Rhule says he’s ‘not bitter’ but wants to set record straight

Former Panthers head coach Matt Rhule, now the head coach at Nebraska, said he’s not “bitter” about his time with the team in an interview with The Charlotte Observer Thursday, but that he wishes he had been granted more time in the job.

Former Panthers head coach Matt Rhule, now the head coach at Nebraska, said he’s not “bitter” about his time with the team in an interview with The Charlotte Observer Thursday, but that he wishes he had been granted more time in the job.

mrodriguez@charlotteobserver.com

Matt Rhule’s voice was on the other end of the phone line in Nebraska, and he wanted to make sure Carolina Panthers fans understood a few things.

“I’m not bitter about being fired,” Rhule said when we talked Thursday in what was his first interview with any Charlotte-area reporter since he was jettisoned as Carolina Panthers head coach on Oct. 10.

But Rhule said there were some misconceptions he wanted to clear up about his 38 games as the Panthers’ head coach, as well as some explanations he’d like to offer about what went right and what went wrong.

And so in his 30-minute interview with The Charlotte Observer, Rhule — now back in college as Nebraska’s head coach with a new eight-year contract — offered his side of the Panthers story in a more complete way than he has done before.

Rhule called it a “myth” that he had ultimate control over the team’s personnel decisions, for instance, and said he would have advocated for structuring the team differently if he knew winning early was of so much importance to his job security.

“If you told me, ‘Hey we’ve got two years (to win),’” Rhule said, “then we’re going to do things in two years. If you tell me, ‘Hey, I want this to be built for the long haul over four or five years, then we’re going to build slowly through the draft and we’re going to make good financial decisions.’ And you know, if it’s, ‘Hey, you have to win this year,’ you probably don’t let Stephon Gilmore and Haason Reddick go.’ … If you’re going to try to win in two years, you’d probably have a big blockbuster trade, you’d probably trade up in the draft, you probably would have paid some high-priced free agent.”

Gilmore, a cornerback, and Reddick, a pass rusher, both left the Panthers after the 2021 season for lucrative deals with other teams.

Rhule also said that he believed that the fact that many fans loudly turned on him during home games, shouting “Fire Matt Rhule!” during several of his final home games, helped seal his fate.

“I never lost the locker room,” said Rhule, who went 11-27 as Carolina’s coach in two-plus seasons. “But I lost the fans.”

Rhule, 47, said he doesn’t blame fans for booing him and that he still loves the city of Charlotte. In fact, his teenage son Bryant will stay in Charlotte and not move to Nebraska immediately, finishing up at the high school he loves (The Fletcher School) and living with his grandparents in the Queen City for at least another year. Rhule also said that although he has returned to the college ranks that he believes he’s not simply a “college coach” who failed in the NFL.

“I think I could do either one,” Rhule said. “I wouldn’t have been a fit at every college. I do I think I’m probably a fit here at Nebraska. And I believe, in time, I would have turned Carolina around.”

With his answers lightly edited for clarity and brevity, here’s what else Rhule said in our interview on:

Panthers owner Dave Tepper

Rhule: “I appreciate the fact that he gave me a contract that allowed me to take care of my family moving forward. … I appreciate that he took a chance on me and I’m sorry it didn’t work out. I’m sorry I wasn’t the right fit for him. … Really, I have nothing to say, except I’m just grateful for the opportunity.

“I’m not trying to say anything negative about the organization. I love the organization. I love the people there.”

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Carolina Panthers head coach Matt Rhule stares out onto the field during second half action against the San Francisco 49ers at Bank of America Stadium on Sunday, October 9, 2022. The 49ers defeated the Panthers 37-15 in what proved to be Rhule’s final game as Carolina head coach. JEFF SINER jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

Whether he had personnel control

Rhule: “There was a myth that I had that I had personnel control.

“You guys asked me about it and I always tried to be respectful of the team and protect the team. But you know, I never made a draft pick. I had a lot of say and a lot of opinion. (General manager) Scott (Fitterer) and I worked awesome together, Marty (former Panthers GM Marty Hurney) and I worked awesome together. But all the decisions were made under the direction of: ‘Hey, let’s build this over four years.’ (Technically, as Rhule said in a 2021 press conference, he did have final say over personnel decisions).

“I want to say this: One promise I always made myself was I would never make a decision that was not in the long-term best interest to the Carolina Panthers just to save my job. Because that’s what happens in the NFL, and that’s why teams get sideways.

“It was all very collaborative. It was a team: the GM, the head coach and Dave (Tepper) and Samir (Suleiman, the Panthers’ cap guru and VP of football administration). It’s not just me sitting there saying, ‘Let’s do this. Let’s do that.’”

Whether he should have taken the Panthers job

Rhule: “It’s a good job. At the end of the day, I wasn’t the right fit for the Panthers. … The way I did things probably didn’t connect with everybody. I think me and Scott (Fitterer) had a great relationship. I don’t have a bad relationship with anybody. It just didn’t work out. … So if I just went back (in time), I probably respectfully just would have said, ‘You know what, it’s probably not going to be a great fit.’

“I don’t regret taking that job. … The more time I get away from it — I will look back very fondly. It really turned me into a better man, a better coach. Made my family closer. I mean, when you have your wife and kids at a game and everyone’s chanting to fire you, when you get home, as a family, that can only make you closer. …

“And Charlotte was fantastic for me. Just fantastic. It has made me a much better coach. And it was really a benefit for my kids, with the schools that they went to in Charlotte.”

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Panthers owner David Tepper and head coach Matt Rhule laugh before taking group photos at Rhule’s introductory press conference in Charlotte on Jan. 8, 2020. Joshua Komer The Charlotte Observer

Signing high-priced free agents

Rhule: “I think we had like the first- or second-most cap room before the season. Then you’re basically saying, ‘Hey, you know what? We’re trying to be fiscally responsible for the future not we’re going all in on this.’ So in training camp, I would get asked about ‘Hey, how about this pass rusher that would sign with someone else?’ (The Panthers were rumored to be interested in signing both Carlos Dunlap and Jason Pierre-Paul, but both signed elsewhere).

“And I’m always going to be a great teammate and great soldier and a loyal guy and say it just didn’t work out. But those were decisions that were made for the benefit of the future. I think they’re the right thing. I think the team is in great shape moving forward, both financially and cap-room wise. I think Scott (Fitterer) and the rest have done a great job.

“All I would say is just if that’s the plan, you know, just stick to it. That being said, I would have loved to have stuck to it. It just didn’t work out where I had won enough to get that opportunity.”

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Carolina Panthers Cam Newton, left, talks to coach Matt Rhule during warm ups before the game against Washington Football Team at the Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C., on Sunday, November 21, 2021. Khadejeh Nikouyeh Knikouyeh@charlotteobserver.com

Former Panthers QB Cam Newton

Rhule: “I really appreciate Cam. He’s one of my favorite players that I’ve met. After I got fired, he’s one of the few people I reached out to and said, ‘Hey, I just want to know how much I appreciate you.’ … As for all the quarterbacks, what I don’t want to do is be the coach who blames the players. I don’t ever want to come across that way. I love the guys I had a chance to coach. I feel like I failed them, in terms of giving them an opportunity to be successful.’

Whether he’s bitter about the Panthers experience

Rhule: “Absolutely not. I’m saying sometimes you go somewhere and like you just fit, you mesh. Like your vision is the same as everybody else’s. Sometimes you get there … and everybody kind of sees it a little bit differently.

“You know it’s hard. … There was a lot of turnover during my time there: two team presidents, two GMs, other (high-level) positions … just a lot of turnover. So my vision had to be resold each time to somebody new. It just was never maybe a great fit. And it wasn’t like: ‘Hey, I hate this place.’ I really loved the players. … I wouldn’t trade my time with those guys for anything.”

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Carolina Panthers head coach Matt Rhule smiles as he greets people along the sideline prior to the team’s season opener against Cleveland on Sept. 11. JEFF SINER jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

Whether he roots for the Panthers

Rhule: “Absolutely — 100%. If you talk to the guys on that team, they will tell you that after wins, I text them congratulations. …

“I’m proud of that football team (the Panthers were 1-4 when Rhule was fired and are now 4-8 under interim head coach Steve Wilks). I’m proud of some of the things that they’re doing. I thought this would be a team that the last five games of the year coming off the bye week we would have a chance to win every game and make a run. That was always kind of the plan. … Let’s build the team, let’s really try to make a run late in the year, and then we’ll make a run next year and see if we can be one of the best teams in the NFL. But it just didn’t happen.”

Whether he got fired too soon

Rhule: “Again, I’m not at all bitter about being fired. I understand the business. I would have preferred not to get fired at 1-4.

“I felt like I deserved (more time). No coach has ever really been fired at 1-4. Ron Rivera had a chance to continue (Rivera was 1-3 at the start of his third season, in 2013, but wound up 12-4). But I understood it, and it opened up this (Nebraska) opportunity for me and it opened up an opportunity for them to move on from me.”

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Former Carolina Panthers head coach Matt Rhule was 11-27 during his time with the team. Jeff Siner jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

Whether Wilks will replace him permanently

Rhule: “Oh, I have no idea. I did hire Steve (as an assistant earlier this year). I think he’s an excellent coach and, being around him, I thought: “Man, how did he get fired after one year (in Arizona)? This guy should be a head coach in the NFL.”

Getting booed at home games

Rhule: “They had a right to boo. I’m not bitter toward any fans because I really loved Charlotte and I think fans should boo. You should yell at the coach. You should do all those things.

“I just had hoped that we would weather that storm, because usually the hardest adversity comes right before any breakthrough. And so I just kept saying, ‘Hey, if we hang in there, we were building a team to try to win the NFC South.’ Take one play away and we’re 4-0 in the NFC South right now. And I think down the stretch, the Panthers are going to have a great chance to win the division. I’m rooting for them.”

Sports columnist Scott Fowler has written for The Charlotte Observer since 1994. He has authored or co-authored eight books, including four about the Carolina Panthers. Fowler has earned 18 national APSE writing awards and hosted The Observer’s podcast “Carruth,” which Sports Illustrated named 2018’s “Podcast of the Year.” His new podcast and online series is called “Sports Legends of the Carolinas” and features 1-on-1 interviews with NC and SC sports icons.
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