WACO, Texas -- On a bookshelf in the corner of Matt Rhule's office is a framed letter from Kansas State coach Bill Snyder.
It's something the Baylor coach kept, a timely token of encouragement, from his first season in Waco. Snyder, the now-retired legend who is well known for sending handwritten notes to opposing players and coaches, mailed it to Rhule in the days following K-State's 33-20 victory over the Bears in 2017.
"Meant what I said, Matt. I've seen weekly improvement from your program & appreciate your players for never giving up & fighting back. You are instilling an attitude that will bring success back to your program. Wishing you continued success & good fortune. --Bill."
Baylor was 0-5 at the time. Rhule was in the midst of a rebuilding project even tougher than he imagined; his team eventually finished the season 1-11.
While observers gawked at how bad Baylor had become and Rhule sought to keep up the spirits of a squad that plunged quickly into irrelevance, Snyder's letter served as validation of the program's direction.
"When everyone else was just bashing," Rhule said this week, "here's one of the all-time greats saying, 'Hey, I see the improvement, just keep doing what you're doing.'
"And it's funny how you need that encouragement."
While nobody knew how long the turnaround would take, Snyder's foresight proved true. Two years later, Rhule's Bears are 7-0, ranked 12th in the country and in sole possession of the Big 12 lead. They can further cement their status as Big 12 championship contenders when they host West Virginia on Thursday (8 p.m. ET, ESPN).
The Bears have reached this point with one of the Big 12's best quarterbacks (Charlie Brewer), a vastly improved defense and a core group of veterans who cut their teeth in the lean years and are blossoming as upperclassmen.
Baylor's impressive start is historic considering where the Bears were in Rhule's debut season. They're only the third FBS team since 1937 to start a season 7-0 within two seasons of a year they started 0-7. UCF (2017) and Minnesota (1960) are the others.
The reason such a reclamation project was necessary is well documented. In May 2016, former coach Art Briles was fired in the wake of a sexual assault scandal at the school (the investigation also led to the exit of the school president and athletic director).
Jim Grobe served as acting head coach for the 2016 season and led the Bears to a 7-6 mark. Following that season, new athletic director Mack Rhoades tabbed Rhule, fresh off consecutive 10-win seasons and a conference championship at Temple.
When Rhule arrived, the roster was gutted. There were only 45 scholarship players on the team, with the attrition due to a combination of outgoing seniors, early draft entries, transfers, and 2016 recruits who asked out of their letters of intent. The 2017 recruiting class had only one verbal commitment at the time of Rhule's hiring.
"Thank goodness there wasn't an early signing period at the time," Rhule said.
Had there been, it would've been virtually impossible for Rhule to get the roster back to the 85-scholarship limit so quickly. Instead, Rhule and his staff scrambled furiously to fill out the class, and by February signing day, inked 27 freshmen, including four early enrollees. After adding some transfers later in the offseason and rewarding some deserving walk-ons with scholarships, the Bears were back to 85.
While the roster was stabilized, the results were anything but. Rhule, Rhoades and others at Baylor knew it would be an uphill climb, but just how steep it was didn't set in until the first couple weeks of the 2017 season. Rhule's debut game was a 48-45 loss to Liberty, a team then in its final season of FCS football. The next week, Baylor became the first Power 5 team to lose to UT San Antonio.
"I didn't think it would be that bad," Rhule said.
Rhoades said it was like a bucket of cold water thrown in his face.
"Wow," he remembers thinking. "This is the true reality of where we are as program."
Even though the losses continued to pile up, there were hints of progress along the way. In its fourth game, Baylor was within eight points of No. 3 Oklahoma and was down only four heading into the fourth quarter. After falling behind big to a ranked West Virginia squad, the Bears rallied and were a 2-point conversion away from sending that game to overtime. They earned their lone victory in convincing fashion against struggling Kansas.
Still, the losses coupled with Rhule's contrasting style (practices were harder and more physical than they had previously been) had some players wondering what they signed up for.
"You start to question like, 'Is this working?'" said redshirt sophomore receiver R.J. Sneed, one of the four early enrollees in the 2017 recruiting class. "'Am I doing all the right stuff? Because I'm getting the wrong results.' It was very difficult."
Rhule recalled pushback from some veteran holdovers questioning the new staff's methods. "Coach, if you would just ease up, we might win a game or two," was the sentiment. They had to have a team meeting about it.
"I said, 'Look, guys, we're not preparing for right now. Like, we want to win, but we're preparing for the future,'" Rhule said. "Now, my message to them is, 'You thought it was the worst time of your life, but seeing what it turns you into, going through the adversity, aren't you glad you went through it?'"
Many of the players who went through that trying season were young and would be part of the program's future. There were also veterans and seniors from whom Rhule is eternally grateful, "guys that stuck around when they didn't have to," he said.
There were 17 true freshmen who appeared in a game that season and 27 first-time starters. Both of those totals were in the top five nationally. Thirty-three freshmen or sophomores started games for Baylor in 2017.
"We got a little bit older ... so freshmen [in 2017] were now sophomores and the sophomores were now juniors. We got bigger and stronger. Year 1 to Year 2, we looked like a bigger football team. And we just played better football. You could just see the improvement that we made." Charlie Brewer
The youth movement started paying dividends in Year 2. In 2018, Baylor made the biggest win jump in the Power 5 going from one win to seven, including a thrilling Texas Bowl victory over Vanderbilt. Brewer -- another of the four early-enrollee recruits in the 2017 class -- established himself as the starter and the quarterback this program would build around.
Brewer showed flashes of that ability in his true freshman season; he was the one who rallied Baylor back in the 23-point fourth quarter against West Virginia. A product of Austin's Lake Travis High -- the quarterback factory of a program that annually produces Division I prospects and was once home to Baker Mayfield -- Brewer was one of the few who committed to Rhule sight unseen.
Recruited by mostly Group of 5 programs, Brewer was committed to SMU when Rhule arrived at Baylor. While Rhule briefly saw Brewer play before offering him a scholarship, the two never had a face-to-face meeting until Brewer enrolled at Baylor. All their communication was over the phone, emblematic of the frenetic nature with which Rhule had to scramble to fill out his first signing class.
Though he was a state champion and highly decorated prep passer, Power 5 programs didn't come running to Brewer. Coming from a family of quarterbacks (in addition to his brother, his father, grandfather and uncle all played quarterback at Texas), Brewer wanted to prove himself at the Big 12 level.
"I thought I owed it to myself to play the biggest football possible and just kind of see where the cards fell," Brewer said.
The gamble paid off for both parties: Brewer developed into one of the Big 12's best quarterbacks and has been a linchpin for the offense. Rhule, who once had P.J. Walker to lean on for four years at Temple, found a quarterback to hang his hat on in Waco.
"I remember saying to my dad one day [in 2017], 'Well you know, we might not be winning, but at least we know we have a quarterback,'" Rhule said.
JaMycal Hasty takes the handoff 73 yards to score a touchdown to increase the Baylor lead to 45-27 over Oklahoma State in the fourth quarter.
The bowl victory last season was part of a key final stretch for Baylor, as the Bears were 5-6 entering their regular-season finale against Texas Tech. Winning that game and then the bowl game against an SEC team proved key for the team's psyche. Rhoades wonders if the current Bears are 7-0 this season without that finish to 2018. Brewer called it "extremely valuable."
"Everyone was more bought into the culture of how we run our program," Brewer said. "We got a little bit older ... so freshmen [in 2017] were now sophomores and the sophomores were now juniors. We got bigger and stronger. Year 1 to Year 2, we looked like a bigger football team.
"And we just played better football. You could just see the improvement that we made."
The tangible results led to confidence and optimism. Another recruiting class added depth. Now the Bears aren't quite as thin as they were in that fateful first season under Rhule. There are still spots that concern Rhule -- the depth on the offensive and defensive lines is something he's still trying to build up -- but the current roster is stocked with veteran players coming into their own.
This season has been one of steps. The conference opener against Iowa State, a 23-21 win in late September, was a key one, because they hadn't beaten the Cyclones the previous two years. Beating West Virginia, even though the Mountaineers aren't what they were in the Will Grier/David Sills days, would be another step; Baylor hasn't defeated West Virginia since 2015.
And one of the biggest steps this season has been on defense. The unit resembled a turnstile at times in 2017, allowing at least 38 points seven times. Defensive coordinator Phil Snow, who was with Rhule at Temple and followed him to Baylor, has overseen a group that's becoming one of the team's strengths.
The offseason decision to shift from a four-man front to a three-man and add speed on the back end has been prosperous. After allowing 30 points per game in each of the past two seasons, Snow's unit is now allowing just 19.1 points. The Bears' yards allowed per game is down by almost 100 from 2017. Yards allowed per play has gone from 6.4 to 4.9.
One of the biggest reasons for the jump is leadership.
"We're not depending on the coaches as much to like tell us little things such as 'run to the ball,' and stuff like that," junior linebacker Jalen Pitre said. "I feel like the players are doing a great job at holding each other accountable to those types of things. And that has made our defense a lot better this year."
Pitre is yet another member of that 2017 group who enrolled early, and he was the lone verbal commitment in the class when Rhule arrived. He stuck with his commitment because of the education, he said, "just thinking about the opportunities that I would have with a better degree is what really stood out to me when making my decision."
When he took his official visit in December 2016, a smattering of folks hosted him because the new coaching staff had to hit the recruiting trail. Rhule went out recruiting on the Friday night he arrived, returned to Waco the next morning to have breakfast with Pitre and his family, then went back on the trail while a pair of admissions representatives gave Pitre a tour of the campus.
By the end of the tour, Rhule said, the tour guides became emotional, because they were grateful Pitre chose to stick with Baylor when nobody else would. Transition classes -- recruiting classes that coaches sign shortly after taking a job -- are usually a crapshoot because of how little time new coaches have to recruit before signing day. But two years later, 20 of the 27 signees are still on the roster, 11 have started a game and several are key contributors. Brewer and Sneed are both starting, and Pitre has been a key fill-in at linebacker in the past four games.
James Lynch is another huge success story from the class, as the junior has piled up 17 career sacks and leads the Big 12 this season with 8.5. His development has been crucial to Baylor's defensive improvement.
Coming into 2018, Rhule's stated goal was for the Bears to be "relevant down the stretch," meaning in the conversation for a Big 12 championship game berth heading into the final month of the season. Mission accomplished. With five games to go, Baylor has the inside track on one of the two spots.
While the 2017 season was challenging, Rhule didn't waver. He went through similar circumstances in his first season at Temple, when the Owls went 2-10 in 2013. Two years later, Temple won 10 games and the season after that won the American Athletic Conference.
After completing that rebuilding project, capped by the winningest two-year stretch in Temple history, Rhule said then he "knew our job was done there, our time was over." A new fixer-upper awaited.
As he tried his formula in Waco, the lessons, particularly in the first season, were hard-earned. But the veterans see the wisdom in them now.
"Coach Rhule always says, 'Trust the process,' but that first year, we were kinda hesitant to trust it," Sneed said. "Now you see that the process actually works."
Rhule keeps the note from Snyder in his office for a few reasons. Not only was it encouragement at the time, but it serves as a reflection point on where his team was and how far it has come.
It's also a reminder to pay it forward whenever he can. Snyder wasn't the only one to give him such encouragement -- he recalls Dick Vermeil calling him out of nowhere midway through his first season at Temple -- so he tries to do the same for others.
"[The letter] reminded me, on a year when we're having success, when I see someone I know struggling, make sure you shoot 'em a text," Rhule said. "Remind 'em, 'Hey, this is where you do your best coaching, man ... in those tough, tough years.'"
Coaches across the country use the term "culture." What better way to set your culture, Rhule said, than to get players to practice and prepare and fight for each other while losing?
"If you can do that," Rhule said, "it's the same [when you win], it's just a lot easier. It's a lot more fun when you're winning."