Carolina Panthers: Why Matt Rhule can successfully make the NFL transition

Head coach Matt Rhule with the Baylor Bears (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Head coach Matt Rhule with the Baylor Bears (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images) /

On Tuesday morning the Carolina Panthers agreed to terms with head coach Matt Rhule. He will become the fifth coach in franchise history.

A month after the Carolina Panthers fired long-time head coach Ron Rivera, the team has officially found the franchise’s next head man. On Tuesday morning, the Panthers and Matt Rhule agreed to a seven-year, $60 million deal to make him the team’s next head coach. Rhule spent the past three seasons at Baylor University, overseeing an 11-3 team this year, and having overcome one of the furthest-reaching scandals in college football history.

Despite his success at the collegiate level, the majority of coaches making the transition from college to the NFL fail. However, the way Rhule has achieved that success suggests that he is plenty capable of making the move. The 44-year-old is Carolina’s fifth head coach in team history and will inherit one of the league’s most disappointing–albeit talented–teams from 2019.

In the span of seven years, Rhule turned two sub-.200 programs into 10-win teams and legitimate championship contenders.

After serving as an assistant with the New York Giants in 2012, Rhule was hired by Temple University as their head coach prior to the 2013 season. During his first year with the Owls, Rhule’s team went 2-10 in its first season in a new conference, a year after having one of the worst offenses in the country. In his second year, Temple went 6-6, in large part thanks to the fourth-best defense in college football. Then during the 2015 and 2016 seasons, Rhule’s Owls posted back-to-back 10-win seasons, appearing in two conference championships, and winning it in 2016. In his four years at the school, Rhule transformed Temple from a perennial loser to a conference champion capable of defeating Power Five teams. His success there led Baylor to hire him to resurrect a program overwhelmed by scandal.

Once at Baylor in 2017, Rhule was tasked with revamping a program under heavy NCAA investigation into one of the biggest scandals in collegiate sports history. On top of the scrutiny the school was in the midst of, Rhule took over a team that had won just three Power Five games the year before, and was suffering significant recruiting losses. As a result, his first season in Waco was an ugly one, going 1-11 with a freshman quarterback and an extremely young lineup. Like at Temple, though, it was his second year that begin to reap success. Baylor went 7-6 in 2018, having been much improved on either side of the ball, and winning their bowl game.

This most recent season–his third with the Bears–Rhule led Baylor to an 11-1 start, a conference championship, and was an overtime loss to Oklahoma from being in the College Football Playoff. For the second time in seven years, Rhule was in command of a complete and total rebuild that set both programs up for success for years to come. Because of that, he was a top candidate for a NFL head-coaching job this offseason.

Much of his success in rebuilding programs, has come through player development–not high-profile recruiting.

Recent coaches to make the transition from college to the NFL include Nick Saban, Chip Kelly, and Kliff Kingsbury. In the past, that list has included the likes of Butch Davis, John McKay, and even Steve Spurrier. With the exception of Kingsbury (who is entering his second year with Arizona), all of those coaches were either fired or resigned within a few years of their NFL hiring. Also, they all have something in common: each was a coach at a powerhouse program. Saban at LSU, Spurrier at Florida, McKay at USC, and so on. Because they were employed by big-time football schools, elite talent came to play for them, and their job was less about player development and more about bringing in A-list recruits.

FORT WORTH, TEXAS – NOVEMBER 09: Head coach Matt Rhule of the Baylor Bears leads the Bears against the TCU Horned Frogs in the first quarter at Amon G. Carter Stadium on November 09, 2019 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
FORT WORTH, TEXAS – NOVEMBER 09: Head coach Matt Rhule of the Baylor Bears leads the Bears against the TCU Horned Frogs in the first quarter at Amon G. Carter Stadium on November 09, 2019 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images) /

Rhule on the other hand didn’t coach at a so-called “powerhouse” at either of his two stops, nor did he ever have a top recruiting class. In fact, during his seven years at Temple and Baylor, he had just one class that ranked inside 247 Sports’ top 30. During Baylor’s surprisingly fantastic 2019 season, most of the team’s key contributors were starters as freshmen or sophomores on the one-win team in 2017. In other words, the same core group that won just one game two years ago won 11 and became a national contender in 2019. If that doesn’t speak to Rhule’s player development skills, then nothing will. Because he’s been so good at growing and developing players, his success has a much better chance to continue at the professional level.

Other factors that make him a legitimate NFL coach include his status as a “player’s coach,” and his all-around experience as a coach. In terms of him being a player’s coach, he was respected and well-liked by players at both collegiate stops, as well as he also has a Master’s Degree in psychology. He knows people and can connect with people, and that’s something that sets him up for success at any level of competition, as well as in life in general. As far as having all-around coaching experience, Rhule has spent time working in each facet of the game, whether it be offense, defense, or special teams. He isn’t necessarily an offensive or defensive “guru,” but he does have knowledge of each of those, which undoubtedly makes him a better coach.

While Rhule has been a master of turnarounds over the past seven seasons, his job with the Panthers could be much easier.

When Rhule was hired at Temple and Baylor, he was hired without having very talented rosters. His ability to develop those players enabled his teams to challenge for championships, thus leading to rapid success. When the Panthers hired him on Tuesday, it’s a fair assumption to say that they are already in a much better place talent-wise than either of Rhule’s two former programs. With that being said, he is taking over a roster that perhaps needs more of a reboot than a complete rebuild.

Carolina has All-Pros on both sides of the ball, and for the first time since the early days of Steve Smith, the offensive skill positions are young and truly dynamic. Not to mention that Cam Newton is a top-10 quarterback when healthy. On defense, Luke Kuechly is a perennial Pro Bowler, while Shaq Thompson is starting to come into his own, and Brian Burns showed a lot to like as a rookie. On top of that, the team has several pending free agents that can be difference makers for years to come. Because of all the talent on the roster, Rhule’s newest turnaround job could be his easiest yet. The Panthers are plenty talented enough to challenge for a playoff spot in 2020, as it’s just a matter of getting that out of them. If anyone can get the best out of his players, Matt Rhule has proved over the past seven years that he’s the man for the job.