Every Win Matters as Matt Rhule Rebuilds Nebraska Football

Nebraska Cornhuskers head football coach Matt Rhule talks to the crowd during halftime (Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports)
Nebraska Cornhuskers head football coach Matt Rhule talks to the crowd during halftime (Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports) /

When I think about the process of Matt Rhule rebuilding Nebraska football into a dominant program once again, a favorite quote from the late Bobby Bowden comes to mind

"“A program is built in four stages. First, you lose big, then you lose close. Then you win close, and finally, you win big.”"

Bowden’s tenure at FSU is a fascinating case study for what Nebraska football is embarking on in the Matt Rhule era.

Before Bowden arrived at Florida State in 1976, the Seminoles had only played football for 32 years. They didn’t have a team from 1906-1946.* FSU only appeared in 9 total bowl games before Bowden, going 2-5-2 in those games.

*FSU (Florida State College, as it was known) became Florida State College for Women in 1906 and all the men transferred to Florida University. The school re-opened to men again after WW2.

Surely what Matt Rhule inherited at Nebraska isn’t as dire as what Bowden inherited at Florida State, right?

If we Husker fans are honest, though, it can feel just as bad.

Building a Program is Not a Linear Process

Bowden went 5-6 in his first year at Florida State. That year, FSU lost to Miami (FL) 47-0.

But this wasn’t your daddy’s Miami.

Miami went 3-8 that year.*

*Fun fact: Miami’s head coach, Carl Selmer, was Nebraska’s offensive line coach when Nebraska won back-to-back titles in 1970-71. Two weeks after defeating FSU, Miami lost to Nebraska 17-9 in Lincoln.

In Bowden’s second year, amazingly, FSU went 10-2. They lost a close one to Miami and got shellacked by San Diego State 41-16. FSU played only one ranked team all year–Oklahoma State, who went 4-7.

For the next nine years, Bowden had some good seasons, a couple of great ones, and a few duds. After finishing 10-2 in 1980, there were high hopes in Tallahassee for the following season. Bowden’s 1981 team was in the top 20 and won their first two games.

Then game 3 happened. Guess who?

Nebraska, in Lincoln.

The ‘Noles got manhandled by the Huskers, 34-14. FSU had 227 total yards.

Roger Craig rushed for 234 yards on his own.

Florida State finished 6-5 that year (cue sad trombone).

Five years later, in 1987, they went 11-1. FSU finished #2 in the polls after defeating, you guessed it, #5 Nebraska in the Fiesta Bowl, 31-28.

Now back to the quote. Bowden’s point isn’t that building a program is perfectly linear. It’s not like you only lose close games, and then suddenly you move to only winning. It’s two steps forward and one step back sometimes.

One week, you might win comfortably and get blown out the next. You may go 10-2, then 6-5, and then–BOOM!–11-1.

In other words, building a program is a process.

A complicated one, I might add.

Nebraska Football Keeps Winning Ugly, and That’s OK…for Now

Nebraska football used to be so simple. Now, it’s nothing if not complicated. Bowden’s wisdom should give Husker fans comfort, however. We’ve had more than our fair share of close losses. The close wins have to come soon, right?

Well, say hello, because they are here.

Nebraska has won two in a row and four of five. Three of those wins have been by 14 points or less.

And the winning is ugly, isn’t it? My gosh, it’s ugly. I mean, what can I say that you don’t know? You’ve watched the games. There’s not one aspect of Nebraska’s offense that you can trust.*

*As great of a story Heinrich Haarberg has been (and it has been amazing), the shine has worn off. He’s gotten lucky making the same mistakes Jeff Sims’ made. My hunch is that Sims’ ankle injury is worse than the coaches have let on. But that’s another article.

But it is still winning. It’s something the previous staff couldn’t figure out.

And winning sure beats losing, doesn’t it?

When Bowden arrived at Florida State, he wanted to build a specific kind of culture: a winning one. That’s what Rhule came to Nebraska to do.

Being defensive-minded, tough, feisty, run-oriented, etc., isn’t “culture” per se. These things are all means to an end. The end is winning. You could say your team’s culture is “tough” all you want. But then you go 3-9.

As that esteemed philosopher, Herm Edwards, once said, “You play to win the game.”

You get a piece of this in the speech from the infamous Sunday night practice after Michigan:

The ultimate goal isn’t toughness or execution or speed or scoring or anything other than winning.

And while the games aren’t always the most exciting to behold, Matt Rhule and his staff are doing what’s required to win. Isn’t that what you want as a fan? Can’t you see the difference between this staff and previous ones?

Don’t just take my word for it. Non-Husker fans see it:

Nebraska is 4-3. It’s the latest in the season they’ve had a winning record since 2016. If Rhule wins two more, he’ll accomplish what hasn’t been done in Lincoln since 2016: get Nebraska football to a bowl game.


That would be a tangible, undeniable sign that he’s building–yes, rebuilding–Nebraska football.

Embrace the close, ugly wins. Without a doubt, they’re not just “part” of the process.

Winning these close, ugly games is the process for Nebraska football.