It was late November 2007 and the Pittsburgh Panthers were preparing for what looked — to most — like a season finale they were certain to lose.
With their 4-7 record, Pitt players already knew they weren’t going bowling as they geared up to face archrival West Virginia, a squad ranked No. 1 in the coaches poll and needing only one more victory to secure its place in the national championship game. The Mountaineers’ offense, powered by bona-fide superstars like quarterback Pat White and running back Steve Slaton, averaged 40 points per game that year. West Virginia was a 28.5-point favorite over Pitt.
So imagine Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt’s surprise one day that week when he noticed that — instead of lining up and practicing against a scout-team offense mimicking West Virginia — his defensive coordinator was running his starters through rudimentary form-tackling drills.
Wannstedt pulled Paul Rhoads to the side and demanded an explanation.
“You know what? The more I think about this, it’s not gonna be about X’s and O’s,” Rhoads told his boss. “We could have the greatest scheme in the world, but it won’t matter if we don’t find a way to tackle these guys and get them to the ground.”
Pitt went to Morgantown, W.Va., a few days later and did just that, holding West Virginia to only 9 points and 225 yards of offense in a stunning upset that shook the college football world and remains one of the greatest victories in program history.
“It would’ve been easy to sit there and just draw up all these plays on the board and talk all this clinic talk, but Paul knew what was gonna win the game,” Wannstedt said in a telephone interview. “He got right down to the basics and it was the difference in the game.
“That kinda sums up Paul Rhoads.”
Arkansas coach Bret Bielema named Rhoads as his new defensive coordinator earlier this month, tasking him with fixing all that ailed the Razorbacks on that side of the ball in 2016. Rhoads spent last season coaching Arkansas defensive backs and was Iowa State’s head coach from 2009 through 2015.
But before that, Rhoads was an accomplished and highly-respected defensive coordinator at Pitt from 2000 through 2007 and at Auburn in 2008.
Wannstedt — who also has been an NFL head coach with the Chicago Bears and Miami Dolphins — took over the Pitt program in in 2005 and retained Rhoads as his defensive coordinator, even despite the fact that Rhoads also had interviewed for the head coaching job.
“I just had a good feeling about him, and it ended up being one of the better hires that I made,” Wannstedt said.
That 2007 West Virginia upset ended up being Rhoads’ final game at Pitt. Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville hired Rhoads to replace Will Muschamp, who left the Plains to become the defensive coordinator at Texas.
“I’d actually tried to hire Paul a couple of times before that,” Tuberville recalled in a telephone interview. “He didn’t disappoint us.”
Auburn ranked 14th in the nation in scoring defense and 29th in total defense during Rhoads’ one season at Auburn. He left that job to become Iowa State’s head coach.
“Paul is a big fundamental, technique coach,” Tuberville said. “He understands that you can make players better and you can make your defense better by teaching instead of just lining them up out there and running them through gaps.”
Arkansas’ defense certainly needs improvement in 2017. The Razorbacks ranked 75th and 85th in total defense and scoring defense, respectively, last season and allowed an FBS-high 39 rushing touchdowns.
Those failures caused Arkansas coach Bret Bielema to make changes. He replaced former defensive coordinator Robb Smith with Rhoads, who will oversee a schematic shift to a 3-4 base defense next year.
Both Wannstedt and Tuberville predict that Rhoads will make a difference.
“He’s a good guy and a heckuva coach,” Tuberville said. “He’ll do a good job for the Hogs.”