The walk-on fever dream: Matt Rhule’s dramatic ascent to the NFL

The crossroads of Matt Rhule’s coaching career arrived at a stop sign.

A few days before Christmas in 2005, Rhule decided to show up unannounced at the Temple football offices. He and his wife, Julie, had packed up their black Nissan Maxima in South Carolina and headed back to their native Pennsylvania for Christmas. They had their 1-year-old son, Bryant, in his car seat and three pets in tow.

It wasn’t an ideal timing for a three-hour detour to make a cold call to inquire about a job. Especially considering that Rhule, an assistant coach at Western Carolina, had never even met new Temple coach Al Golden.

Julie Rhule pulled off Route 1 onto Broad Street when Matt Rhule realized she’d missed a stop sign. He screamed, “Stop!” Julie jacked on the brakes, with powdered sugar from Christmas cookies cascading around the car like confetti.

Rhule dusted off, walked into the Temple football office and waited for Golden, who ended up hiring him a few months later. “Here’s this guy,” Golden told me recently with a laugh, “sitting outside my office.”

Baylor head coach Matt Rhule watches from the sideline in an NCAA college football game against Texas Saturday, Nov. 23, 2019, in Waco, Texas. (AP Photo/Richard W. Rodriguez)
Baylor head coach Matt Rhule watches from the sideline in an NCAA college football game against Texas Saturday, Nov. 23, 2019, in Waco, Texas. (AP Photo/Richard W. Rodriguez)

Matt Rhule will be sitting in a new office soon, as he’s now the head coach of the Carolina Panthers. Rhule clicked with new team owner David Tepper, and saw a canvass in Charlotte that would allow him to help build and grow the organization.

“What’s going to make him successful is his ability to lead,” Temple athletic director Pat Kraft told Yahoo Sports on Tuesday. “He’s a great leader and manager of an organization. He knows how to communicate as well as anyone I’ve been around.”

Rhule is a former Penn State walk-on who has crafted the quintessential football bootstrap story. He met his wife, Julie, while summering as a fry cook at Chili’s. (She was working as a waitress.) His coaching career began at Albright College in Reading, Pennsylvania, and spanned every position from quarterbacks to offensive line to defensive line.

Even the good gigs weren’t glamorous, as his UCLA graduate assistant job found them living in Beverly Hills with a zip code of 90212. In other words, two digits and one world away from the glamour of the hit television show.

Rhule’s path has been trademarked by that same bold spirit that prompted him to show up unannounced at Temple that afternoon. Along the way, he has elicited an unending belief in those he has coached and worked with, an everyman charm complemented by a country club ambition. (Considering that ESPN’s Adam Schefter is reporting Rhule has agreed to a seven-year deal worth $60 million that could climb to $70 million with incentives, it’s likely that they’ll be able to find a decent zip code in Charlotte.)

Just like that afternoon when he charmed Golden into eventually hiring him and giving him a lavish raise to $60,000 per year, Rhule’s gift along the way has been connection. He lays out a clear vision to the players and staff of the traits – toughness, smart football and schemes that adapt to personnel – and then motivates accordingly.

During Rhule’s stint at Temple, no player epitomized his time there more than Tyler Matakevich, an undersized linebacker who Rhule, as a Temple assistant, recruited from Milford Academy.

Matakevich emerged as one of the best players in school history, as he registered more than 100 tackles all four seasons and won the Nagurski and Bednarik awards for the best defensive player in college football as a senior. He saw Rhule start his coaching career at 2-10 in 2013, including losses to Fordham and Idaho. Temple went 10-4 in Matakevich’s senior season in 2015 and won the AAC title a year later.

“He makes you really believe in him and the coaches around him,” Matakevich said by phone on Tuesday. “He makes you believe in yourself. He’s able to get all the guys playing for him and each other.”

A similar narrative unfolded at Baylor, which went 1-11 in Rhule’s first season in 2017 and improved to 11-3 this season.

Will it translate to the NFL? Matakevich has emerged as a reliable linebacker and specials teams ace for the Pittsburgh Steelers the past four seasons. Matakevich said that Rhule’s core traits will carry over.

“The people that know him have so much respect for him and know he’s ready for this opportunity,” Matakevich said. “I can’t wait for the rest of the world to see that.”

Part of Rhule’s allure to the NFL has been his ability to produce NFL players. Ten Temple players that Rhule brought in or developed have been chosen in the last four NFL drafts, including first-round pick Haason Reddick, Buffalo left tackle Dion Dawkins and Redskins defensive lineman Matthew Ioannidis.

One veteran NFL executive said that franchises appreciated the players who came through Rhule’s time at Temple. He said the “Temple Tough” mantra carried over with Temple players in the league. He expects Rhule to set a similar tone in Carolina.

“They’re tough, they’re physical and they know how to work,” the executive said of Rhule’s former players. “They have a little bit of an edge to them. I think the term ‘Temple Tough’ is real. I felt that when he was there. It was all real. They’re going to play hard, physical and fast.”

That edge is balanced with a personal touch, said another NFL source familiar with Rhule. The ability to connect with the younger generation of NFL players made Rhule attractive.

“These college coaches know how to reach millennials, and that’s what the NFL is filled with now,” said the NFL source. “Matt has no ego, and he’s going to go in there and set the standard and build the program. It’s going to be his way, but guys are going to buy in because of how he is with people.”

That touch with people allowed Matt Rhule to emerge from that career crossroads in Philadelphia to a coveted chance at the low rungs of Division I. Those he met along the way are betting that he continues blowing through stop signs and continuing his trajectory in the NFL.

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