Baylor’s loss is Carolina’s gain,
for State High’s glory
and Penn State’s fame.
We’re just 10 days or so into the new year, and we may have already seen Happy Valley’s biggest sports story of 2020. To me, only a national championship effort by the Penn State football team would eclipse what just happened.
I’m talking, of course, about Matt Rhule’s new job. Yes, one of our very own has made it very big. He’s ascended to one of just 32 thrones in the world of football. He’ll be one of the NFL’s head coaches next fall, serving with the Carolina Panthers.
I’m sure you read the basics of this story when it broke on Tuesday morning. But maybe you didn’t realize that Rhule is a double Lion—he started out as a Little and ended up as a Nittany. He’s only the second Penn State player to ever become a head coach in the National Football League (Mike Munchak commanded the Tennessee Titans from 2011 to 2013), and he’s the first State High alum to ever be hired as an NFL head man.
And so I was intrigued to know how Matt had suddenly shifted from likelier scenarios—stay at Baylor or go with the New York Giants—to join the Panthers. But I didn’t want to bug him with an interview request during this week of high drama and high trauma. He is certainly swamped with saying goodbye to his Baylor players and hello to his Panther players, not to mention assembling his coaching staff and meeting the media in Charlotte.
So that’s why I talked with Matt’s dad, Denny, my good friend and himself a former State High football player. Despite his own busy schedule, Denny, who has been an important presence at his son's last two head coaching stops, took the time to enlighten me on the helter-skelter process that led to his son’s NFL hiring. Here’s how he summarized the unexpected flow of events:
“We were at the Sugar Bowl (Baylor lost to Georgia, 26-14 on New Year’s Day), and then Gloria and I came home (to Waco, Texas) while Matthew, Julie and the kids went to Mexico to go to the beach and have some family time. And he texted and said that the Panthers and the New York Giants wanted to interview him. So that was Sunday. On Monday, the Panthers’ key leaders (team owner David Tepper and general manager Marty Hurney) came to Waco and talked with him.
“Then on Tuesday morning, we wrote to Matthew and said, ‘When is your interview with the Giants because we want to pray.’ And he said, ‘I'm not going.’ And that was surprising because the Giants were our team. Matthew had actually worked with them for a year (as assistant offensive line coach in 2012), and we had spent many years living in New York City.” (Denny served in New York as a pastor and teacher from 1980 until he moved his family back home to State College in 1991).
WHY THE PANTHERS?
“Matt and Julie decided at this particular time in life with young kids and with the offer that Carolina made and with the leadership there, this was the place for them. So he called us and said, ‘We're going to Carolina.’
“I think probably he had a great interview with the leadership from Carolina and after talking and being together, he realized these are the people he wants to work for, and that is the place they want to be. They spent some time there when Matthew was an assistant coach at Western Carolina University, so they know the area.”
No wonder there was a connection between the 44-year-old Rhule and Carolina’s big wigs. The Panthers need a fixing after finishing this season with a 5-11 record and an eight-game losing streak. And Rhule, of course, has become the best-known fixer of any football coach in America. If you plotted his won-loss records from Temple and Baylor on a bar graph, they would display a pair of miraculous achievements. At Temple, he went 2-10 in 2013 and then posted records of 6-6, 10-4 and 10-3. At Baylor—a program that had been nearly destroyed by athletes’ sexual assaults prior to his arrival—Rhule won games while teaching integrity. After a 1-11 start in 2017, his Bears improved to 7-6 in 2018 and then 11-3 this past season with a No. 8 national ranking in several major polls.
Matt, in an interview with David Smoak of ESPN-Central Texas, said this about his opportunity with the Panthers: “I felt like this was the right place, right time. I think you have a new owner who’s committed to doing things the best way and very much a process-oriented person, and so that’s all I really wanted—I wanted to go to a place that’s not going to flail in the wind… that has a process that they believe in. And so, as we talked, I made it clear that my process and their process could be one in the same.”
Denny Rhule (right) confers with his son Matt before a 2018 Baylor game. Photo provided by Baylor Athletics.
EXECUTIVES ARE IMPRESSED
As for the other side of the table, clearly the Panther executives were impressed with our boy from Happy Valley. Tepper, a mega-successful hedge fund manager, said this to a writer with his team’s website, ““I think Matt Rhule can come in here and build an organization for the next 30 or 40 years.” Tepper is a former minority owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers, and he compared Rhule with the Steelers’ legendary coach, Chuck Noll. “He built a program that has lasted through three coaches,” Tepper said of the four-time Super Bowl-champion coach. “That’s what I hope Matt Rhule can do for us here. He’s a program builder.”
Tepper, it should be noted, backed up his words with a pay package that is historically high for a new NFL coach. Multiple sources indicate that Rhule’s contract will pay him $60 million over seven years, and incentives could boost the deal to $70 million.
BEST WISHES FROM OLD FRIENDS
I spoke to several people with current or past connections to State High football, and not surprisingly they offered best wishes to the Little Lions’ starting center in 1991 and 1992.
Chris Weakland, current athletic director and an assistant football coach during Rhule’s high school days: “When he was here (on the football team), he was our backup quarterback and the starting center who anchored the line. We did a lot of choicing on the line, and he was so intelligent that he was able to make all the calls. I’m just happy for him. He is such a God-centered, faith-centered individual who has had an amazing impact on so many people. And in this day and age, I love that. We need more people who care more about the kids they coach than their paycheck and all the other extras.”
Mark Baney, current assistant head football coach and an assistant coach in the early 1990s: “He was the quarterback of the offensive line, and he was so intelligent that we had very few mental breakdowns. We lost in the state semifinals. We have been blessed to produce NFL players, and now we’ve produced an NFL head coach. It’s just amazing. But I’m not surprised. I just kind of felt this was going to happen. Matt was determined to do these things.”
Doug Arnold, head 9th grade football coach who coached with Denny for many years: “I think Matthew has always followed his heart in terms of what he feels God wants him to do. And when you have that as your motivation, I think you can’t help but be successful—although not always in the eyes of the public. People would have thought he was crazy to have that success at Temple and then leave it to go to Baylor under really, really tough conditions. I guess that affirms my belief that if you do God’s will, He’s going to have His hand in it.”
APPRECIATING PATERNO & PAVLECHKO
Having heard so many kind words from folks in State College, I wondered if perhaps I should offer a reciprocal opportunity to Matt. And so I asked his dad, “Who in State College do you think Matt would point to as someone who helped him become successful?” And that led Denny to mention a pair of head coaches: Ron Pavlechko, the Little Lions’ head coach during Matt’s days at State High, and the late Joe Paterno, the legendary head man at Penn State.
“Matthew has mentioned Ron Pavlechko a number of times as someone who was a great mentor for him as his head coach,” Denny said. “And he's said many times that he learned a lot from Joe Paterno, so when he talked to the team, he'd often mention something that Joe said or did.
“When we were going to the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans, of course, Bourbon Street was only about five blocks away from our hotel. And he said, ‘Hey, Jeremy Scott (Jeremy had been an assistant strength coach at Penn State and is now director of athletic performance at Baylor), ‘What would Joe do during the first couple of days at a bowl game?’ And Jeremy said, ‘He’d send somebody home.’ So then Matthew said, ‘That's what we're going to do if you guys don't behave yourselves and do what you're supposed to do.’
“And we didn't have one problem down there even though we had a lot of free time. So I would have to say Joe Paterno definitely has been a key to Matt’s success.”
A Penn State walk-on who lettered in 1997, Matt Rhule is here shown battling Temple, a team he would later coach. Photo provided by Temple University.