In 1998, Albright College’s football program, under first-year head coach E.J. Sandusky, hired a new linebackers’ coach. No one outside the bubble of the Division-III school in Reading, Penn., noticed, for obvious reasons. That hiring, however, set in motion the coaching career of a future Power Five head coach who led one of the most remarkable turnarounds in sports history and became a highly sought-after NFL candidate, Matt Rhule.
Rhule spent the first 14 years of his career in college, rising from an unknown D-III positional coach in 1998 to Temple offensive coordinator from 2008-11. His 15th year was spent on Tom Coughlin’s New York Giants’ staff, after which he returned to college as Temple’s head coach from 2013-16 before accepting the Baylor job in 2017. Following a 1-11 season with Baylor in 2017, Rhule had spent 19 of 20 years in college.
The lack of NFL experience didn’t matter to the Indianapolis Colts, who interviewed Rhule for their head-coaching vacancy in January 2018. Rhule didn’t land the job but the interview shoved him into the NFL spotlight and he flirted with (and rejected) interest over the next two years before replacing Ron Rivera as Carolina Panthers’ head coach this year. The Panthers are just 5-10 entering Week 17 but have eight one-score losses and are rising in weekly NFL odds.
Rhule is the latest college coach who jumped to the NFL, joining Steve Spurrier, Pete Carroll, Bobby Petrino, Chip Kelly, and others in a polarizing club with mixed results. Who might be next?
Matt Rhule interviewed with several teams over his final two years at Baylor and turned down other interview requests. The trajectory of Baylor’s program and his willingness to entertain NFL offers suggested an inevitable jump. There’s no Matt Rhule in college football right now. No current college head coach has routinely entertained interest as Rhule did. The NFL interest is there, however, for a few coaches in particular.
Teams have reportedly targeted Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald for years, though, to the public’s knowledge, the Wildcats’ longtime head coach has never accepted an interview request, including most recently the Green Bay Packers’ request in late 2018. And after a strong 2020 season, multiple teams are targeting Fitzgerald again. Immediately after Northwestern’s loss to Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship game, two teams inquired about his availability, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, and will make formal interview requests after Northwestern’s bowl game on Jan. 1.
The Packers were one of seven teams with openings during the 2018-19 hiring cycle. Six of those teams contacted Iowa State’s Matt Campbell, according to the Des Moines Register. While it’s believed Campbell didn’t formally interview with any of those six teams, it’s unclear if he had any direct contact after his second season in Ames. Campbell received NFL buzz a year ago and is the subject of interest again this year after leading Iowa State to their first-ever Big 12 Championship appearance. Sports Illustrated’s Albert Breer said Campbell and “built momentum” in NFL circles, while NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah said Campbell “will have NFL opportunities” if he wants one.
Elsewhere, NFL teams have inquired about David Shaw during his 10 years as Stanford head coach, though he told me earlier this year he’s never spoken with an NFL team and has no plans to consider offers, let alone accept one. The Dallas Cowboys took the “temperature” on Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley last year but never requested an interview, which falls in line with reports of interest from other NFL teams on the Sooners’ fourth-year coach. And Florida’s Dan Mullen, the subject of NFL rumors for several years, could “garner interest” from teams, ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler and Dan Graziano recently reported.
One day after Notre Dame was pummeled by Alabama in the BCS National Championship on Jan. 7, 2013, Irish head coach Brian Kelly interviewed for the Philadelphia Eagles’ vacancy. There was reportedly “mutual interest” before the Eagles hired Oregon’s Chip Kelly a week later. Brian Kelly was also on the shortlist for other teams that year, including the Chicago Bears, and over the next few years, but has since fallen off the NFL radar.
“I’ve always looked at the possibility, but I’m at a point now at Notre Dame where I can control the roster,” Kelly told Colin Cowherd in November. “I have a great understanding of what our process is here. They give me the opportunity to set this program up and make all the decisions as it relates to how this program runs on a day-to-day basis. You don’t get those opportunities in the NFL unless you’re Bill Belichick or Andy Reid.”
Since the 2013 cycle, Kelly has never seriously been considered for an NFL job and while he could always depart South Bend for his first-ever NFL shot, he’s simply the subject of minor speculation each winter.
The same goes for James Franklin, who nearly jumped from Vanderbilt to the Houston Texans in early 2014. After his second straight nine-win season in Nashville, Franklin was targeted by the Texans as a frontrunner for their vacancy, which ultimately went to Penn State’s Bill O’Brien. Franklin then replaced O’Brien at Penn State and, like Kelly, has been subjected to speculation questions but isn’t believed to be an in-demand NFL candidate right now.
And Ryan Day, a former Chip Kelly assistant with the Eagles and San Francisco 49ers, has also been floated by insiders as a potential NFL candidate, though he’s never entertained interview requests.
Head coach Mel Tucker of the Michigan State Spartans looks on during the first half of the game against the Penn State Nittany Lions at Beaver Stadium on December 12, 2020 in State College, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images)
Michigan State pursued Mel Tucker until they landed him. Might an NFL team do the same in the future?
A former defensive back at Wisconsin, Tucker spent the first eight years of his career in college football before joining the Cleveland Browns’ staff in 2005. Three years later, he was the Browns’ 36-year-old defensive coordinator and appeared destined for an NFL head-coaching opportunity in the near future. That never came over 10 years with three different teams, and he returned to college with stints at Alabama and Georgia before becoming Colorado coach in 2019. Now at the beginning of a massive rebuild in East Lansing, Tucker might be climbing toward real NFL interest.
And one coordinator to watch: Graham Harrell. Six years after reuniting with his former coach, Mike Leach, as Washington State offensive analyst, Harrell is skyrocketing up coaching boards. He built a dominant offense in three seasons as North Texas quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator before moving to USC. The 35-year-old former Texas Tech star needs a step or two between college coordinator and NFL head coach but that might happen quickly.
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Andrew Doughty is a writer for BetMGM and host of High Motor, a college football podcast available on Apple Podcasts and everywhere else. He has written for Sports Illustrated, HERO Sports, Bleacher Report, and SB Nation. Follow him on Twitter: @adoughty88.