Why successful college coaches like Matt Rhule fail in the NFL

By Bucky Brooks, NFL.com Analyst

Successful coaches across the sports spectrum who change teams and/or elect to rebuild downtrodden programs typically spawn the same series of questions:

Is the fit right? Will positive culture from the old locale transfer to the new spot? What is the shape of the inherited roster?

When the best of the best continue to prosper, we’re all reminded of an old adage: Winners win.

Sometimes it’s just that simple. In college football, certain coaches can swap out the logos on their polos and continue building championship-caliber teams with strategic overhauls and tried-and-true developmental plans. Just look at the likes of Nick Saban, Urban Meyer and Jim Harbaugh, three coaches who’ve boosted multiple college programs into national prominence.

Matt Rhule was considered one of college football’s premier turnaround specialists for his impressive work at Temple and Baylor. This success as a program builder prompted David Tepper and the Carolina Panthers to hand him the keys to the kingdom with a seven-year, $62 million contract.

Rhule arrived in Charlotte with great fanfare … but he couldn’t even make it through Year 3. After starting the 2022 season at 1-4, the Panthers fired Rhule on Monday.

Finishing his Carolina tenure with a ghastly 11-27 record — including a staggering 1-27 mark when the Panthers allowed 17-plus points — the longtime college head coach just couldn’t procure a franchise quarterback. Furthermore, he struggled to fix a patchwork offensive line that could not create holes for Christian McCaffrey or protect the revolving door of passers attempting to throw to a solid set of skill players.

In the wake of Rhule’s dismissal, the football world is pondering a familiar question: Why do successful college coaches struggle in the NFL?

Although Rhule’s the most recent example of this trend, he’s certainly not alone. Check out how the past 10 coaches have fared in the college-to-NFL move:

Table inside Article
Matt Rhule Baylor to Panthers 11-27
Urban Meyer Ohio State to Jaguars 2-11
Kliff Kingsbury* Texas Tech to Cardinals 26-27-1
Bill O’Brien Penn State to Texans 52-48
Chip Kelly Oregon to Eagles/49ers 28-35
Greg Schiano Rutgers to Buccaneers 11-21
Jim Harbaugh Stanford to 49ers 44-19-1
Pete Carroll* USC to Seahawks 121-76-1
Lane Kiffin** USC to Raiders 5-15
Bobby Petrino Louisville to Falcons 3-10

* Kingsbury and Carroll are still coaching their respective NFL teams.
** Kiffin was the USC offensive coordinator before taking the Raiders job.

So there you have it: Seven of the 10 coaches have posted losing records, with Bill O’Brien barely clearing .500.

Only two boast great success. Not coincidentally, those two had significant NFL experience before taking the job listed above. Pete Carroll and Jim Harbaugh returned to the NFL having already spent substantial time coaching (Carroll) and playing (Harbaugh) in the league. (Harbaugh also served as the Raiders’ QB coach for two seasons before initially venturing into the college coaching ranks.) The lessons learned while interacting with pros and coaching against some of the brightest minds in football prepared both of them for NFL success in the big chair. From understanding the importance of outstanding communication and relationship-building with the players to their mastery of situational football in games that are frequently decided by tight margins, coaches who have spent ample time in the NFL have a better understanding of the challenges that they will face on a weekly basis.

Strong communication with players — and more specifically, full buy-in from your best players — is essential to succeeding at the NFL level. Some college coaches struggle with that dynamic after spending most of their formative coaching years working with 18-to-22-year-olds who are expected to do what they are told without challenging authority. In the NFL, the team is more collaborative, with coaches and players expected to build a mutually beneficial partnership that leads to success on the field and more money in each other’s bank accounts down the road. NFL coaches must demonstrate to their players why certain schemes and techniques will help their chances of playing well and securing the bag.

As a young player on the Green Bay Packers, I remember late, great defensive coordinator Fritz Shurmur encouraging a unit that featured future Hall of Famers Reggie White and LeRoy Butler to “pour into the pot before dipping out of the pot.” This analogy was the veteran coach’s way of imploring each defender to sacrifice his own agenda for the team and trust that individual rewards would come. As a head coach, it is important to build partnerships with each of your players, particularly the five-star talents, to ensure that the overarching message is well-received by the team. When the best players and team leaders believe in the vision of the program, the wins can come in bunches. It takes college coaches some time to appreciate the value of coach-player partnerships, having typically spent most of their coaching days in a more dictatorial role that did not seek much input from the players.

David Tepper addresses media following Matt Rhule’s firing

College coaches can also struggle with the developmental process of players at the NFL level. If they have been blessed to coach at a college powerhouse with vast resources, they are used to guiding five-star players who are able to dominate opponents with raw size and speed instead of refined skills. The college game is all about recruiting and stockpiling the roster with elite talent, and then just overwhelming overmatched foes.

Now, the NFL obviously also relies on strong player acquisition, too, but the playing field is level for everyone, due to the draft, free agency, trades and a salary cap that makes it nearly impossible to completely flip a roster like a college head coach. There is no transfer portal to supply downtrodden teams with premier, instant-impact talent that can spearhead a quick turnaround.

Although some former college coaches have successfully utilized the NFL draft and waiver wire to build championship-caliber squads (SEE: Pete Carroll), the overwhelming majority of them fail to understand how to rebuild without bottoming out. That last part is crucial, because in a win-now league, patience is not a virtue — at least among the folks writing the checks. It requires some luck and magic to win while rebuilding, but some pro coaches have a better understanding of what it takes to turn around a program without having a roster full of YOUR guys. Last season, as a Jaguars team analyst, I watched Urban Meyer struggle mightily with that last concept.

As I touched on above, Meyer has an elite résumé as a college program builder. He overhauled the rosters at Utah, Florida and Ohio State to amazing success, including three national championships. But the aggressive rebuilding strategies he utilized at the college level just didn’t play in Jacksonville. Meyer was overwhelmed by the daunting task of building a champion without the inherent advantages that he had at his previous stops, and the toll of losing wore him out before Year 1 had even reached its midpoint.

College coaches also underestimate the importance of situational football and the weekly tactical adjustments that are needed to win in this league. Most NFL games are decided in the fourth quarter. Head coaches must deftly manage the game to help the team chalk up a win. Small decisions made throughout the game — including fourth-down gambles and two-point conversions, as well as complementary football plans and general clock management — determine who ends up in the winner’s circle.

To put it simply: In college, it is more about the Jimmies and Joes than the Xs and Os. If you walk into a college stadium with a team featuring more four- and five-stars than your opponents, you automatically have a great chance to exit with the W.

The same cannot be said for the NFL, given the immense parity that defines this league. It’s quite challenging to string together wins with so much competitive balance. The best coaches will search high and low for an advantage that will make a tiny difference on game day. Given the slim margin of error in the pro game, it’s crucial that the head coach hired by an NFL team has a clear understanding of how games are won and lost in this league.

Without significant NFL experience — and the accompanying wisdom gained — it’s a steep uphill battle to win in a league that features the best and brightest minds in the sport.

Read original article in NFL.com.

The National Football League (NFL) is a professional American football league consisting of 32 teams, divided equally between the National Football Conference (NFC) and the American Football Conference (AFC). The NFL is one of the four major