Temple's Rhule learned the ropes at Penn State
Temple's new head football coach was a walk-on player at Penn State, but he wasn't really at Penn State to play. That was a byproduct of Matt Rhule's intended pursuit.
"I went there to learn how to be a coach," Rhule said. "Along the way, I got to play some."
The son of a high school coach, Rhule wasn't merely trying to learn enough to be an assistant offensive line coach, to learn effective teaching of technique and other particulars. He purposefully studied the head coach, thinking down the road.
As Rhule prepares for his head coaching debut Saturday at Notre Dame, he still thinks back to his days in State College and Joe Paterno's approach.
"Little things," Rhule said. "Most coaches talk to the team every day. He didn't. Most coaches call the team over after practice and talk to them. He didn't."
The young Rhule was perceptive enough to realize why Paterno held himself back.
"He knew how to make his voice fresh," Rhule said. "It's like, if he talked, you listened. Even though at the time he was 70 and I was 17 or 18. He talked just enough."
The biggest lesson he learned from JoePa, Rhule suggested, had little to do with X's and O's.
"Probably because I wasn't a very good player, I noticed he held great players to a higher standard," Rhule said. "That is so different than most of college football. Look at some of the coaches coming under fire. They hold their great players to less of a standard. They're what I call lamb killers. They throw the walk-on off the team when he does X, Y or Z, but they give some great players so many chances.
"Joe, he was so hard, day in and day out, on Ki–Jana Carter, on Kerry Collins. As a walk-on player, I really appreciated that."
Now 38 years old, Rhule has been away from Penn State for most of two decades. He coached at Buffalo, at UCLA, at Western Carolina, was Al Golden's offensive coordinator with the Owls and then on Steve Addazio's staff, before getting his football Ph.D. last season on Tom Coughlin's New York Giants staff.
Rhule understood that he had to set a tone as soon as he got back to Temple. He certainly knows the messages he wants to get into his locker room this week, realizing his Owls are 30-point underdogs in South Bend.
"I refuse to be tight," Rhule said of how he'll be on the sideline at Notre Dame.
Rhule talked a lot Tuesday at his weekly press gathering about the need to play loose and confident and courageous.
"You're on the ledge," Rhule said. "Am I going to stand up and make a play or am I going to back off and let the player catch the ball because I'm nervous?"
He had Notre Dame's fight song blaring all week at practice, he said. Some players thought he was trying to get inside their heads, he said. He was just trying to simulate what they'll experience on Saturday.
"We're not going to pretend like it's nothing," Rhule said of the trip to Notre Dame Stadium. He'll even take his team to the stadium the day before, which he normally won't do on the road, he said. He also pointed out his veterans have played at Penn State and other hostile environments. This isn't uncharted territory.
In his own days at Penn State, Rhule was a linebacker. That meant Jerry Sandusky was his position coach. That, of course, means the last few years have been especially devastating and confusing for Rhule to watch and comprehend, even from a distance.
"Just the whole thing," Rhule said of the fallout from the Sandusky scandal. "All the people. I couldn't even begin to name them. So many people that I knew really well have been affected by it. The whole thing just makes me ache."
For instance, Mike McQueary is a longtime close friend.
"All the people I think about, not just Mike," Rhule said. "I'd met some of the people who were victims. The whole thing just makes me feel physically . . ."
He ran out of words.
"I don't know what happened, and I don't pretend to know," Rhule said. "I do know that Joe's legacy kind of lives on with me, the way I coach, the way I want every player in this program to feel like they're valued, not based upon their ability but based upon how hard they work and what they do and how they treat people every day."
Two decades ago, Rhule probably wouldn't have been audacious enough to fantasize his own debut as a head coach, at any level, would be at Notre Dame Stadium. Then again, his old coach wouldn't have allowed him to think about this as some kind of dream. His sport doesn't tend to reward fantasies.
And Notre Dame isn't likely to, either.
Contact Mike Jensen at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @jensenoffcampus on Twitter.