Matt Rhule wasn’t merely fired Monday by the Carolina Panthers. He was pretty much laughed out of the NFL, so hopelessly out of his depth that it would have been far more cruel to keep him around than hand him a check with several zeroes on the end and send him on his way now.
As an NFL coach, Rhule lost 11 of his last 12 games. His inability to put a competent offense on the field made him a punchline. The words stubborn and predictable stuck to him like plastic wrap. And from now until December, he’ll be the hottest candidate in all of college football.
For Nebraska, Wisconsin, Georgia Tech or some other school whose job hasn’t opened yet, Rhule will be about as sure of a bet as they could make. He completely turned around Temple in four years. He rebuilt scandal-ridden Baylor in three. For any school with decent resources, Rhule would offer hope of building a College Football Playoff contender.
The fact that Rhule will be able to return to campus with a reported $40 million buyout and his choice of job shows why it was a no-brainer for him to take his shot in Carolina. But it also offers an old lesson for the NFL, which maybe owners will finally learn: Stop looking to college football for coaching candidates.
The NFL’s off-and-on fascination with coaches who have won big in the college ranks has a long and complicated history. But with Urban Meyer last year and Rhule this season crashing out of the league, the point has been driven home in a way that might finally resonate throughout the league: They may play the same sport in college, but it’s a vastly different game.
At various points over the last several years, there has been NFL buzz surrounding Georgia’s Kirby Smart, Clemson’s Dabo Swinney, LSU’s Brian Kelly, USC’s Lincoln Riley, Ohio State’s Ryan Day, Michigan State’s Mel Tucker, Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald, Stanford’s David Shaw, Iowa State’s Matt Campbell and Cincinnati’s Luke Fickell.
All of them have been terrific football coaches. Any of them might defy the odds and work wonders in the NFL. But given what we’ve seen lately, why would an NFL team even go there?
Anyone familiar with Meyer’s career could have predicted what a trainwreck he turned out to be in Jacksonville. Being a paranoid control freak who motivates through intimidation and mind games might work with college kids, but it’s dead on arrival in a locker room full of professionals. His 11 months as an NFL coach went about as poorly as expected.
Rhule, on the other hand, looked like a reasonable NFL prospect. In college, he was known for being cutting edge, willing to embrace analytics and incorporate new ideas. He had also spent a year around the NFL as an assistant coach, so in theory, he came in with eyes wide open about the differences between the two levels.
And still, he didn’t even last 2 1/2 seasons.
Rhule’s firing leaves just one coach — Arizona’s Kliff Kingsbury — who was not primarily a product of the NFL’s coaching ladder. And at 2-3 this season, his job may not be particularly safe either.
None of this means that college is devoid of great football minds or that the NFL game is so advanced that you’d need a Rosetta Stone to navigate it.
What it does mean is that the jobs have probably never been more different.
As Nick Saban, Chip Kelly, Steve Spurrier, Lou Holtz and Bobby Petrino can attest, there’s nothing new about successful college coaches struggling to adapt to the NFL.
But even as NFL teams remain enamored with certain concepts and trends that incubate in college football, the divide between what the two jobs require only grows bigger every year.
When you ask college coaches what percentage of their time they actually spend coaching these days, the answers are often shocking. As one coach’s agent recently told USA TODAY Sports, the amount of preparation from week to week has sunk to shockingly poor levels because of how much is asked of them on a daily basis.
So many of college coach’s precious hours these days are occupied by name, image and likeness deals, monitoring the transfer portal, media appearances, Twitter, booster functions, working on relationships, dealing with parents and quality control issues on their own staff that it’s difficult to find space for the actual football part.
Given the current environment, you can understand why a college coach would be drawn to an NFL job that is all about football 12 months a year. But for an NFL team, it’s hard to justify guaranteeing tens of millions of dollars anymore to a coach who has spent at least 50 percent of his time succeeding in areas that just aren’t relevant in their league.
It’s not a coincidence that most of the coaches who return from the NFL do very well in their second go-round in college. Even after going 15-17 with the Miami Dolphins, there was little doubt Saban would win national titles at Alabama. Spurrier made South Carolina into a nationally relevant program. Petrino had Arkansas on the verge of national title contention before being fired for off-field issues. Even Kelly has dragged UCLA back into the mix.
Rhule will undoubtedly do the same wherever he lands, which is why a school like Nebraska should do whatever it can to court him. He’s too good of a college coach not to succeed.
The NFL was just a different beast. There’s no shame in that for Rhule. But there should be a lesson in it for everyone else.
This content was originally published here.