CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- At some point Monday afternoon, between helping Matt Rhule and his wife unload luggage from the car after their vacation to Mexico and eating 20 meatballs during their conversation, Carolina Panthers general manager Marty Hurney became convinced the Baylor coach was “the guy."
Owner David Tepper and communications director Steven Drummond already had that feeling, but getting the skeptical Hurney on board was key.
“Once Marty moved over that way, we were just like, ‘We’re there,’" Tepper said.
So Carolina canceled interviews with New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels (Tuesday), Carolina interim coach Perry Fewell (Wednesday) and Minnesota offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski (Thursday) to negotiate a deal.
Knowing Rhule was scheduled to meet Tuesday with the New York Giants in his home state increased the sense of urgency to get a deal done fast.
On Tuesday morning, Rhule agreed to a seven-year contract worth up to $70 million with incentives.
On Wednesday, the 44-year-old was introduced as the Panthers’ fifth head coach.
“There’s those certain interviews that when you leave, you just get that feeling that, ‘Hey, this is the guy. So let’s not go any further and try to get this done,’" Hurney said. “It was just a great feeling."
Rhule felt the same way after the interview that played out more like a conversation at his home in Waco, Texas. So did his wife, Julie.
“Julie’s kinda in the room, out of the room, she’s in the next room ... and my a-ha moment was when they left and she was like, ‘What are you doing? You need to go work for them. That’s you,’" Rhule said.
So why was Rhule a good fit for Carolina and how will he turn around a team that has gone 12-20 in Tepper’s first two seasons? Some things that were learned from his introductory news conference:
Hurney is in long-term plans: There was speculation that Hurney might join Ron Rivera in Washington. Rivera was fired as coach with four games left in Carolina’s season, but he was quickly hired by the Redskins. He and Hurney had what both believed was a good partnership. But Tepper made Hurney an integral part of the search, and after listening to Hurney talk about plans to work with Rhule in finding an assistant general manager, that speculation should end. That Rhule will have an experienced general manager, one who helped the Panthers to Super Bowls after the 2003 and 2015 seasons, will be a huge help for a coach with only one year of experience in the NFL as an offensive line assistant with the Giants in 2012. “We’re going to do it together," Hurney said.
A seven-year commitment mattered: Tepper first offered Rhule a six-year deal, but he added another year to sweeten the pot before Rhule was scheduled to fly to New York. It wasn’t the dollar figure -- $62 million with another $8 million in incentives – that necessarily did it for Rhule. It was the long-term commitment, giving him time to rebuild a team that has had only one winning season in the last four. “When they offered a chance to be here for seven years, it spoke about the chance, the belief that we were going to do this together, do it the right way," Rhule said. Rhule’s $8.86 million per year (not including incentives) ranks him sixth among NFL coaches and second in the division behind New Orleans’ Sean Payton, who makes $9 million per year.
NFL experience not required: Hurney did a lot of research on Rhule after Rivera was fired. He found nothing to convince him the lack of NFL experience was a liability. “I could never find anybody that I talked to that said anything bad about him," Hurney said. And remember, Rhule was a finalist for the New York Jets job last year and likely would have been the hire had he been allowed to pick his own staff. He reportedly was the favorite to get the Giants job this season, and it went as far as his agent giving New York an opportunity to match Carolina’s offer. So others weren’t hung up on the lack of experience, either. “He’s a head ball coach," Hurney said of Rhule. “That’s it in plain, old-school terms."
Great motivator: The son of a preacher, Rhule sounded like he was giving a sermon during his introductory news conference. But to be a great coach, you have to be a great motivator. Some of Rhule’s former players and associates used those words to describe him. Rhule certainly won his first news conference, even though he gave few specifics on how he was going to turn things around. “This is a guy who is no bulls---," Tepper said. “He speaks plainly. Says what he says. Believes what he believes. One of the things people will say [about me], sometimes it’s my bluntness, but I tell you guys what I’m going to do, and I do it. We have a shared vision."
Staff members don’t have to be stars: Rhule hired three high school coaches when he took the Baylor job because he had no experience recruiting Texas. He was looking for the best people to help implement his system. While he’ll likely stay in the college and pro ranks when selecting the Carolina staff, he’s not necessarily looking for people who already are big names. “I'll have a great diversity on my staff. Some of the best coaches in football with me at Baylor, a lot of those guys came from the NFL to work with me. ... So we'll go slow. ... I wanna find guys who are great teachers, who get their players to play better." For example, Baylor defensive coordinator Phil Snow was with Rhule at Temple and Baylor. From 2005-08, he coached with the Detroit Lions.
Adaptability a key quality: Rhule’s offense at Temple was predicated around the running game with a lot of two-tight end formations with play-action. At Baylor, he ran a lot of spread formations with four wide receivers because it fit the talent he had. P.J. Walker, Rhule’s quarterback at Temple, said the new Carolina coach could adapt to anything. “I'm not really married to styles," Rhule said. “At the end of the day, being a great coach is about putting your players in a position to succeed. And so, whatever our quarterback does well, whatever Cam [Newton] does well, whatever Christian [McCaffrey] does well, those are the things that I want to do."
Cam’s future: Rhule called quarterback Cam Newton after being hired, which suggests he hasn’t ruled out coaching the 2015 NFL MVP who's recovering from foot surgery. Rhule told ESPN he “hopes" to have an opportunity to work with Newton, although there are other factors to consider. Getting Newton healthy is the first priority. “If I have a chance to coach him, I know exactly that I'm getting one of the best guys, best winners that the NFL's seen," Rhule said.
No more smock: The vested hoodie Rhule wore that commanded attention at Baylor last season is gone. He said that was a one-year thing and he plans to wear a pullover on the sidelines at Carolina. On Wednesday, he wore a suit and tie but couldn’t wait to get out of them. In other words, Rhule is about hard work, not style.