Waco, Texas is known for a few things: A massive cult siege in the 1990’s, a wildly popular home improvement show on HGTV, and Baylor University. Driving around Waco, you see little to do with the first, and a lot to do with the second two. “Fixer Upper” is a show in which the undeniably lovable Gaines family completely upends houses and transforms them into picturesque southern abodes. But lately, the Gaines’ alma mater Baylor University has undergone a radical makeover of their own: the Baylor Bears football team.
When Matt Rhule was hired away from Temple University three years ago, there was tons of fanfare around his arrival from Baylor fans. Here was a coach who had completely rearranged the entire complexion of Temple’s football program, turning the perennial bottom feeder Owls into a serious threat in the AAC.
Perhaps understandably, some Baylor fans doubted Rhule could replicate the same success in Waco. Sure, he could make it work in the American Athletic Conference, but the Big 12 is a different story. Texas football is different, as any true Texan would tell you. Even more, Baylor University would be facing a much bleaker road than perhaps any other program in the country on the heels of one of the biggest scandals in recent college football memory. Scholarships were gone, the culture was broken, and Baylor’s football program looked doomed to sink into obscurity, if it even survived. Baylor football was a broken-down shack that most deemed too far gone – something even the Gaines family would shutter at the sight of. Rhule, however, took the job nonetheless.
Rhule’s first season did little to silence his doubters. After dropping games to the likes of Liberty and UTSA, Bears fans knew the road ahead would be hard. The 2017 season seemed over before conference play even started, as the Bears hobbled into their first game against #3 Oklahoma with an 0-3 record.
The Sooners, led by future #1 draft pick Baker Mayfield, were perhaps the most potent offense in the entire country. Possessing 7 future NFL draft picks on the offensive side of the ball, Sooners Head Coach Lincoln Riley expected to roll over a torn-up Baylor team in Waco. Matt Rhule had different plans.
I could tell you about how the Bears, in many regards, outplayed the Sooners in this game. Baylor bested Oklahoma in time of possession, first downs, and perhaps most impressively, QB Zach Smith convincingly outdueled Baker Mayfield. Smith threw for one more touchdown and almost 200 more yards than the future Heisman winner Mayfield. But stats alone still do not do justice to the Bears’ performance that night. The team’s gritty play can perhaps be encapsulated best in one play, Baker Mayfield getting crushed into the dirt.
The sack, and Baylor’s performance as a whole, typified what we would see Matt Rhule’s Bears later become: gritty, fearless, and altogether terrifying. And while the Bears ended up losing 49-41, the Oklahoma game became a legend in and of itself within the city of Waco. In the midst of perhaps the worst season in recent Baylor Memory, Rhule’s ragtag team of young players had gone toe to toe with the best player in the country, and they had almost beaten him.
A young wideout named Denzel Mims outperformed the combined output of future first round picks Ceedee Lamb and Marquise Brown. Clay Johnston, a sophomore linebacker from Abilene Texas, found his footing as the Bears’ leading tackler, and subsequently began to take the reigns as leader of the defense shortly thereafter. The young team was growing up on the run, and while the wins didn’t come until much later, Rhule was planting the seeds of greatness in his players’ heads.
“The kids have heart. They’re growing up and they’re getting better in front of us,” Rhule said after the game.
But the process was far from over. The Bears’ 1-11 record deemed them the worst team in college football by many analysts, and it was hard to make a case otherwise. Baylor’s lone win came against a Kansas team in what was perhaps the worst game of their own already terrible season. Hope was hard to come by as the Bears’ rival TCU decimated them to close out the season.
But even in the midst of a nightmare season, the NFL saw Matt Rhule was for real. In the summer before the 2018 season, Rhule took an interview with the Indianapolis Colts to be head coach. They never came to terms, but Baylor fans took close notice of the NFL’s interest. There was certainly excitement surrounding Rhule, but a tinge of fear came with the Colts’ interview. Was Baylor just a stop on Rhule’s way to the NFL? No one could really know.
NFL teams weren’t the only ones drawn to Rhule’s vision. In the wake of their worst season in recent memory, Rhule still managed to get a top 30 recruiting class in the nation for 2018. Despite the NFL noise, Rhule remained focused on what he was building in Waco, and for some reason the young players believed in it too. The 2018 recruits, some of whom would play a huge role early on in their career for the Bears, bought into Rhule’s system. These players would serve as a cultural foundation for what Baylor Football would become going forward.
For Rhule, the 2018 season could not be failure. While the rest of the country anticipated another season of bottom dwelling, those within the Baylor football team were more confident than ever. Rhule’s team took the disrespect as a chip on their shoulder.
Only two games into the 2018 season, the Bears had already doubled their win total from the year prior. Led by sophomore QB Charlie Brewer, the offense thrived. Now Junior Denzel Mims and Senior Tennessee transfer Jalen Hurd formed one of the most formidable wide receiver combinations in the entire conference.
And the season was a relatively massive success. In only one year, the Bears had gone from being one of the worst teams in the entire country to 7-6 with a bowl win over Vanderbilt. No one could have predicted the turnaround that the program had undergone in such a small period of time. The Bears weren’t anything to write home about quite yet, but they were certainly turning heads. Waco itself embraced Rhule as the savior of Baylor football. Not long after the season though, Matt Rhule’s services were once again inquired about by the NFL, this time by the New York Jets.
To say that the city was merely tense is to not understand the effect of Baylor football on the city of Waco. A cloud loomed over McLane stadium as news continued to be leaked about Rhule’s status. The Jets wanted him, and they wanted him bad. Rhule, however, would not even entertain an offer that didn’t allow him to bring on board his own assistants.
“At the end of the day, I’m never going to be in an arranged marriage,” Rhule said during an interview on a Dallas radio show. “I’m never going to sub-contract out jobs for offense and defense. I’m always going to hire people I believe in —and are going to do things our way, that are going to believe in process, that are going to be part of a program. I truly believe that programs win.”
Rhule walked away from the job in favor of Baylor once again. Culture, he made clear, was what would make for a successful program. Those young players that endured the 2017 season were now coming up as upperclassmen. Charlie Brewer was making massive strides as a signal caller. Denzel Mims was no longer an exciting young prospect – he was a bonafide star and the Bears’ premiere offensive weapon. Linebacker Clay Johnston had become the rock of the Baylor defense, both on the field and in the locker room. Rhule saw a culture and a team worth fighting for in Waco.
Hopes were high for 2019. Most Baylor fans saw an eight-win team, whereas the rest of the national media probably drifted back toward the seven-win range.
It is safe to say, however, that no one expected what has happened.
Following the Bears’ road win vs a solid Oklahoma State team, people began to take notice that the Bears are viable contenders for the Big 12 title. Currently tied atop the Big 12 standings with Oklahoma, the two teams seem to be on a collision course for the conference title. The Bears are one of only ten remaining undefeated teams in the FBS.
A few things stand in the Bears’ way before that point, however. A Halloween night game against West Virginia could prove scary, and a road game against in state rival TCU will prove more challenging than the record may indicate. Nothing comes easy in a conference that regularly cannibalizes its own teams.
Internally, the team is not without adversity either. Clay Johnston, the stud linebacker that burst onto the scene against Baker Mayfield in 2017, led the team through 6 games with an unholy 58 total tackles. During Baylor’s homecoming game, however, Johnston sustained a knee injury that will sideline him for the remainder of the season.
The Bears must continue to fire on all cylinders if they want to even sniff the opportunity for a conference championship. But the opportunity is still very, very real.
Matt Rhule would probably ignore such longsighted predictions. The next game, he would say, is the only thing that matters. But regardless of what he says, Baylor fans will set their sights high.
And who can blame them? Four years ago, Baylor’s football program was being considered to receive the death penalty. Two years later, they were the laughingstock of college football. Now they find themselves one of the only undefeated teams left in the country, vying for a conference championship, and heck, maybe even a national championship. Matt Rhule has worked miracles thus far, who’s to say he will stop now?
Rhule signed a massive extension halfway through the 2019 season, ensuring he stays in Waco at least another eight years. Baylor fans were elated. Rhule upended the culture, and in doing so, gave a Baptist school in the middle of the Bible Belt more hope than they’ve had in a long time.
Whether he is a prophet or a magician, Rhule is doing something that is quite literally unprecedented in the history of college football. He came into Waco like Moses in a basket, and now he looks to lead the Bears to the Promised Land. It’s a fixer upper that even the Gaines’ would sign off on. Matt Rhule is the ultimate leader for this team, this school, and this city. All we can do now is sit back and watch.