CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Baylor was losing 51-7 at West Virginia late in the third quarter. Linebacker Jordan Williams was questioning the “process” that coach Matt Rhule had preached for the past season and a half.
He wanted out of the game. He couldn't take it anymore.
“It was awful,” Williams said of that game on Oct. 25, 2018. “I was all about myself. I was cold. We were rotating and I didn’t like that. All of these things I was complaining about.”
Rhule stepped in.
“He just told me, ‘You’re not ever going to get to your full potential by being like this. Life is not going to reward you for being upset. You’ve got to learn to control your emotions,’" Williams said. “It all started to click.”
As a college coach, Rhule earned the reputation as a rebuilder.
Carolina Panthers owner David Tepper hopes that process will translate into success on the NFL level as the 44-year-old Rhule tries to rebuild a team that has one winning season since reaching Super Bowl 50 in 2015.
The process is simple. You start with a defined vision and set of rules for getting there. Then you learn the process, live the process and defend the process.
Defending the process is the hardest, say those who have been a part of it. It can be as simple as turning to a teammate and saying, “This isn’t how you do it.” It can be as mundane as making sure a folding table is put away instead of being left in the hallway after a meeting.
“The best way to define it is doing the little things consistently with excellence,” said Rhule’s father, Dennis. “The process -- that’s his word and that’s his coaching style. Not only for his players, but anybody in the building.”
Temple went 2-10 in Rhule’s first season, and then won 10 games in Years 3 and 4. Baylor went 1-11 in Rhule’s first season, and then 11-1 with a trip to the Big 12 championship game and Sugar Bowl this past season, his third.
Players who didn’t buy into the process were weeded out. Those who did were rewarded with success.
“He told us, 'Don’t look at the light at the end of the tunnel -- just know it’s coming,'” Williams said.
Birth of the process
Rhule knew at a young age he wanted to be a football coach.
“I remember when he was 5 or 6 he said to me, ‘I’m going to go to Penn State and play football and become a coach,’" said Dennis Rhule, who beside being a pastor once coached football. “I kind of brushed it off and said, ‘Yeah, go get 'em buddy.”
Dennis would argue that his son was a better catcher in baseball than he ever was as a linebacker.
He also noted that Matt was a decent actor at the local children's theater in New York City.
But football and the process became Matt Rhule’s passion.
His family moved to State College, Pennsylvania, during his junior year of high school, which led him to Penn State as a walk-on. That's where Rhule's process began to form under legendary coach Joe Paterno. It went to another level in 2012 as an offensive assistant for the New York Giants.
That’s where Rhule met coach Tom Coughlin, who was coming off a victory over New England in the Super Bowl.
While Coughlin was rigid with rules within his process, Rhule learned to be flexible without compromising. He’s been leaning on Coughlin for advice since taking over the Panthers.
“That was really when he felt the process,” the elder Rhule said.
Selling the message is key
Rhule sounded like his father in the pulpit during his introductory news conference at Carolina.
“He’s able to share his hopes and dreams and his process, how he wants to do it and the best way to do it,” Dennis Rhule said. “He’s probably a better speaker than I was.”
Pat Kraft arrived as the athletic director at Temple shortly after president Neil Theobald hired Matt Rhule.
“What Neil will say is, and I’ll butcher the quote, ‘I sure hope he can coach, because he’s got me all the way in when he interviewed him at his house,’" Kraft recalled.
A big part of the process is being able to communicate the message.
“[Rhule] is a great orator,” Kraft said. “He is a great communicator. He gets the most out of everybody working to reach their maximum potential because he gets them to buy in and believe in the process.”
That’s key, particularly when the program struggles in the beginning.
“It’s his overall presence,” Baylor quarterback Charlie Brewer said. “You feel it when he walks in the room. He starts with his brand of football, and that’s to be the toughest, hardest-working, most competitive team in the country. That is non-negotiable to be a part of the team.”
College players bought into Rhule early because they saw the team and individuals getting better. Brewer believes that will translate to the NFL, and that success will come quickly.
“Part of the reason we struggled was how inexperienced we were,” Brewer said. “I don’t have any doubts he’ll get that thing going in the right direction right away."
The process was, in the eyes of Kraft, working on all cylinders when ESPN’s College GameDay came to Philadelphia in Week 9 of the 2015 season for the Owls’ game against Notre Dame.
Rhule was the same person then as he was when the team went 2-10 two years earlier.
“This was a huge deal,” Kraft said. “It’s at Independence Hall. I say, ‘Hey, Matt, I’ll meet you there. How are you getting there?’ He said, ‘I’m just going to walk.’ I said, ‘You’re the most popular man in Philadelphia right now. You’re not going to walk.’
“He was, 'No, I’m good, dude. I’m going to do my thing, walk there and walk back.'"
Rhule doesn’t want the process to be about him. He would resist if you put his picture on the game program. He believes the process is strongest when it’s about the players.
At Temple, the Owls had a power running game based on a pro-style offense with the quarterback under center. At Baylor, Rhule went with a spread offense, using four wide receivers and a shotgun formation.
“He’s going to adjust to the players,” said former Temple quarterback P.J. Walker, now with the XFL’s Houston Roughnecks. “Whatever style the quarterback is, that’s the type of game he’ll call. ‘’
That Rhule has coached almost every position gives him a complete understanding of the game. During his first stint as an assistant at Temple, in 2006-11, Rhule was the defensive line coach, quarterbacks coach, offensive coordinator and tight ends coach.
“Matt was coaching the D-line at Temple, and he calls and says, 'Snow, what do you think of me coaching the quarterbacks?’" new Panthers defensive coordinator Phil Snow told the team website. “I said, 'Matt, what are you talking about?’
“When he became the offensive coordinator, he would call me and ask, ‘What do you not want to see from an offense?’ He was always looking for an advantage. So, as I look back now, you could see all this coming.”
The message stays the same
Williams never will forget Rhule’s first speech at Baylor.
“He told us about not being average. ... I will not be a sheep. I will do the hard things. I’ll be the 10 percent of the world,” Williams said. “That stood out to me a lot.”
That has been Rhule’s message at every stop.
“It's about the daily steps,” Rhule said. “The daily grind that you have to go through."
Williams watched that up close. He also believes the process can work in the NFL.
“The process is taking it one day at a time, getting better 1 percent each and every day,” Williams said. “Just focus on what you’re doing at that moment and not get distracted.”
“The players that stayed at Baylor became really good players. The ones that left didn’t buy into the process. I guess they didn’t see the vision he had. It was incredible to see.”