Many of us dads will soon be opening a Father’s Day gift and we’ll be delighted to receive football jerseys bearing the colors of our favorite National Football League teams.
But Denny Rhule has a leg up on all of us ordinary dads. His closet is already filled with Carolina Panthers’ gear, and for a good reason. Denny’s son, Matt, is the Panthers’ new head coach.
I’ve written previous columns about Matt, the ultimate example of “local boy makes good.” I talked about his background in local football—a “double Lion” who played for State High and Penn State. I chronicled his success as a college coach who brought glory to a lackluster Temple program and honor to a scandal-stung Baylor team. Most recently, I described Matt’s first few COVID-altered months with the Panthers.
But with Father’s Day approaching, I wanted to focus on Denny and explore his secrets for raising successful children. (Matt’s younger sister, Dana, earned her Ph.D. in psychology and serves in a leadership role at New York University.) So I grabbed an hour with the former Little Lion quarterback (Class of 1967) who has served as a missionary, pastor, teacher and coach. And I asked him all kinds of questions such as: How did Denny and his wife, Gloria, nurture their children during 11 challenging years in New York City? What activities helped Denny create close bonds with Matt and Dana? What resources helped inform his approach to fathering?
The responses were classic Denny Rhule—straightforward, humble and wise. So here it is, as a special Father’s Day gift to Happy Valley’s dads, a look at how to raise kids from the sire of an NFL coach.
As Father's Day approaches, you probably think a lot about your kids, but I'm sure you also think about your dad. What can you say about him?
Rhule: He was very loving but firm and disciplined. Of course, my brother Kenny was first and then me and then Kathy and Karen and Jimmy. By the time he got to Jimmy, he had been a father for quite a while and already had grandkids. He started to become a teddy bear. So he really changed over the years. My father worked at the post office as a supervisor, and he taught us a lot about work ethic. He was always doing something for his family to try to provide some more finances. He was a baseball umpire. He cut hair on the side because he was a barber before he went to the post office. He raised strawberries and sold them. So he was a hard worker. And he gave us a strong family structure that remains today. We’re really close and in contact all the time. Of course, he demonstrated a strong faith in the Lord. We always went to church, but I think it was when I was around 14 and the Bethel Church of the Nazarene came to Panorama Village that he nailed down his faith.
You previously told me about the death of your brother, Kenny, when he was traveling home from a Blue Band function. How did your father get through that period, and what did he teach all of you children?
Rhule: It was a very tough time, of course, for him and my mother. Burying your son is a terrible thing to have to do. But I saw a strength in him that was really surprising. It was knowing that God was with him and he was going to get through this. I did not have that kind of faith at that time. I remember him saying to me, “I wish it would have been me instead of Kenny.” He suffered as only a father would, but he poured out his love to the other four of us.
I want to ask about your time in New York since you spent 11 years there before moving back to Happy Valley. I know your finances were tight there, but how did that affect your family life?
Rhule: At first Gloria and I were in Kansas City, working for a church and we both felt a call to urban ministry. We started checking out opportunities and New York City came to us. I wanted my kids to understand that when God calls you, you need to respond. Even though we knew it was going to be difficult, we were excited about it. And so there were times when there was not a lot of money. I remember one time I cut myself and we had to break my daughter's piggybank to get some money, to go buy some Band-Aids. We always laugh about that. The first spring we were there, our financial support was not coming in. So we were praying for a part-time job and I got a part-time job teaching sports at St. David's School in New York. The next year, I started teaching, coaching and working at the church. And we tried to help our kids understand there were certain things we could do and certain things we couldn't. We tried to do a lot of things in the city that were free or reasonable in cost. And I really think that my kids—growing up in the city alongside homeless people and people who were different than they were—it had a good effect on them.
If you were to critique your own work as a dad, in what situations do you think you earned A’s?
Rhule: I don't think I ever earned any A's, but I tried to always spend time with my kids. Not just quality time, but quantity of time, even in New York City while I was coaching and teaching and working at the church. I knew how important it was that I spend time with my wife and my children, to be present and to be able to speak into their lives the way that I should. I wanted to be all-in as a father. And I also wanted to be a fun dad. When we would get home, the kids would always want to play football or baseball. Most of the time I did that, even when I was dog-tired, but there were several times I couldn't and my wife went out and played with them and threw the football. Matt always remembers that time with her, being the kind of mother who would do something she probably had not done much before.
You said you wanted to be a fun dad. What were some of your little jokes or little stunts?
Rhule: I would always tease them and kid them and make crazy faces and do silly things. Just trying to bring some levity to a situation. Just to be available to wrestle with them or have Dana put her makeup on my face and hair.
Do you remember any funny stories?
Rhule: The one I think of right off the top of my head was a junior prom or senior prom. And my daughter was going to attend it. After school she would come home and take a nap. So while she was sleeping, I went into her room and took some makeup. I put it on the end of her nose and it was good she didn't wake up. Then, like a half hour later, I heard this scream and she’s yelling, “Oh no, look at my nose. I have a big pimple and I'm going to the prom!” We still talk about that one.
How long did it take Dana to completely forgive you for that prank?
Rhule: Well, it took a couple hours, but she has a good sense of humor. Eventually she started laughing about it.
What sports or activities served you best in creating bonds with your kids?
Rhule: For Matthew, it was soccer, football and baseball. We played a lot together and I coached him in baseball and soccer, but I never coached him in football. Then for Dana, she was a cheerleader at State College High School, but she was mostly in dance. I didn’t take an active part in dancing with her. You wouldn't want to see that. But I supported her and attended all her performances. And we had a great relationship just being father and daughter.
Matt’s love for football goes back to his early days of backyard play with Denny. (Photo provided by Temple University)
I believe every dad feels inadequate at times. What were some of your significant struggles when you were bringing up the kids?
Rhule: There were times when I was impatient and I think that led me to grow. That led me to try to be more understanding of how they were feeling. When there were times I felt conflicted about being impatient or not understanding I would try to make things right again and let them know that I loved them and apologize if I needed to. We’re going to fail. We're not going to do everything correct, that’s for sure.
What resources did you read in order to grow as a father?
Rhule: Well, one special Bible passage I focused on was Ephesians 6:4 that says, “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger by the way you treat them. Rather, bring them up with the discipline and instruction that comes from the Lord.” And there were a couple books Gloria showed me that really helped me as a father, “How to Really Love Your Child” and “How to Really Love Your Teenager,” both by Ross Campbell.
Did Ross Campbell offer some special perspective on parenting?
Rhule: He talks about children having an emotional tank, like a gas tank. And it's really important for parents to keep that tank filled by spending time with their kids. If you as a father or mother can keep that tank full, they’re going to experience a better kind of childhood and they’ll be more able to respond to others out of love and fullness. For me, that meant spending time with them each day so they didn’t have an empty tank and start acting out.
And then there was a lady, an older mom, who gave some great advice to Gloria on disciplining children. She said to ask yourself, “What is the shape of love for this child today?” Because each day is different and each situation is different, we needed to ask if this was a time to be firm or compassionate and understanding. Gloria studied early childhood education, so she helped me in being an understanding father, knowing how to approach a subject with the kids rather than crashing into a situation and being angry. And she brought a lot of tenderness and love to my family. She’s Italian and she brought the hugging and demonstrations of love to our family. So it’s been really good.
I understand you and Gloria will soon be leaving Waco and moving to Charlotte where you’ll serve as a volunteer with the Panthers. That says a lot about your relationship to Matt, that at the age of 45 he still welcomes your help.
Rhule: During his last year at Temple, he invited me to come there and be with him, and we moved to the Philadelphia area. So I was with him every day, and that was a great time for us as father and son. We really connected. We took a lot of walks together after practice after all the players and other coaches were gone, and he would share with me the things he was thinking about. He would ask me questions once in a while and I would give my input. I think that led to him inviting me to come to Baylor and then from Baylor to North Carolina. I'm really thankful. I really enjoy being in sports ministry, and of course, being with my son has been great.
What will you do with the Panthers?
Rhule: I’ll do the same kind of things I did at Baylor. My mission will be to work with the staff (coaches, administrators, etc.), doing some devotions and having a ministry of presence. And I’ll be available to the players, praying for the team and building relationships.
Do you ever pinch yourself when you think about the fact that your boy is an NFL head coach?
Rhule: Yeah, I do. I remember one time when he was 5 and he told me, “I'm going to go to Penn State and play football and become a coach.” And I said, “That's great” and patted him on his head. But when I first came to Temple and watched him as a head coach it was really surreal. I saw him running this football program and I never realized that the head coach has so many responsibilities outside of just being on the field and doing the X's and O's. And I saw him do it with organization and professionalism, and it really took me back a little bit. You know, he’s your son, and you’re used to him not making his bed and having a dirty room. But now he’s doing this. I knew that he always loved the game, and he worked really, really hard at learning it. So I think the combination of working hard and learning it and loving it and being around some great coaches took him to the place where he’s at. He and his wife, together with his coaching staff, they’ve all played a part in getting to this place.
Obviously you're very proud of Matt. How do you keep your pride in perspective?
Rhule: It’s important to understand that he could be really successful at the NFL level or not. But that doesn’t change who he is as my son or who he is as a father, a husband and a friend to others. So I try to look at the qualities of who he is and what he stands for, his character and integrity. And not just to look at the fact that, wow, he's an NFL coach. The thing that really matters to me is who he is in his heart.
I want to ask about Dana. Obviously, she doesn't get the public acclaim that her older brother does, but how do you let her know you’re proud of her?
Rhule: Well, we spend lots of time talking to her, we tell her we’re proud of her and we take an interest in her work. She is a clinical assistant professor and ParentCorps manager at NYU Langone Health. She’s got her doctorate in psychology (from the University of Washington). And she’s married and has a little boy. So she has a lot of things going on. We just let her know that she's a very precious, precious daughter to us.
It was a happy day when Dana Rhule received her bachelor’s degree from Duke. From left are Denny, Dana, Matt’s wife Julie, Matt and Gloria. (Photo provided by Rhule family)
As we approach Father’s Day, I’m wondering what you would consider as the perfect way to spend the day?
Rhule: I would love to be with Gloria, both of my children and my grandchildren, and to have a big barbecue and just hang out, play games and tell stories about the past. Yeah, and have some good cake or pie with ice cream. Just to have a great time together. That's what I would like to do, but it's not going to happen this year because of geography. But we’ll get a lot closer after we move to North Carolina in mid-July. And this year we’ll probably get together on FaceTime.
If you were to offer a short list of tips to fathers in the State College area, what would you say?
Rhule: I would say embrace the gift of fatherhood. I would say be fun, be gentle, be understanding. And it was always our prayer for Gloria and me to be our children's advocate, that when they grew up they would know that we were for them, no matter what. And I want my children, my grandchildren, my great-grandchildren and my great-great-grandchildren in the Rhule family to have a legacy of faith. If I had to choose one thing for them it would not be health, not even position or finances. It would be faith.