As Nebraska week continues, our Huskers contingent has expressed some extremely guarded optimism about the years to come under new head coach Matt Rhule.
Nebraska was uniquely fortunate that such a proven college football program-builder happened to be so readily available when they needed a fresh start, and the reason he was available was because the Carolina Panthers have had no idea what they’re doing for at least three years.
Rhule, of course, jumped at the chance to coach in the NFL for a huge payday, but when he was hired after the 2019 season it was in my opinion the most head-scratching coaching hire in recent NFL history that didn’t involve a former Patriots assistant.
Hiring college head coaches to the same position in the NFL has largely been a losing proposition over the last quarter century or so, with only Bill O’Brien and Jim Harbaugh above .500 among that cohort hired since 2000. History is littered with legendary college coaches that flopped in the NFL, including Nick Saban, Butch Davis, Steve Spurrier and the very worst of the worst in Urban Meyer. Even in this context though, Rhule’s hire was uniquely bizarre.
The most recent to wash out was Kliff Kingsbury with the Arizona Cardinals. He was hired despite his subpar tenure at Texas Tech in an attempt to bring his style of Air Raid offense to the NFL. If you squinted really hard, you can see what the Cardinals were trying to do. A similar thesis justified Chip Kelly, who was hired by the Philadelphia Eagles in hopes of translating his high-flying Oregon offenses in the NFC East. Kelly, to his credit, went 10-6 in each of his first two seasons. This was enough to earn him full GM powers, which he used to immediately trade LeSean McCoy for Kiko Alonso. He wouldn’t survive his third year.
Of course, coaches who won national titles were also coveted. After all, coaching is coaching, is it not? If college football is indeed the NFL’s minor league, championship-winning head coaches should have that skill set translate.
Well...that was proven immutably false by Saban’s tenure with the Miami Dolphins, where among other things Daunte Culpepper tried to physically fight him and Junior Seau laughed at his attempt to intimidate him into doing an offseason drill.
Harbaugh’s turnaround of Stanford was so complete and dramatic that it warranted enormous attention, especially in light of it producing generational QB prospect Andrew Luck. A big reason for his success in San Francisco was a willingness to change schemes to take advantage of the roster’s skill sets, but he remains a massive outlier.
Greg Schiano, Doug Marrone and Bill O’Brien had years of NFL experience mixed in with their college head coaching tenures. Rhule served one season as the New York Giants’ assistant OL coach.
So what was Rhule’s claim to fame that earned him an NFL gig? Simple: he’s proven that he can take over a moribund college football program and, over a few years, build it into a competitor with recruiting and player development, all while being a positive member of the local community.
What does that have to do with being an NFL head coach in the 2020’s? Nothing! But that was his appeal! Don’t take it from me though: Panthers owner David Tepper said this himself!
“He’s a program builder...He’s impressive in player development and sports science – recovery techniques, intensity of training, integration with the strength program. He started talking about how he develops players and how he’s going to pick his staff and we all went from being in interview mode to recruiting mode. Everybody just knew. We switched without a word being said.
I think Matt Rhule can come in here and build an organization for the next 30 or 40 years”
Unfortunately, nobody was able to redshirt during year 1 for Rhule, and the revamped Panthers walk-on program never materialized.
Rhule’s skill set is what college programs are made of. That an NFL team thought that skill set translated to the NFL is...actually easy to explain when you consider the decision was made by an arrogant billionaire who either didn’t do the research to see how this kind of thing had gone before (see “Schiano Men”) or did all that research but concluded that, being a billionaire, he was smarter than all those people who did it before and he knew this would be different. After all, did any of them have brass balls big enough to warrant their own tribute in the form of a sculpture on their desk?
Would he still be at Baylor if the Panthers didn’t come calling? There’s no way of knowing. Several SEC jobs opened during that time frame. This is not to suggest that Nebraska couldn’t compete with other suitors, but it did create an environment where they didn’t really have to. When Rhule builds a competent Big Ten program in Lincoln, Nebraska fans have David Tepper’s big brass balls to thank for the opportunity.