Matt Rhule’s NFL coaching career lasted just over 1,000 days. His unemployment lasted 47. The history books will forever show a 11-27 record in more than two complete seasons with the Carolina Panthers. As a consolation, some of the best college coaches in the country achieved success after underwhelming NFL stays.
Nick Saban, Jim Harbaugh, Chip Kelly and Lane Kiffin all got fired from coaching in the NFL and returned to better college football careers. Kiffin used an offensive coordinator job at Alabama to truly change his career trajectory after diving into the NFL. He was semi-successful at Tennessee and USC before now going 49-25 at Florida Atlantic and Ole Miss. Kelly’s innovative Oregon tenure finished with four consecutive 10-win seasons, the latter three with top-five rankings and a loss in the BCS National Championship. His career seemingly twilighted but has since rejuvenated UCLA with consecutive seasons of eight wins or more.
Harbaugh is a special case. He steered Stanford before three straight NFC Championship appearances (one Super Bowl appearance) in San Francisco. Then came a .500 season and he was gone. Aside from the COVID season, he’s won at least eight games every year he’s been at Michigan with a cumulative 73-24 record. Michigan made the College Football Playoff last year and is one Big Ten Championship win away from another. Then there’s Saban. He coached Toledo and Michigan State with moderate success before leading LSU to five successful seasons, including a National Championship. The greatest coach in college football history went 15-17 in two years with the Miami Dolphins before his current 188-27 record (as recognized by the NCAA) in 16 seasons.
“I learned from my experience coming here (Miami). I learned something about myself. At the time it was a tough consequence to have to deal with,” Saban said during the 2019 Orange Bowl media day. “I couldn’t have been in a better situation with better people here in Miami. But I found out maybe I was a little more suited to be a college coach. That was a tough realization because of the obligations I had to the people I worked for, and the players.”
Rhule, during his introductory press conference on Monday, said his NFL experience made him a better man. He said it taught him a different set of obstacles he needed to overcome. He also appreciated coaching former Husker Ameer Abdullah alongside Christian McCaffery. They demonstrated the people-centric coaching Rhule enjoys most. Rhule’s talked consistently about building relationships and pushing players through development. Through that system comes trust. Players and coaches largely appreciate it, as evident in the amount of coaches and former players who’ve followed in coaching stops across the country.
“If I’m proud of anything, it’s the relationships and the guys on that team that had my back throughout that process, and the guys who called me since I got that job,” he said on Monday. “I think that shows me that I can come back to college and have the same relationships. The final piece is that we have always been a player development group, and I know it so much better now.”
The NFL is a more level landscape than college football. There’s less separating divisional leaders from basement dwellers in the AFC than a last-place team in the Big Ten and the eventual conference champions. While they’re both built upon relationships, college football results can be influenced more through player development while the NFL is largely more strategic because of the parity among athletes on the field. The window of winning opportunity in the NFL closes quicker and it can’t be delayed by a 3-star playing like a 5-star. There are a multitude of factors for why great college coaches don’t work out in the NFL, that being a recurring reason.
Anyone can get a promising football player to the NFL, Rhule said. He wants to get his players a second contract in the NFL. Rhule said he thought he knew how to do that before but he really knows it now.
So he comes to Nebraska as the first NFL-to-Husker coach since Bill Callahan. College football’s changed greatly in the 20 years since then but the common denominator remains. Coach players to their fullest potential and build a team out of them. Rhule’s confident the passion for such hasn’t left him. And that’s why he chose Nebraska over the golf course.
“When things are hard in life, you either break or you let it be a purifying fire that takes away the impurities, the ego and the anxiety,” he said. “My family and I looked inward and towards each other, toward our faith and the future and stayed focused on the players. I come here now, not hardened by that, but steeled by it. I am excited to get started with these players, excited to get to spring and excited to build a team.”