LINCOLN, Neb. – Matt Rhule said he had plenty of options after being fired by the Carolina Panthers. He could have taken a year off from football or worked in television.
Or he could start coaching again in college. A number of schools contacted him, he said, but only one appealed to him and his family.
Nebraska introduced Rhule as its coach on Monday, just seven weeks after the Panthers fired him five games into his third season. He faces the daunting task of taking over a team losing out of a sixth straight season and a program that is a shell of what was once one of the biggest brands in the college game.
“I’m here because it’s the right match, it’s the right time,” said Rhule. “And if I have one message for you, we absolutely can. We can absolutely get University of Nebraska football right where it needs to be. It’s going to be tough. It may take a while, but it will be done.”
Rhule signed an eight-year, $74 million contract, making him the third-highest-paid coach in the Big Ten, behind Ohio State’s Ryan Day and Michigan State’s Mel Tucker, and ranks in the top 10 nationally.
Athletic director Trev Alberts said the contract is 90% guaranteed and part of the fee is deferred. Rhule has a pool of $7 million to spend on assistant coaches.
When the Panthers fired Rhule, he still owed $34 million on his seven-year contract. Alberts said the Panthers were involved in Rhule’s negotiations with Nebraska.
“Structuring a business arrangement that everyone agreed to was a bit of a challenge,” Alberts said, “and there were some fits and starts.”
Alberts said there was a period when it looked like the deal would fall through, but the parties reached an agreement on Thanksgiving morning.
Asked if he thought he should spend $9 million a year on a football coach, Alberts said the salary scale is rising in the Big Ten and SEC due to dramatically rising revenues tied to record television rights contracts.
“Let’s face it, there’s a Power 2 now,” said Alberts. “Certainly not to belittle any of the other conferences, but that’s kind of where we’re going. … If we’re serious about getting Nebraska football to compete at the top level of the Big Ten Conference, there will be resources are necessary to acquire that talent.”
Rhule, who was 11-27 in more than two seasons with the Panthers, was hired because of the success he had in his two jobs as head coaching in college.
He had Temple play for and won the American Athletic Conference championship in his third and fourth seasons (2015-16). He allowed Baylor to play for the Big 12 championship in his third season (2019) after taking over a Bears program that stemmed from the sexual assault investigation under Art Briles.
Rhule emphasized toughness in practices and games, saying the only way to win games is to win the line of scrimmage. The Huskers have particularly struggled in the offensive and defensive lines.
Rhule, who grew up in New York City as a Penn State fan, was a walk-on linebacker for the Nittany Lions. He said he attended the Huskers’ 44-6 Kickoff Classic victory over Penn State in 1983 and was heartbroken when Nebraska defeated the undefeated Nittany Lions for the 1994 national title.
Rhule said he respected the physical football the Huskers played at the time and wants to bring it back.
Approximately 750 boosters and former players gathered at the Hawks Championship Center for a welcome event and press conference. They included Governor-elect Jim Pillen, a Republican who played defensive back for the Huskers in the 1970s, and 1972 Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Rodgers. The band played and fireworks went off next to the stage as Rhule and Alberts entered the building.
Rhule, 47, is the sixth coach to lead the program since College Football Hall of Famer Tom Osborne won or shared three national championships in four years before retiring after the 1997 season.
The Huskers’ most recent conference championship came in 1999 under Osborne’s successor, Frank Solich. Bill Callahan, Bo Pelini and Mike Riley followed before the program hit rock bottom under Scott Frost, who was 16-31 in over four seasons and never finished higher than fifth in the Big Ten West.
Rhule’s arrival came three days after the Huskers finished a 4-8 season under Mickey Joseph—named interim coach following Frost’s September 11 firing—and just a few months before the opening of Nebraska’s $165 million football facility. .
“There’s not a game I expect we’ll ever play where we don’t expect to win,” said Rhule. “It’s not a burden but a responsibility for me as a coach to know that there will be people from all over the state who will take the money they’ve earned with their hands and through their work and their daily toil. We’ll spend it on our team You can’t win every game every year, but you can certainly be a team that people are proud of.”