Is a Matt Rhule in hand worth other strong candidates still coaching?

LINCOLN – Almost on cue, the Nebraska football coaching search hit another chaotic day – this time just before Thanksgiving, as smoke swirls around the potential of Matt Rhule taking the Husker job.

It comes after reports of Kansas coach Lance Leipold getting a contract extension and the announcement of that Washington coach Kalen DeBoer – who’s from the Midwest but has a passing style that may not fit NU – got a contract extension, as well.

When other coaches start getting paid to stay in their current jobs, one takes some heed.

It pointed to Wednesday, when of course Nebraska had zero intention of announcing anything so, naturally, the volume got turned up for a third time on Rhule, the 47-year-old former Temple-and-Baylor coach who got fired earlier this year from the NFL’s Carolina Panthers.

Rhule has been making a few media appearances this week, talking specifically about his desire to return next year to coaching rather than spend a season collecting buyout money from the Panthers, which owe him more than $40 million.

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“I just want to have an impact on people,” Rhule said on NFL Network Wednesday. “Whenever that comes, I don’t know when it will be, but I’ve got my son pushing me – let’s go here, let’s go there. It could be Monday, it could be two years from now. But when it comes, I’ll be ready.”

The Rhule rumors have been swirling for weeks on message boards, Twitter and elsewhere. Rhule is absolutely in that top group of candidates, according to a source, clearly ahead of Leipold, who was also in the top group. Rhule can recruit, charm the press and boosters, and generally seems accessible, chatty, direct. East Coast guys tend to be.

Rhule’s also the only guy in that top group who doesn’t have a game to coach. He’s not going to have a game to coach next week, either. The extent of his interest and coaching wish list is known.

What other jobs can he take? Auburn? The Tigers appear smitten with Lane Kiffin. Arizona State? The kids who grow up in Arizona don’t want to play in the state – and anyone who doubts it can look at recruiting services lists of Arizona prospects. Colorado? C’mon. Other jobs that haven’t opened up yet? Sure – but those jobs haven’t opened up yet. There is nothing to compare Nebraska against.

Maybe NU has it locked in, done, and ready to announce late on Friday or Saturday, with a Sunday or Monday press conference.

Some university employees, according to a separate source, were told last week to be ready on 24 hours notice to host high-profile boosters and administrative leaders at a post-presser function if need be.

If it’s Rhule, then he had to have won some concession over the last several weeks, right? It’ll be worth examining the contract details, especially what a guy like Rhule would owe to Nebraska if he left after four or five years.

He’s done that twice, to Temple and Baylor. It’ll be worth examining, too, whether Rhule’s impressive process for rehabilitating bad college teams, which he did twice, works as a five, 10, 20-year plan.

Rhule would waste little time remaking any program he oversees. He’s driven and has ideas.

Nebraska is in a position to overpay for what it wants in a coach. Money, Alberts has said before, is not an issue. Does Rhule have top-shelf offensive coaches in mind? he’ll need them; the Big Ten is a coaches’ league.

If Rhule’s N, then he’s N, but if Nebraska chooses to kick any other tires, the list starts with Kansas State’s Chris Klieman and Cincinnati’s Luke Fickell.

Why would Klieman, playing for a berth in the Big 12 championship, leave a lower-ceiling-but-higher-rate-of-return job in Manhattan for Nebraska?

First, NU can pay generational money. Second, Klieman likes to win championships. He won four FCS national titles at North Dakota State. He’s averaging seven wins per year at K-State so far. Of course Nebraska should be modest in its initial aims for any new coach. But you know the intention at NU. Does Kansas State have the same intent?

Fickell has been to the College Football Playoff. He dipped his toe in the water with Michigan State before pulling it out a few years back, when it’d be fair to say the Spartans’ athletic department was a hot mess stemming from the Larry Nassar scandal. Why Nebraska?

He’d be the Big Ten, for one. He’d have all the recruiting bells and whistles, for two. The Bearcats rank third in their hometown – behind the Bengals and Reds – and well down the list in their state. Cincinnati is not and will never be Ohio State, Fickell’s alma mater. And OSU’s job is not open.

Fickell is likely not to begin any conversation until after Friday’s game against Tulane, and perhaps not until Cincy is done with a title game in the American Athletic Conference, which the Bearcats are soon to bolt.

That’s tricky timing with both guys. In both cases, Nebraska cannot sell better recent success. It has to sell projected success for the right coach who can harness all the advantages into a winning formula.

If Nebraska wanted to consider coaches still engaged with their current teams, is the fan base willing to wait? Are boosters and university leaders? The whole “transfer portal and signing day loom!” narrative can be a little overblown – Nebraska should keep its 2023 class small and proceed wisely with transfers – but the search started back in September with the expressed purpose of being ready to make this hire the second Black Friday ended.

Imagine the scene a week from now, with no coach. Again – I wouldn’t see it as a big deal. Not when you’re making a big picture 10-year decision. But others might.

Is a Rhule in hand worth several other candidates still in the bush?

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