Matt Rhule embrace of Nebraska tradition fuels popularity — so far

Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

LINCOLN, Neb. — Nebraska coach Matt Rhule has quickly endeared himself to one of the nation’s most ardent fan bases in the five months since his hiring.

Rhule has yet to coach his first game for the Cornhuskers, though, and the true test of his popularity will come in a year or two, when his work to bring back one of college football’s biggest brands is fully underway.

So far, he’s proved to be a fast study and served up big portions of red meat, frequently referencing the program’s traditional staples of hard work, physical practices and a pounding run game.

Unlike some previous coaches, Rhule has made a point to pay homage to program standard-bearer Tom Osborne, the 86-year-old Hall of Fame coach who won national titles three of the four years before his retirement. Osborne has already done a roundtable discussion with Rhule and athletic director Trev Alberts and accepted Rhule’s invitation to be featured speaker at the annual coaches clinic.

Rhule also played an important role in helping Alberts get former coach Frank Solich to agree to be honored at the spring game. Solich, whose ties to the program date to the 1960s, has been mostly estranged since his controversial 2003 firing.

Rhule and Solich have known each other since Rhule’s time as an assistant at Temple (2006-11), when the Owls were in the Mid-American Conference along with Solich’s Ohio team. Rhule later led the Temple’s turnaround from 2013-16 in the American Athletic Conference.

“I was impressed with their program and what they were all about, so when he got the job at Nebraska, I felt like that was a good hire,” Solich said. “I know he contacted coach Osborne when he got here right away. Also, he’s been around the state visiting with tons of coaches and trying to get a strong interest in Nebraska football and get himself and his staff known to the people of Nebraska.

“I think he’s making all the right moves and doing all the right things.”

Rhule has dropped references to the Huskers’ iconic red N on the helmet, his excitement about coaching in 100-year-old Memorial Stadium, and building depth with walk-ons and giving them real opportunities. He even promises to make the fullback part of the offense again.

The 48-year-old is a savvy user of social media and has appeared at events big and small, including last week’s nationally televised WWE SmackDown wrestling show in Lincoln where he enthusiastically shouted “Go Big Red!” into the camera.

“I hate calling a guy an outsider, but for a guy who doesn’t really have any ties to the place, he’s done an amazing job of figuring out what the culture is and integrating himself into that right away,” said Rob Zatechka, a lifelong Nebraskan and Omaha anesthesiologist who was a lineman on the 1994 national championship team.

Rhule took over a program that has won five national championships, the most recent in 1997, but hasn’t appeared in a bowl or finished higher than fifth in the seven-team Big Ten West since 2016.

Nebraska will enter the season with an NCAA-record 389 consecutive sellouts since 1962, and more than 60,000 tickets have been sold for the spring game. Though the sellout streak has been propped up over the years by discounted tickets and boosters buying up unsold tickets, it’s testament to fan loyalty.

“I want to make sure they know … that we know how long they have waited for Nebraska football to play the way that we all believe it is capable of playing,” Rhule said of the fans. “We are not there yet, but we will try to honor their patience and their loyalty with our work.”

Rhule spent two-plus seasons as the Carolina Panthers coach, and had left for the NFL after rebuilding Baylor following the scandal-filled Art Briles era. He was out of work less than two months after the Panthers fired him in October.

Rhule’s Temple and Baylor teams made big jumps between the first and second years, and the Bears won 11 games and reached a New Year’s Six bowl in year three.

“I don’t think people are looking for conference titles year one,” Zatechka said. “That being said, if we won two, three, four games this year but by year three he’s got us in the Sugar Bowl going toe-to-toe with Georgia (like Baylor did), I think we’re going to be ecstatic.”

Georgia extends contract for AD Josh Brooks, plans two new football practice fields

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ATHENS, Ga. – On the heels of a second straight national football championship, Georgia has rewarded athletic director Josh Brooks a contract extension that ties him to the Bulldogs through at least 2029.

The athletic association board, wrapping up its annual spring meeting Friday at a resort on Lake Oconee, also announced plans for a new track and field facility that will free up space for two more football practice fields.

Brooks’ new contract will increase his salary to $1.025 million a year, with annual raises of $100,000.

The 42-year-old Brooks, who took over the athletic department in 2021 after Greg McGarity retired, called the Georgia job “a dream for me” and said he hopes to spend the rest of his career in Athens.

“I am extremely grateful,” Brooks said. “I got into this business 20-plus years ago as a student equipment manager. My first job at Louisiana-Monroe was making $20,000 a year in football operations.”

The Georgia board approved a fiscal 2024 budget of $175.2 million, a nearly 8% increase from the most recent budget of $162.2 million and the sign of a prosperous program that is flush with money after its success on the gridiron.

The school received approval to move forward with its preliminary plans for a new track and field facility, which will be built across the street from the complex hosting the soccer and and softball teams.

The current track stadium is located adjacent to the Butts-Mehre athletic facility, which hosts the practice fields and training facilities for the football program.

Georgia lost a chunk of its outdoor fields when it built a new indoor practice facility. After the new track and field stadium is completed, the current space will be converted to two full-length, grass football practice fields at the request of coach Kirby Smart.

“He wants to find efficient ways to practice, and there is a lot of truth to the issues we’ve had with our current practice fields,” Brooks said. “There is a lot of strain on our turf facilities staff to keep that field in great shape when half the day it is getting shade, so that has been a challenge as well. For our football program, it is better to practice on grass fields than (artificial) turf, so to be able to have two side-by-side grass fields is huge. It makes for a much more efficient practice.”

The new track and field complex, which will continue to be named Spec Towns Track, will also include an indoor facility, the first of its kind in the state of Georgia.

Iowa AD Gary Barta announces retirement after 17 years at Big Ten school

Joseph Cress/Iowa City Press-Citizen / USA TODAY NETWORK

IOWA CITY, Iowa – Iowa athletic director Gary Barta will retire on August 1 after 17 years at the university, the school announced Friday.

Barta, 59, is one of the longest-tenured athletic directors in a Power Five conference. He was hired by Iowa in 2006 after being the AD at Wyoming.

An interim director will be announced next week, Iowa said.

In September, Iowa hired former Ball State athletic director Beth Goetz to be deputy director of athletics and chief operating officer, putting her in position to possibly succeed Barta.

“It has been an absolute privilege and honor to serve in this role the past 17 years,” Barta said in a statement. “This decision didn’t come suddenly, nor did it come without significant thought, discussion, and prayer.”

“That said, I’m confident this is the right time for me and for my family.”

Iowa won four NCAA national team titles and 27 Big Ten team titles during Barta’s tenure. The women’s basketball team is coming off an appearance in the national championship game and the wrestling team is coming off a second-place finish at the NCAA championships.

Barta served as the chairman of the College Football Playoff committee in 2020 and 2021.

He faced heavy criticism over more than $11 million in settlements for lawsuits in recent years alleging racial and sexual discrimination within the athletic department.

Lawsuits filed by former field hockey coach Tracey Griesbaum and associate athletics director Jane Meyer led to a $6.5 million payout.

Iowa had to pay $400,000 as part of a Title IX lawsuit brought by athletes after it cut four sports in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic. As part of the agreement, Iowa reinstated the women’s swimming and diving program and add another women’s sport.

Iowa added women’s wrestling, the first among Power Five schools to compete this year.

A lawsuit brought by former football players alleging racial discrimination within the program was settled for $4.2 million last March, which prompted state auditor Rob Sand to call for Barta’s ouster.

“Gary Barta’s departure is a long time coming given the four different lawsuits for discrimination that cost Iowa more than $11 million,” Sand posted on Twitter.

The university did not allow taxpayer money to be used for the settlement with the former players.

Barta led Iowa through $380 million of facility upgrades, including renovation of Kinnick Stadium, the construction of a new football facility, a basketball practice facility and a training center for the wrestling teams.

Under Barta, Iowa has had just one head football coach (Kirk Ferentz), women’s basketball coach (Lisa Bluder) and wrestling coach (Tom Brands). All were in place when he arrived.

Barta has also come under scrutiny for allowing Ferentz to employee his son, Brian Ferentz, as offensive coordinator. To comply with the university’s nepotism policy, Brian Ferentz reports to Barta.