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College Football Hot Seat Watch: Matt Rhule's Future, Auburn and the Impact of the NFL on the Coaching Carousel

After things not working out for him in the pros, there's already plenty of talk about Matt Rhule returning to the college ranks sooner rather than later.
Panthers head coach Matt Rhule.

Welcome back to college football, Matt Rhule! Probably!

Rhule was fired this week by the Carolina Panthers after a disastrous run in the pros, compiling an 11-27 record in Charlotte and never winning more than five games in a season. Reports are now emerging that, at least in some ways, Rhule treated the Panthers' job like a college gig, demanding input on social media campaigns and seemingly never losing the mindset of a college "recruiting" coach.

None of that matters in actual college football, where Rhule is already a hot name for this cycle (and has been for weeks, since the Panthers’ move was inevitable). Rhule built Temple, a notoriously resource-deficient program, into a winner, posting back-to-back 10-win seasons before shocking the industry by taking the Baylor job in the wake of the Art Briles scandal. Rhule took a decimated Bears program and rebuilt it to an 11-win team before leaving for the NFL after the ‘19 season.

Rhule’s true bonafides are less about scheme and more about culture, and that’s a decidedly collegiate fit. He was aware of how out-of-touch he was heading into Waco, so he stocked his staff with former Texas high school coaches, such as current Texas Tech head coach Joey McGuire. At Temple he went all-in on assistants from New Jersey and Pennsylvania and succeeded at pulling talent locally in a way the Owls never had before. And at both places, Rhule fostered a locker room culture that was able to withstand outside criticisms and/or fan apathy, and then spin success into engagement with the community.

So, where does Rhule fit? There isn’t a perfect place yet, but I’ve been told by several people at Auburn that their next head coach would do well to emulate the community engagement and amiable nature of basketball coach Bruce Pearl. Pearl and Rhule would complement each other delightfully, and Rhule has seen the depths of dysfunction Auburn currently suffers from before.

Related: Why Nebraska Should Hire Matt Rhule

The NFL Factor

It’s safe to assume that with Rhule’s failure in Carolina, the NFL will cool considerably on hiring a college head coach in this coming cycle. Does that make a ton of sense? Isn’t Rhule just one case study and not indicative of all college coaches? Of course, but NFL hiring trends are notoriously, stupidly fickle and trendy.

Related: 10 Coaching Candidates to Replace Matt Rhule as the Carolina Panthers' Head Coach

One name that doesn’t apply to this forecast is Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh, simply because he’s not considered a “college” coach in league circles. Harbaugh posted a 44-19-1 record as a head coach with the 49ers, and flirted with the open Minnesota Vikings job last cycle. Could he replace former Texas Tech head coach Kliff Kingsbury in Arizona? Could he go “home” to the Colts, the franchise where he spent four seasons of his playing career?

I’m not implying that Harbaugh wants out of Michigan, or that Michigan wants Harbaugh out, or that there’s a specific NFL team currently interested in Harbaugh – the issue is that Jim Harbaugh is Jim Harbaugh, a wildly idiosyncratic man who has proven impossible to predict. Consider Harbaugh/Michigan a permanent asterisk from here on out, and one that’s not reliant on an athletic director change (which might be in Michigan’s future) or a season win-loss total.

Auburn watch… again

If Auburn is going to make an in-season move on embattled head coach Bryan Harsin, this weekend would make the most sense: There’s a chance Auburn, a two-touchdown underdog against Ole Miss, would make a move on Harsin thanks to a bye week after, giving an interim two weeks to prepare and readjust.

But there’s a problem: Who would be the interim? Last year’s Auburn staff had obvious choices, namely two coordinators – Derek Mason and Mike Bobo – with FBS head coaching experience. Both are gone, replaced by Harsin-loyal former Boise assistants. This is not lost on Auburn’s interim decision-makers, who would likely have to tap either of their alumni staffers, Zac Etheridge or Carnell Williams, to be interim. Neither has been a head coach, and would deal with a Harsin-loyal staff who could easily pack it in down the stretch.

And that’s nothing to say of the twofold recruiting impact, both in terms of the 2023 signing class, as well as a potential exodus of roster players into the portal. Things are bad at Auburn, but no one involved in the decision-making matrix wants to sacrifice more than the 2022 season.

You can hear more from Steven Godfrey at Split Zone Duo, or watch his work at Secret Base. He’s on Instagram and Twitter at @38Godfrey.