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Kindred souls, a shrewd search and sheer will – how Trev Alberts landed Matt Rhule

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Matt Rhule believed his hopes had been dashed, the courtship had ended, the window had closed. He wasn’t going to be Nebraska’s football coach.

“I remember sitting on the couch and being like, ‘Damn,’ that was the right place for me,'” Rhule recalled Monday, “and it just didn’t kind of didn’t work out.”

The “it” was a lengthy contract negotiation between him, NU and his former employer, the Carolina Panthers. Even though Rhule was the apple of Husker athletic director Trev Alberts’ eye from the time Alberts fired Scott Frost — when Rhule still had a job with the Panthers — the obstacles seemed too many to strike a deal. A secret trip to Lincoln — for naught. Ditto for Chats with Alberts that rekindled Rhule’s love for football.

“No fault of Trev’s and really no fault of our own,” Rhule said. “It just wasn’t going to be able to happen.”

What if Monday afternoon had been a reception for a different coach? What if Rhule was a line in a story 15 years from now about Alberts’ long search that ended in slight disappointment?

That’s an alternate history Alberts refused to face.

Nebraska’s search — which started with almost 25 candidates, according to a source familiar with the search, and had contacts with 13 coaches — came down to the same thing that often decides the football games Rhule is about to coach at NU.

Sheer will.

“There was a delta,” Alberts said. “And I said, ‘Wait a minute, you want to coach the University of Nebraska, the University of Nebraska wants you, we’re going to get this done.’”

Rhule was Alberts’ “1A” candidate all along, he said, and the money NU paid for Rhule — an average of $9.25 million per season over eight years — would suggest as much. Other coaches could have come cheaper — and with less contractual angst — than the man who rebuilt both Temple and Baylor into winners in three years.

When Alberts fired Scott Frost and opened the search in early September, he spent a month framing the search, picking the brains of elite coaches — Nick Saban, Dabo Swinney, even Bill Belichick in a chat arranged by University of Nebraska President Ted Carter — about what it takes to win.

In addition to a search firm, he hired an analytics firm to examine a large portfolio of candidates on a variety of metrics, including, Alberts said, record in one-score games. As the analytics firm vetted candidates, Alberts vetted the work of the firm, so to speak, to see if its findings aligned with Alberts’ vision.

Alberts ran the search silent and deep. NU Athletics’ Chief Financial Officer Doug Ewald — Alberts’ right-hand man in many areas — told Alberts he didn’t want to know which candidates had emerged until the very end. Alberts described his process as “remote,” shielded, in a sense, from much of the Athletic Department.

But his bosses, Carter and Chancellor Ronnie Green, knew the process better. Carter knew Rhule from six years ago, when Rhule’s Temple team waxed Navy in the American Athletic Conference title game. Green had chats with Alberts about the search.

“We spend a lot of time processing and thinking a lot on the phone, processing and thinking about lots of things,” Green said. “Early on in the process — the name (Alberts) was mentioning to me most routinely amongst the list — was Matt Rhule.”

Rhule was fired Oct. 11. He got calls from a lot of schools and franchises that had jobs available. He remembered the first call he had with Alberts.

“We were just talking about football, talking about the process, talking about player development,” Rhule said. “And my wife (Julie), I looked over, and she said, ‘It’s the first time I’ve seen you this happy in a long time.’”

That joy progressed through a secret trip to Lincoln, during a Husker gameday — who NU played, folks conveniently declined to mention — when Matt and Julie drove around Lincoln, stayed with Alberts’ family and got a sense of their potential new home.

“We said, ‘Could we raise our kids here?’ And we said, ‘Absolutely.’”

Matt and Julie “got away” on a small vacation after that. They didn’t want to make a decision on emotion. But the fit felt right, Rhule said. Alberts felt the same.

Nebraska needed, in Alberts’ mind, what Rhule could provide at a moment when every Big Ten team not named Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State is just a little bit vulnerable. If Wisconsin — winners of four West Division titles — felt vulnerable enough to tear down its program this season, Nebraska was even more so.

Plus, Alberts and Rhule’s perspectives on football converge. So do their personalities. Alberts wanted a coach with few hobbies; Rhule describes his work ethic as “relentless.” Alberts wants a Husker program with development in its “DNA,” while Rhule yearns to divert under-the-radar prospects away from FCS schools to Nebraska.

“I don’t understand why, I’m in the (NFL) Draft last year looking at first-round guys at FCS schools,” Rhule said. “I want them here.”

Alberts talks toughness. So does Rhule.

“He believes what I believe,” Alberts said.

More to the point, they’re both good at talking about what they believe. They hold court naturally, emphatically, aggressively, convincingly. They’re moths to the conversational flame. So all those phone and Zoom calls became meetings of kindred spirits, even if one has a Midwestern tone and the other has an East Coast rasp.

“As I talked to Trev, the passion for football was reborn inside me,” Rhule said. “The passion for young people was reborn inside me.”

The hurdle that remained, of course, was money. A lot of it.

Whether Rhule had earned a seven-year, $62 million fully guaranteed contract from Carolina Panthers owner and hedge fund manager David Tepper, it’s what Rhule got in 2020, and that $8.8 million per year price tag set Rhule’s market value.

Based on Rhule’s contract at Nebraska — $6.5 million to start, $32.5 million over the first four years — it’s clear that NU is covering most of the buyout the Panthers would have owed Rhule.

If, for example, Nebraska had intended on getting Rhule on the cheap for far less over those first four years, such an approach didn’t pan out. And if Team Rhule — who said he had other job opportunities — wanted the 10-year, fully guaranteed deal Texas A&M’s Jimbo Fisher got, he fell short of that, too.

“The unique challenge here is we had a tri-party challenge, right?” Alberts said. “So finding a way to structure a business arrangement that everybody was willing to sign off on was a bit of a challenge. There were some fits and starts to it.”

There was several weeks of time when it seemed like the deal wouldn’t work, Alberts believed. He had a list of coaches and chatted with several. He wouldn’t divulge the list, but said all of his candidates had Nebraska at the top of their list.

Who was on it? One — a true longshot — was former Boise State and Washington coach Chris Petersen. A source confirmed he and Alberts spoke; Petersen was not ready to get back into coaching. Multiple reports suggested Luke Fickell received interest from Nebraska. Fickell, ripe to leave Cincinnati, took the open Wisconsin job. Kansas coach Lance Leipold was in the mix; he got a contract extension from his current school just two days before Rhule and Alberts finalized a deal.

Alberts wanted Rhule. And, at one point, he was told, through a cryptic text from Carter, that Rhule still wanted Nebraska. Alberts went back to Rhule’s camp repeatedly, trying different negotiation angles designed to ensure both sides took an appropriate amount of risk.

“Trev is really creative,” Rhule said. “He’s not just going to take the first no. He’s going to find a way around things.”

The two sides struck a deal on Thanksgiving at 11 a.m., Alberts said. Rhule seemed to think, perhaps, it was on Black Friday, when news reports began to trickle out that he was taking the Nebraska job.

“She cried, she teared up,” Matt said of Julie’s reaction. He promised one of his daughters he’d find a farm where she could ride horses in Nebraska. By Saturday morning, the news was official. By Sunday, Rhule’s wife, Julie, had packed up their three kids — plus three dogs — and drove from Cape May back to Charlotte, arriving at 11 p.m. She ironed clothes until 12:30 a.m., was back up by 4 and ready to roll to Nebraska.

The reception for the Rhules was distinctly different than the last two head coach events. Mike Riley was introduced late in the week, with his wife, Dee, finding Husker gear at a fan store across the street from Memorial Stadium. Scott Frost won the American Athletic Conference title on a Saturday, flew to NU that night and was introduced on a Sunday without any of his family present.

“I don’t want phone calls to my mother,” Frost said then. “I don’t want pictures of my son.”

Rhule posted to Twitter a picture of his daughters gawking at his elevator photo.

“We’re going to go out,” Rhule said. “We’re going to be at dinner. We’re going to be at Little League games and soccer games, we’re going to take part in charitable things. We want to be a part of Nebraska.”

They will be because Alberts wouldn’t take no for an answer.

“I took it as a bit of a challenge,” Alberts said. “Because everybody told me, 'There’s no way he’s coaching this year.’ So we had to find a way to convince him that he should coach this year and this is the place he should do it.”

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