- New Carolina Panthers head coach Matt Rhule signed a seven-year, $60 million deal to head to the NFL.
- The agreement sent shock waves through the league, since Rhule has never coached an NFL game in his career.
- His deal is also being celebrated throughout coaching circles, with other coaches hoping it will push their salaries higher as well.
Whether he knows it or not, Matt Rhule has cemented his place in the National Football League's coaching history books — before he's coached a single professional football game.
Rhule, who signed a seven-year deal worth $60 million to become head coach of the Carolina Panthers, sent shock waves through the NFL when the news leaked last week. His deal is also being celebrated throughout coaching circles as other coaches hope it will push their salaries higher as well, according to interviews with sports agents and league officials, many of whom didn't want to be identified because contract terms are confidential.
While Panthers owner David Tepper will be paying Rhule roughly $8 million to $10 million per season, which is a lot in the league, that's not a record amount for an NFL coach.
New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick is currently the highest paid coach at $12 million per season, with Seattle's Pete Carroll next at $11 million, according to Forbes. New Orleans coach Sean Payton and Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin are also earning at least $10 million a year, according to two people with knowledge of the contracts.
Rhule's deal attracted a lot of attention because, unlike other highly paid NFL coaches, the former head football coach at Baylor University has never coached an NFL team in his career, let alone win a Super Bowl like Belichick, Carroll, Payton and Tomlin.
Top NFL coaches didn't start regularly making multiple millions until the late 1990s when former Green Bay Packers coach Mike Holmgren set the bar for lucrative coaching contracts. He left his $2 million coaching gig in Wisconsin in 1998 to sign an eight-year deal with the Seahawks valued at roughly $4 million a season. The deal made Holmgren the highest-paid coach in the NFL in 1999 and set in motion a new pay scale for top head coaches.
Jon Gruden's $100 million deal signed with the Oakland Raiders in 2018 is interesting, not only for the amount, but the fact that it's for 10 years, which was viewed in coaching circles as another shift. Usually, NFL head coaching deals don't exceed five or six years, but Gruden changed that with this agreement.
It's estimated the average NFL head coaching salary is roughly $6 million to $7 million, but it could climb to as high as $10 million with Rhule's deal, according to one sports agent.
Rhule's deal stands out even when compared to other top coaching salaries in other sports, like San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich who makes roughly $11 million a year in the NBA and Los Angeles Angels manager Joe Maddon at $12 million to $15 million a year in the MLB.
NFL owners are reportedly upset at newcomer Tepper, the billionaire hedge fund manager who purchased the Panthers franchise last year for $2 billion. One NFL agent, who agreed to discuss the matter but asked not to be named, said some owners "were absolutely livid" with the Rhule's deal. Tepper, though, has no regrets about paying top dollar to land his new coach.
"I think Matt Rhule can come in here and build an organization for the next 30 or 40 years," Tepper told Panthers.com after announcing his hire.
The thinking in some NFL coaching circles is Rhule's deal, which was longer than most thanks to Gruden's precedent-setting 10-year deal, will help more top NFL coaches garner even more than Rhule's $60 million contract.
"It raised the bar," former NFL head coach Tony Dungy told CNBC in an interview. "It's like that player — as soon as one player makes that — then everybody else in the office the next time around, 'Hey, so and so is worth this. I must be worth this.'"
"There is no going back now," Dungy added. "I think you're going to see this increase because it's telling the other coaches that money is out there. Carolina is not the only team that can afford to pay that."
In the NFL, coaching contracts are not included in a team's salary cap, so those numbers don't typically get released. Sports agents generally obey a code of silence when asked about coach pay. Teams report coach contract terms to the NFL for commissioner Roger Goodell to review, and numbers are documented in case there's a dispute.
Bob LaMonte, the agent who became one of the most powerful coaching agents in the NFL, said owners are increasingly seeing the value in a great coach and some, like Tepper, aren't afraid to spend a lot of money to get one.
"Owners have the money to spend," LaMonte said. "The coach, without him, it doesn't matter going down the line with the players you have because he's not going to be able to get you to the promised land if he's not a great coach."
LaMonte is president of Public Sports Representation, an agency that represent coaches and NFL general managers, including Holmgren and Gruden. When he first founded the agency in 1979, his challenge was getting owners to understand "money-value wise what a coach was worth because coaches never had agents. Coaches didn't make any money."
LaMonte helped change the pay scales when he negotiated the deals for Holmgren and Gruden, giving coaches more leverage.
LaMonte "knew what other guys were making," Dungy said. "So, you want my client; I know what [a team] is prepared to pay. We didn't know that as coaches. We didn't know what other guys were making, what could be done, so you were at the mercy of the owners. Bob just said, 'Hey, I've got six or seven guys. I know what they're making. If you want one of my other guys, you've got to step to the table with this,' and it helped everybody out."
One reason why some owners were upset with Tepper is because they are worried it will drive up prices for talented college coaches like University of Alabama's Nick Saban, who returned to college coaching after leading the Miami Dolphins.
When Saban first came to the NFL from Louisiana State University, his five-year head coaching contract in Miami was reportedly valued at roughly $5 million per season. In 2019, Saban made approximately $8.8 million at Alabama, which ranks second behind Clemson University's Dabo Swinney at $9.3 million, according to Sporting News.
University of Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh's win record would suggest even higher pay if he ever decides to return to the NFL.
As a college coach, Rhule has only been to four bowl games with a combined record of 47-43 after stints at Temple University and Baylor University. Harbaugh's college record is 76-39, including seven bowl appearances, and he led the San Francisco 49ers to Super Bowl XLVII in 2013.
Tepper also signed Rhule for seven years when owners typically don't commit to first-year head NFL coaches for more than four years.
"But now they're not going to be able to get them for anything less than five," said the NFL agent who asked not to be identified. "I think the new standard has been set."
To get Rhule, Tepper axed respected coach Ron Rivera, who was quickly signed by the Washington Redskins.
So now comes the hard part for Tepper and Rhule: winning in the NFL, which money alone can't buy. If Rhule doesn't deliver, Tepper risks looking like the Wall Street billionaire who bought an NFL team for fun without knowing how to run one. If Rhule succeeds, Tepper will look as smart in football as he was making his fortune.
"Matt is a very good people manager," Tepper told Panthers.com. "And I think a good people manager is a good people manager, college or pro. He's going to set standards for people. We're counting on people buying into those standards."
Whether Tepper's risk will pay off remains to be seen. No matter the results, it makes NFL coaches happy because it could help them get more money in their next contract negotiations.