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
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