State College’s Matt Rhule Embraces New Role as NFL Head Coach Despite Pandemic Complications
Imagine for the moment that you are Matt Rhule. Having led miraculous restorations of the football programs at Temple and Baylor, you captured a prestigious prize in January—one of 32 head coaching jobs in the National Football League.
But now you’re trying to run the Carolina Panthers from your living room after getting sucker-punched by the coronavirus lockdown. It’s late April, you’ve never even met perhaps 80% of your returning players and the college draft is upon you. You’re the new kid on the NFL block and you’re feeling anxious and frustrated. Actually, you’re freaking out.
But of course, you’re not really Matt Rhule, and you just proved it by starting to freak out. The real Rhule doesn’t freak. He thrives on adversity. Yes, he’s the guy who turns lemons into lemonade and then asks for another shipment of citrus to be dumped on his lawn.
The real Matt Rhule is the pride of Happy Valley, the only State High alum to ever earn an NFL head coaching position and one of two former Nittany Lions to do so. (Mike Munchak ran the Tennessee Titans from 2011 to 2013.) And if you don’t think Matt Rhule gets going when the going gets tough, just consider his collegiate coaching history.
First Rhule guided the perennially mediocre Temple Owls to a pair of 10-win seasons in 2015 and 2016 (including a 27-10 thrashing of Penn State in ’15). Such a remarkable performance could have yielded a plum of a job, but our Happy Valley boy felt a calling to restore the dignity of the football program at Baylor. It didn’t seem right to a Christian like Matt that this Baptist school had experienced a sexual assault scandal. He chose to move his family to Waco, Texas where he not only did things right but he also did things well. After a 1-11 mark in 2017, the Bears went 7-6 in 2018 and 11-3 last year.
So, Matt Rhule, talk to me. I know you’re typically happy to accept difficult assignments. How does it feel to be a rookie NFL coach right now, when you can’t even assemble your players without the Internet?
“Well,” says the former Little/Nittany Lion, “it’s obviously less than ideal, not being around the players. As a first-year coach, you want them to learn the systems and how we do things. And we’re not able to do that because everything we’re doing is virtual.”
That’s the objective truth. But Matt, you’re famous for finding the silver lining in any cloud. What are the positives that come from this crazy work environment?
SILVER LINING IN COVID CLOUD
“I think the opportunity is twofold,” says Rhule. “Number one, it’s an opportunity to make sure everyone knows that you understand what’s important, people taking care of themselves and their families. There’s a lot of strain being put on people’s lives because of everything that’s happening. We all want to be somewhere where we’re valued and taken care of, and I think that’s my job.
“Then secondly, I would say the analogy I use is that over half of the Fortune 500 companies—the most successful companies in the world—were built in depression and recession times. The reason is that when you build something to survive hard times, it has to be built correctly. You have to build on a strong foundation. When things are going great, you can just build on a fad and make money. But things that are built in tough times are built the correct way and they’re built to last.
“So this is a challenge to myself as a coach, to my coaching staff and our players. If we can find a way to be special and excel right now when things are really, really hard, everything will be that much better when this is over and things are good.”
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Perhaps no one outside his family knows Matt Rhule as well as Jeff Nixon. And if that name sounds familiar, it should. Jeff is another “Double Lion,” having played with Rhule at Memorial Field and Beaver Stadium. The two became best friends in 10th grade, and they’ve remained close throughout their adult lives. Jeff coached running backs at Temple in 2006 when Matt was still an assistant for the Owls, then he served as Rhule’s co-offensive coordinator at Baylor, and now he is the running back coach for the Panthers.
Nixon has no worries about whether Rhule and his staff can adapt to cyber communications.
“We're going to turn it into a positive,” says the former assistant coach with the Eagles, Dolphins and 49ers. “I know that for sure. Coach is the kind of guy who rolls with the punches. He makes great adjustments to whatever we’re going through. You know, one of his big sayings is, ‘What’s next?’ So whatever happens next in the world, we’ll be better for it.”
According to his longtime buddy, Rhule is a top-notch communicator.
“We had our first meetings yesterday (Monday) with the team,” Nixon told me in a phone interview, “and we had over 100 people online. Coach did an exceptional job of explaining the vision of the program—where we are and where we want to end up. He's able to communicate his plan, and the players and coaches are able to execute it because everyone understands where he's coming from.
“I always knew Matt would be a great head coach because he's very intelligent and he’s one of the best overall speakers I've ever heard. You know he's the son of a preacher, so he does a great job of getting in front of people and communicating his vision.”
Panthers running backs coach Jeff Nixon, a fellow State High and Penn State alum, has coached alongside his friend Matt Rhule since 2006. Image courtesy of Carolina Panthers
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No doubt, a large portion of Matt’s speaking skills derive from his dad, Denny, a friend of mine who grew up near State College and played quarterback for State High in 1965 and 1966. But it seems the younger Rhule also gained many other strengths from his father and his mother, Gloria. Like his legendary determination.
“When you go to Penn State and you walk on,” says Rhule, “you do all that work not knowing if you’re ever going to play. I think that’s where you show the mental toughness it takes to get something done. And a lot of that for me comes from my mother and my father and my grandparents.
“I remember when we were living in New York City, and my dad was teaching at a Christian school, working at a church and working as a landscaper. My mom was teaching, and they were doing all of this to make ends meet so they could serve in the ministry in New York. They were helping people while struggling to get by financially, and I got a chance to see the reality of that.”
And then there’s the way that Denny lives out his faith in God. “One thing I learned from my dad was when people see the way you live and most importantly, when they recognize the peace you have in chaotic situations, people gravitate toward that. My dad was never a guy who wore his faith on his sleeve. But he lived his life with the peace and joy that having a relationship with the Lord brings. I’ve always tried to take that approach.”
NFL DRAFT, FAMILY STYLE
With the NFL draft set for the next few days, you’re probably wondering how Rhule feels about the digital approach that will be used. Being the family man that he is, Matt says he’s looking forward to an unprecedented chance to do the draft in his own home.
“We’ll see how the actual draft goes,” he says, “but as I said to my wife (Julie) and son (Bryant), ‘This will probably be the only time you guys are ever actually in the war room, sitting with me as we draft.’ I always try to find the positive in these things and that’s one of them, a unique experience with my family.”
Perhaps the Rhules’ two daughters, Vivienne and Laura, will also share in their Dad’s draft, but it’s Bryant who will be locked in.
“My son’s 15,” Matt says, “and I think he probably knows every player in the draft. He’s sat through most draft meetings with me. I think he probably could make the picks for us, if need be.”
So tell me, Matt, with the pressure that comes from last season (the Panthers lost their last eight games and released star quarterback Cam Newton) and the fact that you’re a rookie head coach, what would constitute a successful draft for Carolina?
“If we make disciplined decisions to get as many of the best players as possible who have talent, a love for the game and are good guys to work with,” he says. “You can’t let emotion or public perception get in the way.”
And what would constitute a successful season for the Panthers?
“Number one, if we’re just able to play our games because that would mean we’ve made some steps in stopping COVID-19, this awful pandemic. And then I expect this to be a good team. It’s just keeping your eyes forward and focusing on the process, taking the correct steps to achieve the goal you want to achieve.”