Graphic by Claire Komarek

LINCOLN, Neb. -- You can tell Matt Rhule relished being a nobody.

Forget about being a mere bench warmer, there was a time at Penn State when just having a bench to warm would have been a huge promotion.

"I was the lowliest of walk-ons," said Rhule, Nebraska's new coach, during a conversation in his his office in the Osborne Athletic Complex. "I had a shoulder injury. … They wouldn't clear me. I was the equipment manager."

Then he was a scout team center for the Nittany Lions "just getting the dog beat out of me" at 225 pounds. Then he almost quit. Then he was ignored, seeing so little action he would go jogging at night just to keep his weight down.

Then, at one of his lowest points, Rhule had a chance revelation while listening to a deacon's sermon.

"The Lord," he said recalling the sermon, "is watching to see how you weather this storm."

Then, a few days before the 1996 season opener, Rhule was given tickets to the Kickoff Classic against USC. For confirmation that he had made the traveling squad, he went to … the (actual) equipment manager. Oh, serendipity.

Yeah, dude, you're traveling, Rhule recalls being told.

Due to an injury, tight ends coach Jay Paterno advocated for Rhule to play special teams that first game. Rhule impressed coach Joe Paterno enough that he hung on to play linebacker and tight end over his last two years.

It remains the turning point in his football career and perhaps his life, too.

As the latest coach charged with turning around the diminished giant that is Nebraska football, Rhule has made it known he not is running anyone off. Players may quit, they may eventually enter the transfer portal, but they are not going to be abused. They are going to be given a chance to be football players by a coach who went through the process himself.

"When kids come in and say they are at least thinking [about] quitting, I can at least now share that story," Rhule said.

Is it OK to believe again?

The faithful now need to hear their own sermon at Nebraska. Over the years, their hearts have been tossed around like boomerangs. While those hearts have been broken consistently, like boomerangs themselves, that unconditional love always returns home to Memorial Stadium. Witness Nebraska's ongoing 389-game sellout streak.

That love has survived Scott Frost -- the latest coach to fall short ... fail, really. Six years without a bowl makes Nebraska the only Power Five program not to go bowling since 2017. This despite Frost riding back into town as a hometown boy and prior national championship winner for the Cornhuskers.

These days, Nebraska might be something close to not mattering on the national scene ... or maybe that's being too kind. The program hasn't had a winning season since 2016 or lost fewer than four games in a season since 2003.

Nebraska may never win three national championships in four years like it did from 1994-97, but its new coach had a different revelation walking through downtown Lincoln to a recent 'Huskers basketball game.

"There are about 20 students," Rhule recalled. "They were like, 'Coach, please get us to a bowl game. We've been here for four years, and we've never been to a bowl game. I don't care where it is. I just want to go to a place and play golf and watch the team play.'"

That's actually the goal for Rhule. It really is that simple: make Nebraska matter.

"There's a sense of obligation to me," Rhule said. "... We have to be relevant again."

But first they will get chances. All of them. From incumbent quarterback Casey Thompson to the lowliest of the low.

"There have been a handful of guys who have left the team," said linebacker Luke Reimer of the inevitable roster churn. "That's kind of normal for having a new staff come in. It's definitely the people who are wanting to be here, are here right now."

Walk-ons were a significant foundation of the program under legendary coach Tom Osborne. There was an uproar when, post T.O., Nebraska leaned further and further away from that tradition.

Now, there is a philosophy: No one will be turned away. Everyone on the team will mean something.

"There is something about guys who decided they wanted to pay to go to school to play football," Rhule said of walk-ons. "It means they deeply love it."

Right guy at the right time

This latest Nebraska transition is actually a series of revelations. Athletic director Trev Alberts knew he had to nail this hire. The Nebraska legend has long been an accomplished administrator, but he had never hired a football coach.

Rhule was at or near the top of the list. The complication being, when Frost was fired last September, Rhule was still the Carolina Panthers' coach. If Alberts wanted to go after one of his top targets, he would have to wait until January after the NFL season ended.

As luck would have it, the Panthers cooperated, firing Rhule on Oct. 10, 2022. Rhule returned home that day to his daughter crying. Sympathetic Panthers players were calling and texting. Literally 20 minutes after stepping onto the unemployment line, he received a call from a Power Five program -- he won't say which one -- with interest.

He ignored that interest … for a while.

"At first, it just felt a little bit clumsy and awkward to me," Alberts said of the initial Zoom call with Rhule. "I wasn't sure if he was really interested in coaching."

Alberts abandoned what he called a "formulaic" interview. The pair just talked ball. A window opened up in two minds.

"I could see this change in him," Alberts said. "The inflection his voice changed."

Standing in front of her husband's laptop during the interview, Julie Rhule remarked it was the first time in a while she heard her husband profess how much he loved football.

"Honey," Alberts said to his own wife after the Zoom wrapped up, "that might be the guy."

Rhule eventually was the guy but not without first contemplating a year-long sabbatical from the sport. Not without the coach negotiating the remainder of his Carolina contract as it related to a new eight-year, $72 million contract with Nebraska.

Not without doing the proper research. Rhule stores a lot of notes on his cell phone -- hand-written notes. It is there he refers to Haason Reddick's journey from Temple walk-on to first-round NFL Draft choice.

It is from there he recounts how he took the Baylor job in late 2016. A prominent coach -- one Rhule prefers not to name – told him how a coach from back East could fit in at Baylor: Ask mega-donor Drayton McLane "permission" to coach in the Baylor stadium named after him, then tell Baylor coaching legend Grant Teaff he couldn't take the job without getting his blessing.

"Grant Teaff told everyone that story," Rhule said.

The man certainly knows how to work a room. His first Nebraska recruiting class finished in the top 25 of the 247Sports Composite team rankings. Rhule emphasized getting back into Texas -- a recruiting area that had gone fallow since the Big 12 days.

Coach Rhule gets started molding Nebraska in his first spring practice with the program. Nebraska Athletics

During the opening day of spring practice last month, Rhule was plowing through the remnants of shingles. He contracted the virus his first season with the Panthers. "It went into my eye and it killed my cornea,"  he explained. "When it's cold like this, my eye turns red. They begged me to take time off during my first year there. I would wear two pairs of eyeglasses to practice."

That determination speaks to Rhule's value as a college coach. It is in this familiar college space where he became the ultimate turnaround artist.

In Rhule's four seasons, Temple went from 2-10 to AAC champions. He then shepherded Baylor out of the mire of its sexual assault scandal. At one point, his top in-state recruit in that first Bears' recruiting class was a 178-pound wide receiver.

Two years later, Baylor took Oklahoma to overtime in the Big 12 Championship Game. A month after that, Rhule signed a seven-year, $60 million contract with the Panthers. After winning only 11 of 38 games in the NFL, he returned "home" to college football.

"It was unbelievably humbling," Rhule said of the firing. "And while it was humbling, I really believe, when you go through the fire, it can be purifying."

There is a parochial aspect to it all. It's already known Rhule's service-minded parents would stage black-tie dinners for the homeless while Matt was growing up in New York. Rhule's father, Denny, is a Nazarene minister who moved the family from Kansas City to New York over 40 years ago to take a job that didn't pay a dime.

So how hard can it be scraping Nebraska off the turf? Rhule's already done it at with the Owls and Bears, two programs that were much worse off than the 'Huskers.

In that sense, Rhule can feel Nebraska's pain: beaten down, counted out, looking for a break.

Unique journeys

The coach has intentionally infused the staff with diverse backgrounds. Offensive coordinator Marcus Satterfield and strength coach Corey Campbell are former walk-ons, just like their boss. Defensive coordinator Tony White is installing the 3-3-5 "Stack" defense. White met Rhule while both were at UCLA at the beginning of the century. Special teams coordinator Ed Foley has become a minor celebrity in the state because of his recruiting trek across Nebraska that he recounted daily on Twitter.

Nebraska's sports-loving president was already on board. As then-superintendent of the Navy, Ted Carter remembered the 2016 AAC Championship Game. Rhule's Temple team won at Navy, 34-10. At the time, it was the worst Midshipmen loss in three years.

"I remember them doing drills before the game, actually hitting each other," Carter recalled. "It got everybody's attention. That's like something you don't see. And then they played that way the entire game.

"They took out our starting quarterback and [one of our running backs] in three plays. And we lost to Army for the first time in 15 years the next week."

Carter knows locker rooms as well as boardrooms. He played four years of hockey at Navy. The year the Washington Capitals won the Stanley Cup (2018), the team brought the trophy to Carter's home. The Caps had won a Stadium Series outdoor game at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.

"I would have run through a brick wall for a coach like that," Carter said of Rhule.

This story really goes back almost 40 years. In 1985, the man who is now Admiral Ted Carter was at United States Navy Fighter Weapons School in San Diego, call sign "Slap Shot." You may know it better as "Top Gun" school, subject of the Tom Cruise franchise.

"I was Tom Cruise's first military handshake the day he showed up," said Carter, who was a military liaison for the original movie. "They tagged me and another guy to … get him drunk. And we were going to throw him the pool the next day [as part of his] training to get in airplane."

Cruise never saw the pool. He drank maybe a beer and a half by Carter's estimation. His roommate at Top Gun was Randy Duhrkopf, a Nebraska state high school pole vault champion in 1977.

"I lived Nebraska football stories for a year," Carter said. "It's interesting how all things kind of come together. It's tied to Navy, it's tied to Temple, there is a Baylor piece to it. It's all connected."

Foley transitioned, too. For 34 years, he has been a college assistant, a grinder's grinder. Upon arriving at Nebraska, Rhule's special teams coordinator set out to visit as many of the state's high schools as possible. The final count over two weeks: nearly 80.

"My goal," Foley said, "is 12 a day."

Wait, what? Nebraska is the nation's 15th-largest state. Take I-80 West to North Platte and you're closer to Denver than Omaha. Along the journey, Foley shared on Twitter his best eating spots in the state.

Foley decided, on one of his few nights off from recruiting, to start a different relationship vy visiting the parents of former Nebraska punter Sam Foltz. Jamie Kohl is a friend and a former Iowa State player who has established a thriving business as an NFL kicking consultant. Foltz and Michigan State punter Mike Sadler were killed in a one-car accident seven years ago returning from Kohl's kicking camp in Wisconsin.

"Just to get a feel," Foley said of his stop in tiny Greeley. He had known Kohl for 20 years and was just finding out about Foltz.

"Gradually, the whole thing started to piece together on how much impact Sam had," Foley added. "As I was out there recruiting the stories about him as an athlete [emerged]."

College football has always a relationship business. Alberts said Nebraska needed a head coach who understood visiting Alliance, a far western outpost of 8,000, even though the local high school didn't have a prospect.

Turns out, when Foley drove to the tiny settlement of Greeley (population: 400), he was the first 'Huskers coach to visit Foltz's parents since their son died seven years ago. 

"I feel like I'm kind of an outsider," Foley said. "I don't want to feel like an outsider. I want to keep the legacy and get a feel for what he meant to everyone here."

Foley has a heart. He also has a plan. Special teams have been a gaping hole at Nebraska. Two seasons ago, it was third-worst nationally in special teams efficiency.

Under Rhule and Foley, the so-called third side of the ball will be an emphasis. As will winning for the faithful who need to hear Rhule's sermon.

There is another storm to be weathered.  

"I can't tell you specifically why [this happened at Nebraska]," said Foley, who has been with Rhule for close to 15 years. "I just know that we're going to come in here and do what we did at Temple and do what we did at Baylor."