid-American Conference along with Solich’s Ohio team. Rhule later led the Temple’s turnaround from 2013-16 in the American Athletic Conference.

“I was impressed with their program and what they were all about, so when he got the job at Nebraska, I felt like that was a good hire,” Solich said. “I know he contacted coach Osborne when he got here right away. Also, he’s been around the state visiting with tons of coaches and trying to get a strong interest in Nebraska football and get himself and his staff known to the people of Nebraska.

“I think he’s making all the right moves and doing all the right things.”

Rhule has dropped references to the Huskers’ iconic red N on the helmet, his excitement about coaching in 100-year-old Memorial Stadium, and building depth with walk-ons and giving them real opportunities. He even promises to make the fullback part of the offense again.

The 48-year-old is a savvy user of social media and has appeared at events big and small, including last week’s nationally televised WWE SmackDown wrestling show in Lincoln where he enthusiastically shouted “Go Big Red!” into the camera.

“I hate calling a guy an outsider, but for a guy who doesn’t really have any ties to the place, he’s done an amazing job of figuring out what the culture is and integrating himself into that right away,” said Rob Zatechka, a lifelong Nebraskan and Omaha anesthesiologist who was a lineman on the 1994 national championship team.

Rhule took over a program that has won five national championships, the most recent in 1997, but hasn’t appeared in a bowl or finished higher than fifth in the seven-team Big Ten West since 2016.

Nebraska will enter the season with an NCAA-record 389 consecutive sellouts since 1962, and more than 60,000 tickets have been sold for the spring game. Though the sellout streak has been propped up over the years by discounted tickets and boosters buying up unsold tickets, it’s testament to fan loyalty.

“I want to make sure they know ... that we know how long they have waited for Nebraska football to play the way that we all believe it is capable of playing,” Rhule said of the fans. “We are not there yet, but we will try to honor their patience and their loyalty with our work.”

Rhule spent two-plus seasons as the Carolina Panthers coach, and had left for the NFL after rebuilding Baylor following the scandal-filled Art Briles era. He was out of work less than two months after the Panthers fired him in October.

Rhule’s Temple and Baylor teams made big jumps between the first and second years, and the Bears won 11 games and reached a New Year’s Six bowl in year three.

“I don’t think people are looking for conference titles year one,” Zatechka said. “That being said, if we won two, three, four games this year but by year three he’s got us in the Sugar Bowl going toe-to-toe with Georgia (like Baylor did), I think we’re going to be ecstatic.”