After Baylor played in the Sugar Bowl, coach Matt Rhule decided to take a well-earned vacation. When he returned, it was time to get to work — immediately.
“We got off the plane from Mexico,” he said. “We spent a couple days there after the bowl game.”
He was met at his house by Carolina Panthers owner David Tepper and GM Marty Hurney, who were looking to lure Rhule to the NFL.
“We pulled in right behind Matt,” Tepper recalled. “He was wearing shorts and a T-shirt. I helped him carry in his luggage.”
The moment emphasizes just how important it was for the Panthers brain trust to find and land the right man as head coach. It also emphasized to Rhule just what type of bosses he’d have if he took the job.
“It was really clear from the moment we pulled up to our house,” he said. “I believe in process. I believe in doing things right. When you’re trying to make a decision, you want to go to someone who does things right. And, when they’re already at your house before you get there, when they help you carry things in, there’s no doubt we share a common vision. There’s no doubt we believe in doing things the right way.”
Very quickly, Rhule convinced the Panthers front office that he was the man for the job.
“Marty turned to me and said, ‘We have to switch from interview mode to recruiting mode,’” Tepper recalled. “So we all just went into recruiting mode, because we knew that we had something special.”
The moment reminded Rhule of another car-related story, from his previous time working in North Carolina. From 2002 to 2005, he was on the coaching staff at Western Carolina, starting off as the special teams and linebacker coach.
“My first recruiting trip, I had strep throat,” he recalled. “I called Coach, thinking coaches could have a day off. I didn’t know at the time that coaches don’t get days off. He said, ‘You have strep throat. That’s too bad. Get to Charlotte. So I got into the back seat of the car and (Rhule’s wife) Julie drove me to West Charlotte, walked in, talked to their coach and did my job. And she drove me all day to schools around Mecklenburg County. Then she drove me back to Cullowhee.”
No days off. Do your job.
In an introductory press conference that was one part Knute Rockne halftime speech and two parts Sunday sermon, the Panthers’ new coach outlined his attitude and outlook toward building a team, and how well it fit with Tepper and Hurney.
“People from all backgrounds and of all shapes and sizes come together to form a team and play the hardest game there is to play,” Rhule said. “They play in bad weather. They play when they’re injured. They play when they don’t feel great. They find a way to get it done.”
While Rhule was happy at Baylor, his love of the game pushed him toward the NFL.
“I decided I wanted to go and be a part of the greatest game at the highest stage. I just had to figure out where,” he said.
Once he met with Tepper and Hurney, he knew the location. Now the hard work starts in earnest.
“We need to honor this game that has given so much to us,” he said, “and build a team that cares about each other and plays hard for each other. I think that all starts with me. I will work tirelessly each day to bring you guys (the fans) a championship, to bring you (Tepper) a championship, because that’s what this region deserves. That’s what the players who came before us deserve. That’s what the guys in that locker room deserve.”
He’ll do it the same way he did it at Baylor and Temple before that.
“You just start building,” he said. “One day at a time. Everything counts. Everything’s important. Life is not just about setting goals, it’s about process — the daily steps and daily grind you go through. Keep pounding isn’t just a slogan, it’s a way of life.”
Rhule promised to build “a tough, hardworking, competitive team,” and each adjective was chosen with purpose.
“Tough, to me, means each and every day, no matter how we feel, no matter what the circumstances are, we’re going to come to work, do our job and get it done. Hardworking means relentless preparation. Guys and coaches that love football, that each day are searching for an edge. Competitive means wanting to be the best, whether playing Madden or the championship game. When you have that mentality in the locker room you can be special. When you have it with a coaching staff, you can be really good. When it starts with the owner, you can be memorable.”