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Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer 286d

Why Baylor coach Matt Rhule was all about Temple players at the NFL combine

College Football, Temple Owls, Baylor Bears

INDIANAPOLIS -- Matt Rhule and three of his staff members arrived Friday at the NFL combine in predictable attire: black pullovers emblazoned with B-U in gold lettering.

Rhule is Baylor's head coach and his companions -- defensive line coach Elijah Robinson, player personnel director Evan Cooper and assistant player personnel director Mike Wallace -- also work for the university. Their team-issued gear made them no different than the other coaches and personnel types navigating the hotel lobbies and convention center corridors of downtown Indianapolis during combine weekend.

The truth: they were different. Their presence at the combine had little to do with where they are and a lot to do with where they used to be. While wearing Baylor colors, Rhule and his crew spent one final weekend as Temple coaches, celebrating the four Owls players -- guard Dion Dawkins, cornerback Nate Hairston, defensive end Haason Reddick and running back Jahad Thomas -- taking part in the most high-profile job interview in sports.

"There's nowhere I'd rather be," Rhule said, sitting in the lobby of a downtown hotel. "I love these guys and want to support them."

College coaches rarely attend the NFL combine. Many are overseeing spring practice or preparing for it. Others are wrapping up administrative duties or taking post-recruiting breathers. Occasionally, coaches who produce large combine contingents drop by Lucas Oil Stadium for a few hours. It's highly unusual for a college head coach to spend three days in Indianapolis, especially one who changed jobs in December.

Even more so for one who took on the most turbulent job in college football.

Rhule made the trip because his personal journey with each Temple combine participant didn't end the moment he left Philadelphia. Together, they had endured a 10-loss season in 2013 and two 10-win seasons in 2015 and 2016. They had endured change -- all four Temple combine participants played multiple positions -- and tough times.

"Coach Rhule told us once we played for him and gave him our all, then he'll give us his all, any time, any position, any location," Dawkins said. "He's sticking to his word."

Added Thomas: "We changed that program around, so for him and a few of our other coaches from Temple to be coming up here, it just shows they genuinely care about us."

Dawkins was among the first players Rhule recruited after landing the Temple job in December 2012. Rhule remembers visiting Dawkins' home in New Jersey, talking with the player and then telling Dawkins he would call the following Monday.

Walking to his car, Rhule stopped. "Literally like a romantic comedy," he said. Rhule went back, knocked on the door and told Dawkins he had a scholarship. Two days later, Dawkins arrived on campus as a mid-year enrollee, and became an all-conference lineman.

Four winters later, Dawkins went to bat for Rhule after the coach took the Baylor job, rounding up players for one final team meeting.

"It was highly, highly emotional," Rhule said. "Dion was the one, he wanted to make sure that everyone showed me respect for what I had done. They might not have liked what I was doing, but they showed me love. I loved them and I was sad for what I was doing to leave them. Dion got the fact that Coach Rhule's leaving because he wants to take on this new challenge.

"For me not to show up and support him would be wrong. He had my back. Now I'm going to have his back."

Rhule never thought he would be snapping pictures at the combine with Hairston. The two clashed for years, and after the 2015 season, Rhule called the redshirt junior's mother.

"I'm done," Rhule told her. "I can't keep him on scholarship. He needs to graduate and move on."

"Matt," she replied, "just let him graduate."

Something shifted with Hairston in the spring semester. He and Rhule began to bond. In the fall, Hairston, a converted wide receiver, started all 13 games and recorded two interceptions. On Saturday, Hairston posed with Rhule, Cooper, Wallace and Robinson in a hallway outside Lucas Oil Stadium.

Rhule now says Hairston is "the epitome of everything we believe in."

The college coaching cycle doesn't accommodate long goodbyes. Baylor hired Rhule on Dec. 6, three days after he coached Temple to an American Athletic Conference championship. Rhule included Cooper in the first batch of hires he made, and he soon plucked others from Temple, like Robinson and Wallace. Rhule didn't coach Temple's bowl game as he scrambled to put together a staff in a new league and region, and at a program still stinging from scandal. He inherited a recruiting class with one verbal commit.

It has been a dizzying three months, and there's much more to do in Waco. Rhule was bummed that recruiting prevented him from attending the Senior Bowl, where Reddick, a possible first-round pick, and Dawkins participated. So, when Rhule and Cooper noticed the combine began days before Baylor's spring break -- spring practice begins March 18 -- they immediately decided to go.

"I don't want to say everybody should do this, but it's very fulfilling for me to be here," said Rhule, whose wife, Julie, also made the trip. "Being at the [NFL] draft, that's their night. This is still part of the journey. When I tell kids, 'We're going to teach you how to be a pro,' it doesn't mean we're going to make you a pro [football player]. That's how fast you run. We're going to teach you how to interview. If they don't do well in the interviews, if they're not good in the meetings, then that's a failure on my part."

Rhule's role at the combine was simple. If he could vouch for the Temple players with NFL teams, he did. He also recognized the stress prospects face and tried not to smother his guys.

"I don't need a lot," he said. "I just need a small moment. To be here with them and tell them I love them, tell them we support them, it's an important thing for me."

The support extends beyond the combine. The Baylor contingent has departed Indianapolis for Philadelphia. Robinson, Cooper and Wallace will be back at Temple on Wednesday for pro day.

"Once you start a relationship with these kids, it's a relationship that doesn't just last for the time that you're here," Robinson said. "Relationships don't stop when things are different. When you push family, families go through changes, but they never stop being families."

Rhule thinks some college coaches shy away from embracing the NFL draft process, as if graduating and pursuing pro football are mutually exclusive. He embraces open communication with scouts (interestingly, Rhule played linebacker at Penn State for Joe Paterno, notorious for eschewing scouts and other personnel officials seeking access to his players). He talks about the details NFL teams seek for draft picks and acquisitions, and thinks his players who go through the evaluation are ready for the scrutiny.

When Rhule's players enter the combine cauldron, he wants them to know they're not alone.

"As these kids go down this path in this crazy time in their life," he said, "it's nice to know, 'Hey, these people have my back.' That's important."

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