Welcome back, Coach.
Matt Rhule, the fire-breathing son of a preacher and a former Western Carolina assistant, is the new Carolina Panthers head coach.
This should be fun to watch.
Rhule was hired this morning for a huge amount of money and for a long-term agreement that could be worth up to $70 million over seven years. That’s enough money to buy Cullowhee.
But is it enough time to change the culture of the Panthers and rebuild an unstable franchise with a sordid history? We’re about to find out.
David Tepper, the new owner, is the richest man in the NFL. He could’ve had any available coach he wanted, and he went after the man at Baylor who dragged a college program from the ashes of scandal and made it a national power.
In two years.
That’s his resume, as far as anyone knows. But a closer look at Rhule reveals an enigmatic coach who isn’t afraid to fail, isn’t afraid to change and isn’t afraid to drop everything and live in the Smoky Mountains for four years.
He played for Joe Paterno and coached alongside Geoff Collins, Al Golden and Ryan Day.
But it was the four years under Kent Briggs at Western where Rhule learned to be a head coach. Hired in 2002 to coach linebackers in Cullowhee, he would eventually become Briggs’ “army-knife,” coaching not just linebackers but also special teams and offensive line, becoming the run-game coordinator and then assistant head coach.
Briggs, who left Western in 2007, would later coach Cherokee High School to the 2017 state championship.
By then, Rhule had taken on what many believed was the worst job in college football at Temple and then what some believed to be the worst situation in college football history at Baylor.
The four years on the banks of the Tucksegee had prepared him for both.
“Some guys just get it,” Briggs said this afternoon. “I knew from the minute I met him I wanted him on my staff. I hired him to coach linebackers, but by the time he left he was my assistant head coach and he was coaching offense.”
Rhule is a rare breed in that sense, a linebacker at Penn State who ended up coaching offense, a smashmouth style that somehow includes modern spreads and analytics, sports science and old-school formations with double tight ends and fullbacks.
He coaches toughness and no-excuses football. And he’s been known to practice with his players. Will he do that as an NFL coach? Will that rah-rah mentality work in the NFL?
We’ll see. He did coach one year in the NFL as an offensive line coach for the Giants.
“A coach is a coach,” Briggs said. “And he’s a guy who understands you do what you have to do. He knows how to inspire, how to motivate players through communication and trust. He’ll do fine coaching pro players just like he’s done in college.”
Rhule grew up in New York City before his family moved to Pennsylvania. He would walk on at Penn State then begin his coaching career as a grad assistant at Albright College where we worked under defensive coordinator Collins, now at Georgia Tech. It was Collins, a Western grad, who suggested Briggs hire Rhule.
“In five minutes, I knew I wanted him in my program,” Briggs said. “Some guys interview well, and I immediately knew Matt was going to be special.”
Now he’s tasked with rebuilding the Carolina Panthers, a far cry from college and a long way from Waco, Texas.
But he’s just down the road from Western where he learned to coach, a part of a small purple pipeline of coaches who end up in the darndest places. Rhule has found himself back in the National Football League with more money than he’s ever seen in his life.
The road from Cullowhee to Charlotte is long and winding. Rhule knows that better than anyone. And he knows a lot of people are watching and doubting whether a college coach can succeed in the professional game.
His old head coach at Western doesn’t doubt it for a second.
“He’ll get it done,” Briggs said.
We’re about to find out. Matt Rhule, a Catamount from way back, is coming down the mountain.