Matt Rhule: After rebuilding the Bears and the Owls, can he rebuild the Carolina Panthers?

Baylor head coach Matt Rhule has spent the last decade rebuilding struggling teams. Will he be able to do the same in the NFL with the Carolina Panthers?

When the Baylor Bears 2019 season began, there was excitement and enthusiasm in the air. The team finished with a winning record the year before, and any memories of Art Briles and their one win 2017 season were slowly dissipating. Third-year head coach Matt Rhule was saying all of the right things, but no one could predict the success the Bears were going to have. The team won 11 games, finishing second in the Big 12.

Note: This story was originally published on December 31 with the title, Matt Rhule: After rebuilding the Bears and the Owls, could Rhule be on his way to rebuilding an NFL franchise? On January 7, the Carolina Panthers hired Matt Rhule to be their next head coach.

During their showdown with Oklahoma, there was even talk of a potential College Football Playoff appearance for Baylor. However, they ultimately finished seventh in the nation. The success of the team catapulted Rhule’s name into NFL head coaching conversations. 

Pennsylvania football in his blood

Rhule and his family grew up in New York City before moving to Pennsylvania as a teenager. There, he played linebacker at his local high school before becoming a walk-on at Penn State. 

At Penn State, he played four years under the most victorious coach in NCAA FBS history, Joe Paterno. In his career on the field, he was a three-time Penn State Scholar-Athlete and an Academic All-Big Ten honoree. He helped lead Penn State to 41 of Paterno’s 409 victories, with three bowl game wins and one undefeated season. Controversial or not, Rhule credited a lot of his success to his time with Paterno.

“He taught us how to men, he taught us how to be on time, he taught us how to treat people with respect,” Rhule said. “I love him, and I was very grateful to have played for him.”

From playing in Philly to coaching in Philly

When school was over, Rhule walked away having been ranked in the top 20 during all of his playing years with Penn State. He decided to continue the success he found in Philadelphia by becoming a linebacker coach for Albright College, a private liberal arts school in Pennsylvania.

After one year, he bounced around different universities like Buffalo and UCLA, before returning home to Philly. In 2006, he was brought in as the defensive line coach for the Temple Owls. Over the next six years, Rhule would jump into a more offensive role, starting with quarterbacks coach and ultimately offensive coordinator.

Rhule then left Temple and began his first stint in the NFL. He returned to the city he was born in and joined Tom Coughlin’s New York Giants as assistant offensive line coach. His time in the NFL was short, and the next year he returned to Temple to become the team’s 26th head coach.

In what has now become Rhule’s trademark, he was able to take a struggling Temple team and bring them back into relativity in just three seasons. In his first season as head coach, Temple struggled and won just two games. Despite the record, however, Rhule and his staff assembled the number two recruiting class in the American Athletic Conference.

In his second year, the team showed significant improvement, winning six games. But, it was his third season in 2015 that would come to define his tenure at Temple. He started the year by beating his alma mater Penn State and led the team to a 10-4 record. The Owls landed in the AP Top 25 for the first time since the 1970s. They won the American’s East Division and took part in the conference’s inaugural championship game.

He followed that up with another 10 win season. He took the Owls to their second consecutive championship game, where they won their first conference championship since 1967.

Rebuilding the Bears

After his success with Temple, Rhule was brought in to rebuild the Baylor Bears. The program had been rocked by scandal the year before, leading to head coach Briles being fired. According to reports, the school released findings “reflecting significant concerns about the tone and culture within Baylor’s football program as it relates to accountability for all forms of athlete misconduct.” 

When Rhule took over, he had a depleted and young roster left from the sexual assault scandal that had engulfed the program. Similar to his first year with Temple, the team struggled and finished 1-11. It was the first time in nearly ten years that Baylor did not make a bowl game. It was to be expected considering the top half of the 2016 recruiting class walked before they arrived on campus and the 2017 class consisted of just one commit.

The next year, Rhule put together a roster that surprised many. The team bounced back and finished with a respectable 7-6 record and a bowl game win. When asked about how he had started to rebuild the program, Rhule gave all the credit to his team and gave us some insight into how to put together a winning roster.

“I think the biggest thing is that we just try to find value in guys, even if it’s just their toughness and their dependability. And I think if you have enough guys like that, then I think your team can become a tough, dependable team because teams are not built with stars. Teams are built with, you know, the glue guys, and then the stars, you know, take you over the top.”

Getting to a bowl game in 2018 was impressive enough. Rhule somehow outdid himself in 2019 by leading the Bears to an 11-2 season. He even had Baylor in the College Football Playoff discussion near the end of the year. The team has one more big game left, with a Sugar Bowl matchup against Georgia insight.

Can this success translate to the NFL?

What is it about Rhule that makes him so successful at the college level? When you ask his players and peers, they are quick to tell you that his coaching method is different from most others. He uses his relationship-building tactics and motivational methods to make lasting impacts on his players.

He also demands that every member of his coaching staff be invested and close to the players. He’s so committed to it that he had Baylor’s new player’s lounge built directly across the hall from the staff’s offices. Through its glass walls, Rhule can be seen interacting and socializing with his players.

One of Rhule’s assistant coaches spoke with Sports Illustrated and had this to say about Rhule’s tactics.

“One thing about coach, he wants you to be a part of their lives academically and socially,” says McGuire. “If he knows something before you know something about one of your kids, he feels like you’re not putting enough time in to get to know the guys.”

Rhule considers himself a jack of all trades. If you look at his schemes, you will notice they are not overly complex or unique. His talent is getting the most out of each and every player. He also has the rare ability to say that he has been on both sides of the ball. Starting as a defensive line coach and eventually moving to an offensive coordinator, Rhule has experience with all aspects of the game.

Tony Pauline: The situation has to be perfect for Rhule to leave

Although it would appear that Rhule is ready-made for the NFL, a report from ESPN on Tuesday (December 31) states that he plans to be back at Baylor next season. Is this a negotiating ploy or is Rhule serious about staying? 

For more insight, you can listen to this edition of the PFN Draft Insiders Podcast with Tony Pauline, where he talks about what it would take for Rhule to come to the NFL. Simply, the situation has to be perfect for Rhule to leave Baylor.

The conversation about Rhule begins at the 31:30 mark and continues for several minutes. The podcast player is also at the end of this article for easy access.

“Rhule is going to be one of the hottest – if not the hottest – head coaching candidate when the season is over,” said Pauline. “But Rhule is going to command a lot. He’s going to command a lot because he’s getting a lot at Baylor. He’s getting a huge salary, making a lot of money and is in a very comfortable position at Baylor. So it’s going to to take a big salary, control over assistants, and more to lure him out of Baylor.”

Pauline continued to talk about the other incentives at Baylor and the comparisons we can make to former college head coaches, such as Bob Stoops, who never did make the jump to the NFL.

One of the most likable coaches in football

You would be hard-pressed to find a quote talking negatively about Rhule and his coaching ability. But, if you want to see the impact he has had on his players, that isn’t too hard to find.

Arizona Cardinals linebacker Haason Reddick, a first-round pick in 2017, invited Rhule to draft night and told NBC Sports, “He’s a great guy, a great coach, and he brings out the best in his players, not only from a playing standpoint but also a maturity and growing-up-and-development-into-a-great-man standpoint.”

But, what would it take for Rhule to bring his positive coaching style to the NFL? It is a question that many have asked over the last few weeks. Rhule himself has had to field questions regarding the NFL.

“I don’t think I’m dumb enough or naive enough to say that I would never be an NFL coach,” Rhule said. “I just think for me I have such an unbelievable situation here that it would have to be next to perfect. And even then it would be hard for me to do.”

Rhule wants complete autonomy and control of a franchise. He believes that is the best way to be successful and it is what he has had in Temple and Baylor. Whether or not a team is willing to hand over that much decision making power to Rhule is still in question, but he makes a solid case in its favor.

“I think the reason why we’ve won at Baylor is because everyone from the players to the equipment room to the training room to the strength staff and the football staff to the personnel department to our athletic director, all the way up to the president — everybody has the same philosophy,” he said. “We have a brand here. We say we’re the toughest, hardest working, most competitive team in the country. So everyone understands our brand. Everyone understands what we do, how we do it, and most importantly they understand why we do it.”

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