Lions wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown and his brother, Bears wide receiver Equanimeous St. Brown, provide a trash-talking preview of Saturday’s rivalry game between their former schools: Notre Dame and USC.
Matt Rhule was head coach of the Carolina Panthers from 2020 through the fifth game of the 2022 season. The Panthers fired him on Oct. 10, after the team fell to 1-4. Rhule’s record with Carolina was 11-27. Before joining the Panthers, he was head coach at Temple (2013-16) and Baylor (2017-19), leading turnarounds at both programs. This is the second of two columns in which Rhule reflects on his experience as a first-time NFL head coach and the next chapter of his career.
One of my key sayings has always been, “What’s next?”
If you ever talk to any player who has played for me and say, “What’s next?” he’ll know exactly what you mean, because that’s all I would ever say to guys. “Aw, you fell down … You got hurt … You got beat up in the game … You had a bad game … You had a good game … What’s next? No one cares what happened. What’s next?”
Now, I’m asking myself that question. For the time being, the answer is I’m having a chance to go back and say to myself, “Hey, what am I going to do differently the next time? What am I going to do the same the next time?” Those things are important.
I got fired at around 10:35 in the morning. I did the team meeting at 11. I was home by 11:30 and at around 11:35, I got the first call from a search firm about a college job. It’s great to know someone’s interested in hiring you, but you also can’t always jump at the first opportunity.
I want to make sure I take the right job. I want to make sure I go to a place that wants to do it the way that I want to do it. When you hire me, you’re getting a distinct way of doing things. We’re going to try to build a team, and it might take a little while to get to where we want to go, but it’s going to be sustained. It’s going to be built on the right things.
During my time in Carolina, we built the second-best defense in the league (in yards allowed) in just two years. And I’m so proud through that adversity and all of the scrutiny when you listened to those players talk in the locker room after the games, you listened to Christian McCaffrey, you listened to Shaq Thompson, they stood up for what we were doing, and they stood up for me; just as a man.
I don’t care if I’m coaching high school, college or pro. It comes down to relationships. It comes down to player development. It comes down to players trusting you. It comes down to you telling a player the truth and then them trusting you’re doing it for the right reasons.
Wherever I go next, it has to be a team that believes in what I’m doing. And then, I have to do it better than I did last time. I don’t shirk that responsibility. I have to do it better than I did in Carolina. I’m going to do the same things; just do it better.
That could be tomorrow. That could be three years from now. I don’t know when or what it will be. I just know this: I’ll be involved with football.
As you get away from it, you think about all the people you’ve met, all the people that have impacted you, all the players that I had a chance to coach. After that, I think about the advice I’ve been given, the coaches I look up to and respect, like Tom Coughlin, who I worked for when I was an assistant offensive line coach with the Giants; Bill Belichick; Andy Reid, who I’ve always been close with since the time when I was at Temple, and he was nearby with the Eagles, and Pete Carroll.
All those guys went through what I’m going through now at some point in their careers. They were all NFL head coaches who were fired. But you look back and say, “What will I do differently next time, and hope my story is the same as those other coaches and my greatest success happens after this adversity?”
If I could go back, things that maybe I saw were wrong or things I just disagreed with probably along the way I would probably have addressed them quicker. You get into the NFL, you’re working with a GM – and I had two great GMs during my time in Carolina in Scott Fitterer and Marty Hurney, two of the classiest guys you could ever work with – but you’re also working with the personnel staff. You’re working with all these different departments. You’re getting pulled in all these directions. And if you see something wrong on offense, if you see something wrong on special teams, you need to get it fixed immediately. Maybe sometimes I just didn’t get that done quickly enough.
I think you have to just go in there as a head coach and have elite confidence that you know what’s right and not listen to the external voices, not listen to too much banter and just say, “This is the way we’re going to get it done.”
Being a head coach in the NFL or being a head coach in college, it’s a weird setup in that every year you go through all these experiences, and you have all of this knowledge poured into you, both what you’ve done right and what you’ve done wrong. And every year you’re a head coach you actually get better and better and better because you can sit down and say, “I learned this,” or, “That was bad; I’ve got to change that.”
But the way it works most times is after a couple of years they say, “Hey, you know what? We’re going to move on.” So, an organization – a college, a pro team – they’re basically paying you to become a better coach. They’re paying you to go out there and have these experiences. You learn how to manage the clock better, you learn how to work with players better, you learn how to evaluate better, you learn how to put together X’s and O’s better.
You go through this whole process, and I think that’s why so many guys have success their second time. That’s, ultimately, how I want to answer, “What’s next?”
As told to Vic Carucci
Matt Rhule was head coach of the Carolina Panthers from 2020 through the fifth game of the 2022 season. The Panthers fired him on Oct. 10 after the team fell to 1-4. Rhule’s record with Carolina was 11-27. Before joining the Panthers, he was head coach at Temple (2013-16) and Baylor (2017-19), leading turnarounds at both programs. This is the first of two columns in which Rhule reflects on his experience as a first-time NFL head coach and the next chapter of his career.
I love this game. I watch college football until 11 on Saturday night. I watch the NFL all day on Sunday. And no matter where I am or what I’m doing, I just keep thinking about my whistle.
If you ever looked at my desk at anyplace I’ve coached, you’d probably see six whistles. I’d walk on the practice field and whoever the equipment manager was would hand me one. I was supposed to hand it back to them after practice, but I had a way of usually walking off the field with it.
I love the games, I love winning, I love competing, I love all that. But it’s been six weeks since I’ve been at a practice and I just I miss that whistle. I miss seeing something done wrong, blowing the whistle, and saying, “Stop! Let’s do it again!” That’s the teaching part of the job. John Wooden, who had an impact on me at an early age and who I had the pleasure of meeting when I was a defensive line coach at UCLA, always referred to coaching as teaching. I miss teaching the game.
My time with the Panthers obviously didn’t end the way I wanted it to. I went there with high expectations and hopes. When you walk into that building and you come up to the second floor, there are the NFC Championship Game trophies from 2015 and 2004. Then, there’s an empty space for the Vince Lombardi Trophy. I took that very seriously, realizing, “Hey, this region, this town, they deserve to win it all.”
So that thought about doing something historical always weighed very heavy on me, and you’re disappointed when it doesn’t happen. But I also look back very grateful for the opportunity. I mean, not many people have a chance to coach at this level, coaching in a league like this.
I don’t think you ever really know who you are until you go through adversity. Before I joined the Panthers, my coaching career had been: go to Temple, flip it, win coach of the year; go to Baylor, flip it, win coach of the year. Then I come to Carolina and I’m not able to have that ultimate success.
At the previous two places I coached, we started off poorly, but we got better every year and eventually a young nucleus took over and we won championships. When I look at the Panthers, I see cornerback Jaycee Horn, I see receiver DJ Moore. I see Brian Burns, a defensive end who made the Pro Bowl last year. I see Derrick Brown, a defensive tackle who was our first-round draft pick in my first season. There’s a young nucleus of talent and the plan was, “Hey, let’s do what I’ve seen the great NFL franchises do. Let’s do what we did in college. Let’s build young, let’s watch these guys grow up and hopefully be able to overtake the NFC South at some point.”
I’m proud of some of the things we did, and I think in time that it would have worked. I think the plan was right. I just wasn’t able to execute it in the time given. It’s hard to talk about improvement when you don’t see the results.
When you’re fired as a coach, you’re not the only one who goes through adversity. Your family goes through it, too. The day I was fired, I remember getting home and my 9-year-old daughter coming in the door with tears in her eyes, saying, “Daddy got fired,” and the fear of, “What’s this mean?” That’s a moment that will be echoed in my brain forever. That was hard.
But at the same time, I’ve let assistant coaches go, I’ve cut players and they all had to go home, and they had to have that same conversation with their families. So, if anything, I have an empathy now from going through something that I can share with players moving forward, that I can share with assistant coaches moving forward, that I can share with people moving forward.
My success in coaching always came down to relationships, building a culture of working for a common goal. I have this great picture of me hugging Cam Erving after we beat the Saints this year. I love my family; they’re my team right now and they’ll always be my team. But I also miss those relationships. And I think developing them only happens through critical conversations.
The pandemic was really hard on me because I’m a relational coach. To me, the only way you can get young players to grow is not in a huge setting where everyone’s watching them, but one-on-one. You sit down, watch some tape, talk to them, listen to them. Guys have so much going on inside that you have to just shut up as a coach and listen.
With all the remote meetings due to COVID, I wasn’t able to do that in that first year. That’s not an excuse because no one was able to do it. But for me, who I am as a coach, it all comes down to relationships and it all comes down to conversation and communication and helping guys make that jump from good to great. I struggled with the mask on. I struggled talking via Zoom. The end of last year was the first time I really was able to go back and enjoy the part of the game that I love the most. Go to dinner with some guys, go play golf with Christian McCaffrey, go play golf with Shaq Thompson.
But part of being a great coach is adapting to things that happen. I certainly did my best during COVID, as did everyone else. It probably changed the way a lot of people coach. If it did anything for me, though, it brought back for me how much I love that relational part of it. My relationships with the guys this year were so different, so much stronger than they had been in Year 1 and Year 2.
If I could go back, I would try to find different ways to connect, because at the end of the day, great coaches connect with their players and help them play their best football.
The other thing I would do, which I probably did better in college than I did with the Panthers, is trust myself. Dick Vermeil, the Hall of Fame coach, gave me some advice my first year at Temple. We started 0-6 and he called and said, “Hey, Matt, don’t listen to anybody else. Trust yourself. I mean, listen to your assistant coaches, but don’t listen to outside noise, all those outside voices. Do what is right and see it the whole way through.”
If I’m going to be the head coach and going to be held accountable for it, I’m going to do it my way. I’m going to listen to Coach Vermeil. I’m not going to be told, “Hey, play this guy.” I’m not going to be told, “Hey, this play’s right, trust me.”
Obviously, anytime you’re rebuilding something, it’s going to take time. But you have to believe the core fundamentals, the core philosophy, the core ways that we do things are right, and don’t ever waver from them. Don’t let this shake your confidence.
In fact, be emboldened.
As told to Vic Carucci