How Matt Rhule built a Baylor recruiting class from scratch

One day after helping pull off one unbelievable recruiting class, Evan Cooper finally got to fly home to Philadelphia to see his 4-year-old son for the first time in 2017. When you're scrambling the way Baylor's new director of player personnel had to, you have no choice -- you uproot your life and figure out the rest later.

"I've been roughing it out of a hotel in Waco," Cooper said. "That's just how it goes. We had to start from scratch. My fiancée is a trooper, man. She deserves an award. I might have to get her a plaque."

Cooper, like his boss Matt Rhule, left Temple for Baylor at the start of December and planned to make a big splash despite no real experience in the state of Texas. Baylor's 2017 class went from one commit to 29 signees in only five weeks. The new staff was trying to sell a university that continues to face scrutiny over the way it handled sexual assault allegations in the Art Briles era.

"We hit the ground running," Cooper said, "and we watched pretty much every high school senior in the state of Texas."

That was step one in an operation that started from scratch out of a windowless conference room next to Baylor athletic director Mack Rhoades' office. They put the names of recruits on a whiteboard and sorted them by those they would or would not pursue.

When Rhule called to say he was taking the Baylor job, Cooper said he told him, "Put me on the flight with you." The former Temple defensive back calls Rhule a father figure and a mentor, the man who gave him his first sport coat as well as his first graduate assistant gig in 2013.

As the new guys in the state, Cooper and the Bears' recruiting staff knew they had to make a strong first impression on Texas high school coaches. Rhule's hiring of Cedar Hill's Joey McGuire, Cedar Ridge's Shawn Bell and San Antonio Reagan's David Wetzel straight from the high school ranks was essential to pulling off this class.

"If you write a story about this recruiting class," Cooper said, "those guys should be the headliners."

When the staff completed the list of kids they liked, they made sure to reach out to the high school coaches first. That was a must. Yes, they sent an endless amount of direct messages to recruits to gauge their interest, but they wanted the high school coaches to always know before they offered.

What exactly were they looking for? That's hard to say. Cooper wrestled with a question throughout this two-month recruiting spree: What is a Big 12 player? This staff was trying to project how kids would fit in a conference in which none of them had ever competed.

"The pressure of trying to figure out if that's a Big 12 guy or not was a little bit overwhelming," Cooper said. "How are we going to add players who are already as good or better than the guys we have at Baylor? The cupboard is not empty here, so I didn't want to go backwards."

Rhule put a ton of faith in Cooper and the rest of his staff to judge that to the best of their abilities. Their core philosophy is no different today than at Temple: find the guy who fits and develop him as a person and a player.

And then it was selling time. They came up with the #BaylorLit hashtag. They lit up McLane Stadium in neon green. Cooper sent out a D.J. Khaled-inspired Major Key Alert from his Twitter account each time a player committed to Baylor. The fan base ate it up.

Baylor's coaches built relationships as best they could, collecting as much background as possible from not just recruits' parents and coaches, but also their teachers and guidance counselors. For how little time they had, they tried to be thorough.

Rhule was direct with those parents when asked about the sexual assault scandal that ended the Briles era. Recent revelations are a continued reminder that the scandal is far from over. Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby told ESPN that he doesn't know if "anybody knows where the bottom of the barrel is," and the NCAA is still investigating.

"We've had real conversations, detailed, intimate personal conversations about the things that have happened and what we want to do now that we're here," Rhule told USA Today recently. "The thing I don't want to ever do is diminish the egregious nature of the things that happened.

"You want to be respectful of the victims. Just one woman getting assaulted is a really, really, really big deal. So we don't want to diminish that. But we really believe in Baylor. We believe in the kids we have on this team now. We believe in these recruits. So we move forward and we learn from the past."

The staff finished with 29 commitments, including three ESPN 300 standouts and 11 prospects who had previously been committed to Power 5 schools, plus transfers Anu Solomon (Arizona) and James Lockhart (Texas A&M). The Bears restocked up front with 14 new offensive or defensive linemen. There are some coveted kids in this group, some hard-earned victories.

Baylor also returned the roster to 85 scholarship players.

Three of Baylor's freshman midyear enrollees -- QB Charlie Brewer, RB Abram Smith and WR R.J. Sneed -- didn't meet Rhule in person until they moved into the dorms. That's a testament to the leap of faith some of these recruits made, and to the enthusiasm this new Baylor staff is generating.

Cooper came away impressed by his new recruits, his Baylor players who helped out on official visit weekends, and by the hospitality and professionalism of Texas high school coaches.

"It feels good to be done," Cooper said. "I think we signed a bunch of good players, high-character kids, guys we can develop."

After his quick trip back home and some house hunting in Waco, Cooper and the rest of Baylor's recruiters are back to the grind. They're assembling their 2018 board and getting rolling again, armed this time with a full 12 months to build relationships and maintain this momentum.

"A lot of other schools have a two-year head start on us," Cooper said. "I think it'll even out with the 2018 class, and we're excited about that."