What No. 13 Baylor has to do with Georgia Tech, Geoff Collins

Even as his team has reached 9-1 and has climbed the polls, Baylor coach Matt Rhule has kept an eye on Georgia Tech. Rhule has no particular affinity for the school itself, but is close friends with Yellow Jackets coach Geoff Collins.

The two have been friends for a little more than 20 years, having first met on the coaching staff at Division III Albright College in Pennsylvania. The two worked again at Western Carolina and communicate frequently.

While football coaches are notorious for maintaining tunnel vision and ignoring all teams but their own, Rhule knows a bit about the Jackets.

“They lose to The Citadel but then they come back and beat Miami,” Rhule told the AJC in a Monday phone interview. “That just shows me that he’s building a culture there of competition. And the success that they’ll have in three years will have been borne out of the strife of this season.”

Rhule has firsthand familiarity with the type of strife that has accompanied the Jackets this fall. In 2017, Rhule was laboring through a 1-11 season at Baylor in his first season there after taking Temple from 2-10 in 2013 to back-to-back 10-win seasons in 2015-16. (Collins succeeded Rhule at Temple.)

At least superficially, the comparisons with Tech’s many challenges are easy to draw. Under a new coach, Baylor lost to its own FCS opponent (Liberty) and lost seven games by double digits, three by 20 or more.

“That being said, now that we’re 9-1 and ranked in the top 25 and all those things, I always remind our guys that the success we’re having now was borne out of the adversity that happened from that first year,” said Rhule, whose Bears are ranked 13th nationally and nearly entered the College Football Playoff conversation before a heartbreaking defeat to Oklahoma this past Saturday.

In recalling his first season at Baylor, as well as at Temple in 2013, Rhule said he was guided by a perspective similar to the one that Collins has espoused at Tech.

“You obviously want to go out and win every game, but to me, it’s about establishing the foundation of how you’re going to do things,” Rhule said. “It’s about the process, it’s about how you practice. It’s about how you prepare. It’s about, really, as a team, what the locker room’s like. And then you have to recruit, recruit, recruit.”

In 2018, Rhule’s second season, Baylor was picked to finish ninth in the 10-team Big 12, but finished 7-6 overall and 4-5 in the league, good for a tie for fifth place.

After 2017, “we kind of had that process in place and that allowed us the next year to get to bowl eligibility and win seven games,” Rhule said.

Rhule and Collins first met in 1998, at Albright. Rhule was linebackers coach and Collins was the defensive coordinator, himself in his sixth year out of Western Carolina. The defensive line coach was Sean Padden, who is now Rhule’s director of football operations. As Rhule recalled, he was paid $1,800, lived in a dorm room and ate in the school cafeteria. Collins said they were drawn together by similar vision, ambition and drive.

“We were just young and dumb, trying to figure out how to coach football,” Rhule said. “I was right out of college. Geoff, he was the older, more mature one. But a lot of the things that he does now, he was doing way back then.”

Namely, Rhule said, Collins was invariably positive and had an ability to connect with players. Rhule called him one of his biggest coaching influences.

“He showed me that you can be really tough and demanding but also have fun and love the kids,” Rhule said. “That’s a balance that not a lot of coaches have.”

There are considerable contextual differences between Rhule’s challenge at Baylor and Collins’ at Tech, and some might say there’s no comparison at all. Rhule was hired at Baylor in December 2016 as the school and team were disgraced by a sexual assault scandal that resulted in the firing of coach Art Briles and school president Kenneth Starr and resignation of athletic director Ian McCaw.

He took over a team whose culture was clearly broken and that had experienced significant attrition.

In succeeding Paul Johnson, Collins inherited a team that had enjoyed an 11-year run of success and stability.

Regardless, both Rhule and Collins were charged with leading makeovers of their teams.

When Rhule and an assistant visited Tech’s spring practice, he saw the changes that Collins was making, notably the shift in offense scheme from Johnson’s option offense to the spread of offensive coordinator Dave Patenaude, and recognized that it would take some time. But Rhule offered his support for Collins.

“He’ll definitely get there,” he said.

Rhule placed his confidence in Tech’s academic reputation, the depth of in-state talent, the ability of Collins and his staff to develop players and the likely opportunity for recruits to play quickly.

“But you can tell they’re going to have to recruit, and if there’s one thing Geoff can do, I know it’s recruit,” Rhule said.

In 2017, when Collins was in his first season at Temple and Rhule was trying to find his way at Baylor, Collins didn’t forget his good friend. After the Owls earned bowl eligibility with a win at Tulsa, he connected with Rhule through FaceTime from the locker room so that Rhule could share the moment with his former team.

“You helped this and we believe in you,” Collins said Tuesday, recalling his message to Rhule. “The future’s going to be bright where you’re at at Baylor.”

As Collins rallies his team after presiding over its first home shutout since 1957, Rhule hopes that perhaps his own team’s success in his third season offers a glimpse of what he hopes is coming for Collins.

“I know he always makes sure he encourages me, so hopefully in some way our success this season is encouraging him, that it’s not about what’s right now, it’s about what’s next,” he said.