There were times last fall when the man stayed in the tunnel at Lincoln Financial Field, catching a portion of a Temple football game. Going out to the field might have created a stir. Afterward, Eagles coach Chip Kelly would text Owls football coach Matt Rhule and say something like, "Hang in there, your guys play hard. You're going to be really good."
"In those dark moments, when you're like, 'We lost another close heartbreaker,' here's a guy who's been through it saying, 'Hang in there, keep doing what you're doing,' " Rhule said last week.
After a 2-10 season, "keep doing what you're doing" doesn't make for a great billboard slogan. Going into his second season in charge of the Owls, preparing for Thursday night's opener at Vanderbilt, Rhule isn't preaching status quo.
"We understood what our problems were," Rhule said, talking at Citizens Bank Park after he threw out the first pitch at a Phillies game. "We started attacking them right after the season. There were some personnel issues, so we recruited and we tried to develop. There was a maturity issue and work-ethic issue. That was very clear. Right now, I love our team. This time last year, I liked our team."
Whether they scored 13 points or 49, the 2013 Owls had the unsatisfying habit of scoring just enough to lose by 10 or fewer. They got 13, Houston got 22. They got 49, Southern Methodist was good for 59.
Four losses were by three points or fewer. That's where Rhule starts when he offers hope for drastic improvement. He points out that American Athletic Conference champion Central Florida (which beat Temple by 39-36) won seven games by a touchdown or less.
"It's not a 20-point difference," Rhule said. "I think our kids understand that."
Of the areas that clearly need to improve, start with the secondary, which proved incapable of keeping opponents from scoring last year. Temple lost to Fordham by a point on a 29-yard touchdown pass with four seconds left. Temple lost to Rutgers by three on a 33-yard pass with 35 seconds left. Temple's upset bid of UCF failed when the league champs kicked a field goal as time expired, two plays after a 64-yard pass. UCF had tied the game on a 30-yard pass with 1 minute, 6 seconds left.
Rhule made the point that coming into the American (then the Big East) from the Mid-American Conference just two years ago was an adjustment.
"There's a lot of four- and five-wideout sets," Rhule said. "We were kind of built for the old power teams. We had to adjust, and we certainly have."
Some of that took place in real time last season, but personnel shifts also were required.
"We brought in a couple of junior-college kids and a couple of recruits," Rhule said of the secondary. "We redshirted some kids last year that we knew weren't ready, and they're [now] ready to play. And the kids that played, we just tried to develop them. That's really the crux of it. You're a lot different at 18 than you are at 20."
Rhule is convinced his team has bought in. They understand, he said, "what it means to work, what it means to train. I think because they put all the ground work in, we can now really focus on situational football."
Temple's head coach is an easy guy to root for. We're not going to curse Rhule by calling him a nice guy. What football coach wants to hear that? The truth is, it doesn't matter. In Rhule's trade, you are what your record says you are, regardless of disposition.
What can be said is that if Rhule doesn't know something, he isn't too proud to ask somebody, including Chip Kelly. And he isn't too proud to talk about it.
"I called him once about practice; he gave me his perspective on a college practice," Rhule said. "How many plays in practice should you go when you're in the no-huddle? He's the expert. He said, 'Hey, this is how many plays I would go.' The NFL is different, you have less guys. In our situation, I don't want to learn by trial and error. I want to learn from the best."
Baby steps first. The goal for Temple is to get bowl-eligible. Win the close ones, and that isn't out of reach. And then Rhule can keep doing what he's doing.