Carolina Rhules - Who Is The Panthers' New Head Coach?
By Simon Carroll
On Tuesday, The Panthers announced that Matt Rhule would be their fifth head coach in franchise history. The former Baylor Bear received a whopping 7 year, $62m deal in the process after attracting interest from other NFL teams. But who is Matt Rhule, and what does he bring to Carolina? Simon Carroll investigates:
If you are unfamiliar with the collegiate code of football, then it’s likely the first time you heard the name Matt Rhule was this time last season, when the New York Jets interviewed him for their vacant head coach position. By all accounts Rhule aced the interview, and only turned down the opportunity when it became apparent he wouldn’t have full control over his coaching staff. Fast forward twelve months and Rhule was in so much demand that the Panthers signed him to a mega deal to secure his services – the biggest contract for a first year coach in NFL history. Only five coaches in the NFL are on more per year. What kind of head coach are Panthers fans expecting? Let’s start from the very beginning…
Learning From The Best
Originally from New York City, Rhule and his family moved to Pennsylvania at a young age. He played linebacker at a modest level at high school, but after receiving no scholarship offers elected to walk on at Penn State. He spent four years in Happy Valley playing for Joe Paterno, one of the greatest College Football head coaches in history. Rhule quickly garnered a reputation for being one of the smartest guys on the football field, recognised three times by his school as a scholar-athlete and by the Big Ten as an academic all-pro in his final season. He completed his degree in Political Science, and in light of no interest from the NFL, embarked upon his coaching career a year later.
Jack Of All Trades
Rhule was a quick riser, prepared to do any job for any team. He naturally began as linebackers coach at Division 3 school Albright, before quickly jumping to Division 1 football as defensive line coach for both Buffalo (1999, 2000) and UCLA (2001).
It was then that things got interesting; in what seemed like a backwards step to Western Carolina the following year, Rhule started to diversify his portfolio. As well as linebacker duties he was also special teams coach. And by the time he left Cullowhee at the end of 2005, he had added titles of associate head coach and running game co-ordinator to his resume. Not only was he mastering the art of coaching different positions – he was coaching both sides of the ball.
His growing reputation, as well as his past roots in Pennsylvania, caught the attention of Al Golden, who had just been named head coach of Temple University. Golden had also studied at Penn State, roughly a decade prior to Rhule was there. Building his staff he hired Rhule as his defensive line coach, but was so impressed with his knowledge and versatility that one year later named him quarterback coach and head of recruiting. Rhule’s star continued to shine and in 2008 he was named offensive co-ordinator. Within two years the offense was transformed and Temple won the Mid-American Conference (MAC) – in only their third year of membership.
A Taste Of The NFL
By 2012 Rhule had so many areas of responsibility at Temple he was getting noticed by big schools, and more interestingly, by the NFL. He left Philadelphia and headed back to a familiar stomping ground – his home town of New York to become assistant offensive line coach of The Giants. He only spent a year in the pro game but impressed once again, creating connections that would give him credibility for opportunities in the future. But with Steve Adazzio moving on to Boston College, the stage was set for Rhule to return to Temple in his first ever role as head coach.
Things didn’t start smoothly. The Owls won just 2 games in Rhule’s debut season. Two years later and he had the program with double-digit wins. One of those wins was a huge upset of his Alma Mater Penn State. Some big openings offered him interviews – notably Missouri – but Rhule stayed for the 2016 season. Temple won another ten games that year, and the sought after head coach could ignore the overtures no longer. Before The Owls faced Wake Forest in The Military Bowl, Rhule was off to Texas.
Having garnered a reputation for rebuilding programs, it was no wonder that Baylor came calling. The program, quite simply, was in turmoil. Art Briles had presided over a program that had thrilled on the field but chaos reigned off it. There were academic irregularities and recruiting violations, but most concerning of all was the sexual misconduct scandal that rocked the university to it’s core. Between the years of 2011 and 2016, numerous allegations of sexual assault by Baylor students had been reported, at least three of which were by Bears football players. Members of the football coaching staff and athletics officials were informed of the allegations and failed to do anything, leading to the firing of Briles and the resignation of the university president and athletic director. Baylor was on it’s knees.
After one unsuccessful year with Jim Grobe at the helm, The Bears turned to Rhule to lead them out of the doldrums. The challenge wasn’t so much to change the culture – the stains from the beginning of the decade had benn cleaned away. It was to establish a culture. The team he inherited were reeling from the scandal. Rhule set about rebuilding their confidence, teaching them how to be good members of their school and community first before being good football players.
The results, predictably, were rough. His first season The Bears finished with a 1-11 record. But Rhule had seen this before. Year one you lay the foundations. The players felt like a team again. Rhule’s recruiting prowess he’d cultivated from the past was paying dividends, targeting the hard-working, under-appreciated recruits from Texas that larger programs overlooked. He built a roster of players willing to buy in, then set about coaching them up into a competitive team. He identified misused talent at other schools, bringing in Jalen Hurd from Tennessee and converting him from Running Back to Wide Receiver. The results were spectacular – Hurd had almost 1,000 yards receiving and was selected in the third round of the NFL Draft by The San Francisco 49ers. In his career, Rhule has been a key reason why guys such as Matt Ioannidis, Tavon Young, Haason Reddick and Dion Dawkins have flown up NFL draft boards.
Rhule’s ability to rebuild a program and coach up talent was evident once again as the Bears went from 1-11 in year one to 7-6 the following year, ending with a bowl win over Vanderbilt. That put him on the radar of The Jets, but 2019 was even more impressive. Baylor shot out to a 10-0 record and were in pole position for a place in the Big 12 title game. Only two very close defeats to Oklahoma denied them a conference championship and a place in the College Football Playoffs, a remarkable turnaround from what Rhule inherited. A Sugar Bowl berth and a final playoff ranking of #7 in the nation was a fitting end to an impressive career in Waco.
The end of the NFL season saw just five NFL teams looking for new head coaches, a relatively modest figure compared to recent years. Nonetheless, Matt Rhule was a hot candidate from the start. He accepted interview requests from the Panthers and Giants, whilst turning down the Browns. From the start it was almost seen as inevitable that Rhule was destined for MetLife Stadium, an ironic twist after coming so close to being hired by The Jets twelve months earlier. After all, he had spent twelve months with the Giants back in 2012, and had made quite the impression on The Mara family and Dave Gettleman, who was a senior pro personnel analyst for Big Blue that season.
The interview with The Panthers was first though. After a weekend away in Mexico with his family, Rhule welcomed owner David Tepper and GM Marty Hurney to his home in Waco where he delivered his pitch. Tepper is the newest team owner in the NFL, taking over The Panthers from Jerry Richardson in 2018. His first foray into professional football was made easier by the stability that previous Head Coach Ron Rivera brought to the organisation, but a disappointing 2019 convinced Tepper that it was time to hire his guy. Back in early December, Tepper intimated that it was more likely that his team would hire a head coach from the NFL ranks, admitting that the learning curve for college head coaches was much steeper. He didn’t completely rule out looking towards the college ranks though:
“I’m open to different possibilities. I do understand the difficulty of the transition though,” he said. “That doesn’t mean I’m closing it off. But you’ve got to understand, anybody who’s been around football understands the difficulty of that transition from the college game to here and different demands here.”
That’s not to say Tepper is over cautious – far from it. He’s made his $12bn fortune as a hedge fund manager, taking high risk, high-reward decisions that made him one of America’s wealthiest people. He’s also down to earth, hailing from Pennsylvania like Rhule did, so it’s no surprise they found themselves in lockstep when it came to the culture of the franchise – frankness, relentless grind and no shortcuts. Instantly impressed with the college coach, he knew he’d found the guy he wanted, and mindful of the interest from the Giants (and Rhule’s reciprocal affection for New York) offered him a contract he could not refuse.
The Giants never managed to interview Rhule. They wanted him to come up to New Jersey rather than visit him at his home, something Rhule was reticent to agree to. They wanted to get him into the building and if they liked what they’d heard, don’t let him out. It’s rumoured that Rhule’s agent rang the Giants and asked them to match the offer from The Panthers. They baulked at offering an unproven commodity so much money, and instead turned to Patriots Special Teams Co-Ordinator Joe Judge, who had impressed them throughout the interview process. The die had been cast – Rhule was the man in Carolina.
To assume Rhule was being disrespectful by asking The Giants to match the offer is being naive. Money is king, and even if they had matched the numbers then he would have wanted to sit down with Gettleman and Mara and make sure the situation was right. Just because he was born in New York and he’d worked there before meant nothing – he had turned down The Jets last year after all. In all his previous stops Rhule had valued people and circumstance as well as money. Rejecting Missouri from the SEC in favour of staying at Temple in 2016 was the perfect case in point. He was delighted with the opportunity Carolina offered, and was familiar with the area when coaching at Western Carolina & recruiting the state, but it would be remiss of him if he didn’t explore every opportunity. In the end the opportunity never came, and Tepper had his man.
The Path For The Panthers
All eyes will be on Bank Of America Stadium as Rhule embarks upon his NFL career. His ability to coach both sides of the ball will be prevalent in the staff he retains and employs, as well as the brand of football he wants to instil in Carolina. Whilst he willingly jumped into the Big 12 world of RPO, spread offenses during his time at Baylor, Rhule typically hails from a more smashmouth style of play. Physicality is at the heart of his mantra, no doubt hailing from his time prowling the second levels of a defense. With Christian McCaffrey in the backfield and Cam Newton potentially returning under center it will be interesting to see if he can refine his most recent offense into one suitable for the next level.
There’s some big decisions to be made regarding his coaching staff. He’ll need to find himself a defensive co-ordinator and potentially an offensive co-ordinator too, if Norv Turner decides to walk. Plenty of position coaches have moved on too, some of which are linking back up with predecessor Ron Rivera in Washington. In one of his final interviews with Baylor beat writers, Rhule acknowledged he would consider taking some of his former Bears staff with him to the NFL:
Then there’s the roster too, which offers plenty of questions for the new head coach. None more so than the status of Cam Newton, who continues to recover from a Lisfranc injury. Whilst Rhule has control over his staff and a say in the playing personnel, the final decision on players rests at the door of Marty Hurney and Tepper. Newton has expressed a desire to remain in Carolina, yet despite similar sentiment from the front office it feels more likely that Newton is traded or released, saving over $19m on the salary cap.
The Panthers have a relatively strong roster, one with high character and plenty of leaders. But it’s aging. Bruce Irvin, Greg Olsen and Gerald McCoy are at the back end of their careers. Some of the star players – Newton included but also Luke Kuechly and Kawann Short, have significant injury histories and their long-term reliability is in question. Are the talented Panthers able to compete immediately or are they on the verge of a full rebuild?
Likely it will be somewhere inbetween. If we know anything about Matt Rhule we know it takes him a few years to set the foundations and get the team playing to a high level. Fans will take to him immediately for his affable nature, humility and openness. They’ll like him even more if he brings a Lombardi trophy to Carolina. He’s been a success everywhere he’s coached, and seems to know how to get the best out of talent. Will it be any different in the NFL? Rhule, for one, is relishing the opportunity:
“I think the football part of it, to me, is trying to go coach and compete at the highest level — it’s really about nothing else.” It’s not about money or fame or anything else — it’s about having a chance to, everyone having the same rules, everyone having the same players, being at the highest level and going and fending for yourself and seeing what you can do. And so, I’m excited about that and I’m excited to get to work and know that, just like (Baylor) took time, like Temple took time, it’ll take some time. But I’m excited to get to Carolina and really excited about the people that are there.”
The NFC South has been warned – they’ve got two seasons. Then Carolina Rhules.
previously the founder of nfl draft uk, simon has been covering college football and the nfl draft since 2009. based in manchester, simon is also co-creator & weekly guest of the collapsing pocket podcast.