WACO, Texas -- Matt Rhule was sitting in Nobu Fifty Seven, his favorite restaurant in New York City, just three weeks ago. What he and his wife, Julie, ordered that Monday night he cannot recall. He'll remember only the two phones in his hands that didn't stop ringing.
Two schools needed an answer. Rhule had interviewed with Baylor in Philadelphia that morning. He says he met with "some other folks" -- widely reported to be Oregon -- later that day in New York. It was time to decide.
"I couldn't even tell you one thing I ate," Rhule said. "It was a phone call with one school and then the other, back and forth and back and forth. So I asked my wife, 'What do you want to do?' She wanted to go to Baylor. I said, 'Me too.'
"Her and I both looked at each other and said, 'I want to go to Baylor.' And that was it. I knew that if I didn't, I would always second-guess it. In my heart, I knew this is where we wanted to be."
Rhule recognizes that he is taking a serious risk by becoming the next head coach at Baylor. He truly accepted the position sight unseen. He had never been to Waco. He has never coached in the state of Texas. He admits that he did not have time to do much research on the more than yearlong sexual assault scandal that has engulfed his new school.
The significant fallout there isn't over. There are still at least four unresolved Title IX lawsuits against the university. The U.S. Department of Education is still investigating Baylor's handling of Title IX cases. The possibility of sanctions from the NCAA and the Big 12 still lingers. The risk in taking over this football program is real.
Why did Rhule still choose Baylor? He can't explain his decision without acknowledging that he got where he is today by embracing the unexpected. The 41-year-old's career is a testament to his self-assuredness. He has always made the move that feels right in his gut, tried to make the best of it and trusted that whatever's meant to be will be.
"As things have come open, it's never been about pros and cons," he said. "I just sort of go wherever it feels like in my heart I'm supposed to be, where my purpose is best fulfilled. It's a leap of faith, but everything we've ever done in coaching, it's all been leaps of faith."
Back in 2000, Rhule was a 25-year-old assistant searching for work after a two-year stint at Buffalo. He had an offer to be the defensive coordinator at Wilkes University, a Division III college in Pennsylvania. It was a safe choice, a close-to-home gig for the former Penn State linebacker, and it offered a decent paycheck.
"I'll never forget sitting there with my wife," Rhule recalled, "and her saying, 'You know what? This isn't what you want to do. If you want to be a small school coach later, that's fine. But you've always wanted to be a Division I coach. Let's go do it.'"
So Rhule took a graduate assistant job at UCLA. The Rhules packed up all their stuff and moved across the country. He made $780 a month. The rent was $1,400 a month. They went for walks together in their spare time, Rhule joked, because that's all they could afford.
The defensive coordinator for whom he fetched coffee and prepared practice scripts that year? Phil Snow, who went on to be Rhule's DC at Temple and now at Baylor. It all worked out.
He got his next job at Western Carolina, thanks to defensive coordinator Geoff Collins, who is now succeeding Rhule as Temple's head coach. After three years of coaching linebackers, in 2015, Rhule made another curious move. Western Carolina head coach Kent Briggs was battling head and neck cancer that summer. To help, Rhule switched sides of the ball and took on the role of offensive line coach and run game coordinator.
Learning both sides of the game paid off for him as an assistant at Temple. He oversaw the defensive line in 2006. He coached quarterbacks in 2007. He became the recruiting coordinator. Then he was the offensive coordinator. Those varied roles made Rhule a wiser and more well-rounded head coach today. It all worked out.
He took another leap by leaving Temple after the 2011 season, giving up his offensive coordinator duties for a one-year stint as the assistant offensive line coach of the New York Giants. He says he got his Ph.D. in head coaching there, under former Giants coach Tom Coughlin.
"The most impressive thing to me was the guy is a sponge," Coughlin said. "He's very, very smart. He's very perceptive. He has a very unique talent, in my opinion, and that is sincerity. When he's talking to you, it's like he's talking to you and only you. The players very much sense that. He's really a people person, a relationship-builder."
After all that, Rhule was ready to be the head coach at Temple. After he completed a successful worst-to-first rebuild with an American Athletic Conference championship on Dec. 3, his phone kept ringing. He called the people he trusts. He leaned on Coughlin for advice. He talked over his thinking with Snow. Ultimately, he went with his gut, and he trusted first-year Baylor athletic director Mack Rhoades.
Rhoades felt Rhule was the man he needed to hire in the first 30 minutes of their interview. They shared an instant connection. Rhule liked the way Rhoades operates. They had traded texts and chatted at conference meetings in the past, but Rhoades really won Rhule over a year ago, when Rhoades, then the AD at Missouri, visited the Rhules' home to interview Matt for that job.
"I think from a professional perspective, we have the same mentality. Our thought processes are the same," Rhule said. "He'd ask cool questions -- everything from what sets are you going to run to recruiting to, 'Do you know the names of the custodians in your building?' Those are the things that are important to me. When he asks me that, I understand, 'Hey, this guy gets it.'"
Added Rhoades: "You talk about that 'it' factor, and I just felt like he has that 'it' factor."
Rhule also has the benefit of coming into this job with the outsider factor. Baylor gets to wipe the slate clean from a coaching standpoint, with a new staff that had no involvement in the program's past procedural failures. As Baylor interim coach Jim Grobe said last week, "I told him basically for the last six months, I've taken all the bullets, and they're out of ammunition, so now all he's gotta do is go coach football."
Rhule recognizes that his rebuilding efforts at Baylor will take time. He acknowledged that it might take two or even three years to get back to having 85 scholarship players. He's starting from scratch in recruiting. This is going to be a long process, hence the reportedly seven-year deal he received. As he reflects on all the risks he is glad he took during his rise through the coaching ranks, Rhule is confident he has once again ended up where he is supposed to be.
He might not fully understand how difficult a job this will be, considering all that has gone on at Baylor and all that must still be resolved. But as he always has, Rhule trusts that this is going to work out.
"There was a problem at Baylor," Rhule said. "Maybe I can be part of the solution and be part of the people that came here and fixed it and moved forward."