When it came to his role on former Giants head coach Tom Coughlin’s assistant coaching staff, Matt Rhule, then a 37-year-old whose prior exposure to football included a stint as a linebacker for Penn State and then college-level coaching assignments, mostly on the defensive side of the ball, was the exception rather than the rule.
Rhule, now 44 years old, came to the Giants’ attention via Temple University, where he had been on the same staff as Kevin M. Gilbride, himself later a Giants assistant coach on Coughlin’s staff and the son of then-Giants offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride.
So impressed were the Gilbrides with Rhule with this up-and-coming football mind, that when Jack Bicknell Jr left his Giants post as the assistant offensive line coach to become the Chiefs offensive line coach, Rhule was recommended to Coughlin, who hired him even though he had never coached or played anywhere on the offensive line.
“When Matt came in, I think we were all like, ‘Who is this guy?’ recalled former All-Pro guard Chris Snee.
“It wasn’t in a bad way—we were trying to get a feel for who he was because you know in that offensive line room, we liked the bust chops, and we’d needed to know if a guy could handle it. So we put Matt through the wringer, and he handled it well, and we grew to like him a lot.”
Rhule met Monday with the Carolina Panthers and will be interviewing with the Giants on Tuesday in New Jersey for the opening created by last week's firing of Pat Shurmur after he was just 9-23 in two seasons.
There is a growing opinion that Rhule and the Giants are a perfect match because of his previous ties to the organization, he's from New York City, and is considered a strong leader who commands the locker room. It would be an out-of-character exception-to-the-rule hiring for the Giants in this sense: They have not hired a coach right out of college to be their head coach since Jim Lee Howell from local Wagner College in 1954.
Pat Flaherty, the Giants offensive line coach who served as Rhule's immediate supervisor with the Giants, remembered Rhule as a young man who attacked his new responsibilities with the vigor and dedication that started to turn heads in the organization.
Flaherty recalled that at first, he gave Rhule jobs such as breaking down tape, creating Visio drawings for the playbooks, and other administrative work.
But Flaherty also wanted to bring Rhule along as an offensive line coach, so he involved him in another critical aspect: Working with the players on the practice field during drills.
“Yeah, I’ve always been one to let the assistant offensive line coach get involved with the drills with me and the players," Flaherty said. "We had so many O-linemen, so it was actually to the team’s benefit to have more than one guy running the drills.”
“So he would take half the O-linemen, and I’d take the other half. So it was just one of the ways he learned, and every day he did a good job because he was conscientious and very enthusiastic in performing what he was asked to do.”
That hard work and effort didn’t go unnoticed, especially by the players who grew to embrace Rhule as one of their own.
“I think the core group of guys in that room respected players and coaches that put the time and the effort in,” Snee said.
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“We saw how much Matt cared about winning as a team, and in particular, loss upfront. So for him to develop that relationship with us so quickly, it doesn’t surprise me that he’s been as successful as he has in college.”
The success Rhule has had as a college head coach—he’s 47-42 overall rebuilding Temple and Baylor —doesn’t begin to show how he took over two football programs that were in shambles and turned them around, including a Baylor program that had been rocked by a sexual assault scandal.
Rhule’s success rate and his growing reputation as a man who fosters a strong sense of community in a locker room between players and coaches is just one of the many reasons why he’s become such a hot commodity in the NFL.
Listen! Former Giants offensive line coach Pat Flaherty, who worked with Matt Rhule during his one season with the Giants, offers his take on what Rhule needs to remember to do if he's to be a successful NFL head coach.
“When you learn from Tom Coughlin, who, as you know, worked under Bill Parcells and who did it his way and brought discipline, Matt saw that from sitting in the meetings and seeing how things were structured,” Flaherty said.
“I have not been around Matt at Baylor, but my guess is that his program is run very similarly, and that’s why it’s worked for him. So I think you know, what you’re doing and then be able to adapt to certain things is what’s going to help him become successful.”
What’s also going to help Rhule be successful is remaining true to who he is and what he believes in.
“I think he just needs to come in and tell players this is the way it’s gotta be done,” Snee said.
“Knowing Matt, he’ll do it in a way where he’s, there’s that fine line between, you know, discipline and too much, and I think he will figure it out.”
Snee believes that accountability will also be another staple in Rhule’s program should he make that leap to the NFL.
“If you watch him during games, he’s not a guy that’s going to pat somebody on the back,” Snee said.
“You hold people accountable, and I think if you set that as a standard early on and set the expectations to where, like Coach Coughlin always said, ‘I’m not gonna expect anything of you that you can’t do, but I will challenge you.’
“I haven’t been around Matt as a head coach, but I just am envisioning that’s the way he’s going to set it, but in a way where he has a good relationship with other players.”
An exception to the Rhule? Could be happening with the Giants this week.