The Playing and Coaching Legacy of New Carolina Panthers Head Coach Matt Rhule
The future is now for the Carolina Panthers as they have made their decision, appointing successful college coach Matt Rhule to be their new Head Coach and the 5th Head Coach in Carolina Panthers history. He was one of the most highly touted Head Coach prospects and David Tepper made him an offer he couldn’t refuse, signing him to a 7 year 62 million dollar contract with incentives that can make the value rise to 70 million. But several Panther fans do not know who exactly Rhule is or what he will bring to the Panthers. Read on to learn more about the playing and coaching legacy of new Carolina Panthers Head Coach Matt Rhule.
High School and College Playing Career
Matt Rhule is originally from New York, however in 1991 his parents opted to move back to their home town of State College, Pennsylvania and he began playing football for the State College High Little Lions as a Center, where he became known for his toughness and “lunch pail” mentality. Following his graduation from State College High, he headed to Penn State University where he would be a walk-on player playing a position different from his high school career.
Former Nittany Lions teammate Brandon Noble, an all-conference defensive lineman, relayed fond memories of Rhule’s role on the squad during a recent conversation with NJ.com’s Matt Lombardo while New York were pursuing Matt Rhule to be their next Head Coach:
“Those were the days when your walk-ons were cannon fodder. To go out on the practice field Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, getting tossed around the field, and then not play on Saturday, that’s not easy. I respect the hell out of the fact that he was able to try to make himself a linebacker at Penn State, because that’s not an easy thing to do. The thing I remember about Matt is him showing up to work every day, grinding it out, being a team guy. That’s how he got to be as good as he is at what he’s doing right now. You have to have that type of personality.”
Back in those days, walk-ons were considered to be “Cannon-fodder” the longest of long shots to make a roster, but again Rhule’s toughness and work ethic got him noticed by then-Head Coach Joe Paterno and he made the final roster of the Penn State Nittany Lions despite the odds of being a walk-on playing an unfamiliar position. Matt Rhule started on the scout team, and played all four years under Joe Paterno becoming a three-time Penn State Scholar-Athlete and an Academic All-Big Ten honoree in 1997. While playing for Penn State, he also earned his Bachelor of Arts Degree in Political Science. Later during his coaching career, Rhule earned his Master Degree in Educational Psychology from the University of Buffalo in 2003.
From Linebacker to Linebackers Coach
In spite of the acclaim and accolades he earned as a Linebacker for the Nittany Lions, just like Hall of Fame Finalist and renowned Carolina Panthers Linebacker Sam Mills Sr., he was deemed to be too small and undersized for the NFL. Unlike Mills, who eventually made it to the NFL and would earn accolades as part of the New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers, his playing career would end just shy of the NFL level. But even in defeat, his toughness, attention to detail, and leadership qualities would pave a new path for the then 21 year old graduate. First he would serve as a volunteer assistant coach at Penn State, demonstrating drills and techniques on a linebacker instructional video for defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky. He actually had a hand in Penn State gaining the nickname “Linebacker U” as a result of their sustained high performance at the Linebacker position.
From there, his first real coaching break would come. A former teammate of his at Penn State, EJ Sandusky, had been named Head Coach for the Albright Lions one year prior. Asked to re-assemble his coaching staff, he remembered Matt Rhule and his toughness and leadership, and hired Rhule to what would be the first coaching job of a 22 year road that finally culminated in a Head Coach position this past Tuesday. Sandusky named Rhule as Albright University’s Linebackers Coach. The position lasted for just one season and Albright would regress drastically from a 9-1 record the year prior to a 4-6 record, but his coaching career would continue elsewhere.
1999-2001: Turmoil, Paying Dues, and Earning Respect
In 1999, the University of Buffalo joined the Mid-American Conference in Division I-A football. Their returning Head Coach Craig Cirbus promoted Matt Rhule, naming him the Defensive Line coach. It’s very possible this is where his hard-nosed approach to defense was born, as the Bulls would score only 307 points compared to allowing a whopping 878 points, leading to an atrocious 2-20 record in his tenure there. Despite this, he did his job well as the Bulls’ sack total jumped from 12 in 1999 to 27 in 2000, gaining him some prestige.
He was hired in 2001 to be the Defensive Line Coach for the UCLA Bruins under Head Coach Bob Toledo. It was at this stop, 4 years into his coaching career, that he finally got his first taste of helping coach a winning team, although it was not without some controversy. The 2001 Bruins began the season on a tear, jumping out to a perfect 6-0 record before losing 4 straight to Stanford, Washington State, Oregon, and USC, falling out of position for a playoff berth. They rebounded slightly, winning their season finale against Arizona State to finish 7-4 and Bowl-game eligible.
However the Bruins, fearing they would lose several hundred thousand dollars to play in a lower-tiered bowl, opted to forego the Bowl game. Again Rhule did his job well, as the Bruins led the Pac-10 in total defense, allowing 320.6 yards of total offense per game, and a passing efficiency defense 102.1 rating. Based off of this winning season as well as the performance of the defense, he would receive yet another promotion, as well as a coaching position change with a new team.
2002-2005: Coaching Evolution in West Carolina
In 2002, Matt Rhule was named the Special Teams and Linebackers Coach for the Western Carolina Catamounts under Head Coach Kent Briggs. It is here in Western Carolina that Rhule began his evolution from solid defensive guru to well-rounded coach, gaining the knowledge and versatility that has served him well and made him such a unique prospect.
During his four seasons coaching with Western Carolina, Rhule learned and coached a plethora of positions, including Linebackers and Offensive line while also leading both the rushing offense and special teams, eventually being named assistant head coach. He also became the interim Head Coach when Kent Briggs began his battle with cancer.
Rhule helped command a Catamount defense that became one of the nation’s most renowned defenses. The 2004 defense ranked 12th in the NCAA Division I Football Championship Subdivision in total defense, and inside the NCAA’s top 50 in nine categories. His linebackers set the tone, taking the top five spots in total tackles.
In addition to the Catamounts’ defensive unit dominating under him, they also found success with Rhule coordinating the special teams in 2004. Punter Tim Mayse led the Southern Conference in punting while the punt coverage unit limited their opponents to a meager 6.61 yard per return average. Meanwhile, Francis Brown ranked third in the conference in punt returns with a 9.4-yard per return average that also included an 83-yard punt return touchdown against Gardner-Webb.
In 2005, the Catamounts’ defense led the nation in pass defense, limiting passing offenses to an average of 132.33 passing yards per game. Western Carolina also ranked fifth in pass efficiency defense. On special teams, with return-man Mike Malone ranking second nationally in kick return yardage, the Catamounts led the Southern Conference as well as the NCAA in kickoff returns, averaging 27.44 yards per return. As a result of his sustained excellence and evolution with Western Carolina, Matt Rhule would be hired on to a more prominent college in 2006.