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