CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The waves were rocky and the wind gusty as Jimmy Johnson prepared his boat “Three Rings’’ for an April fishing trip in the Florida Keys. It was the kind of day where you might get sick on the choppy water, as one of the Hall of Fame coach’s young passengers eventually did.
It wasn’t a good day for fishing at all, but it was a great day for talking football.
At least that’s the way Carolina Panthers coach Matt Rhule recalls the day he and his son, Bryant, spent with Johnson during a recent family vacation.
For almost six hours Rhule soaked up Johnson's stories about transitioning from the University of Miami to the Dallas Cowboys, where he won Super Bowls in 1992 and 1993 to go with his college championship in 1987.
The two talked about everything from how Johnson prepared for a game to the historic 1989 trade of running back Herschel Walker to the Minnesota Vikings that involved 18 players and draft picks.
Rhule wanted to hear it all in his quest to avoid the pitfalls that kept great college coaches such as Steve Spurrier, Nick Saban and Dennis Erickson from being great in the NFL.
“He’s passionate about his job,’’ said Johnson, 78, a longtime NFL analyst for Fox Sports. “He’s very intelligent. And he works extremely hard. I’ve got no doubt that he'll be successful.’’
“You can learn from wisdom or experience, right?’’ he said. “So wisdom is learning from the experience of others and experience is learning from yourself.’’
Rhule's return to Texas
Rhule heads back this week to a place where he gained some of his most valuable experience.
Thursday’s game is less than a three-hour drive up Highway 6 to Waco, where, as head coach at Baylor, Rhule showed the reputation he earned rebuilding Temple was no fluke.
The Panthers being undefeated may be surprising for much of the country. Not for those in Texas who witnessed Rhule take Baylor from a program on the brink of being canceled to the Sugar Bowl in three seasons.
Rhule, 46, loved Texas almost as much as his native New York because the people embrace football. He admittedly wouldn’t be an NFL head coach today if it wasn't for what he learned and accomplished at Baylor from 2017-19.
And those accomplishments admittedly wouldn’t have happened if it wasn't for the relationships Rhule forged with Texas high school coaches. He got to know them on a personal level.
He hired three -- Cedar Hill’s Joey McGuire, San Antonio Reagan’s David Wetzel and Cedar Ridge’s Shawn Bell -- who remain on the staff of current Baylor coach Dave Aranda, who replaced Rhule.
He’s a member of the Texas High School Coaches Association and gets the newsletter every month.
“Matt Rhule is as genuine as it gets,’’ legendary Arlington Martin High School coach Bob Wager said. “I had an article that was published [this summer]. Coach Rhule was the first one to send me a text, and it wasn't congratulations.
“It was like, ‘Let's talk about some of the things that you wrote in your article. I kind of like it better than some of the things that I'm doing,’ ’’
Whether it’s a high school coach or an NFL Hall of Famer like Johnson, Rhule treats everyone the same because he knows he can learn from them all.
Johnson picked up on that right away.
“Has great people skills," he said.
Building success through relationships
People skills were critical to Johnson in 1989 when he took over a Dallas franchise coming off three straight losing seasons. Going from college kids to adults, he found relationships to be as important as X’s and O’s.
Rhule understands. Relationships are atop his three criteria for success.
“He wants you to be a better person first,’’ said Carolina defensive tackle Bravvion Roy, who also played for Rhule at Baylor. “Football is going to come.’’
The turnaround for Johnson's Cowboys happened in his third season, 1991, when they went 11-5. A year later, they were 13-3 and on their way to the first of consecutive Super Bowl victories.
Rhule’s success at Temple and Baylor happened in his third year, so like Johnson he understands it takes time.
Johnson made tough decisions along the way. None was questioned more than the trade for Walker a year after the back finished second in the NFL in rushing with 1,514 yards.
Rhule wanted to know all about that. Many questioned his decision in 2020 to move on from quarterback Cam Newton. The decision to trade for New York Jets quarterback Sam Darnold this offseason also had its critics.
“Just his confidence to make the right decisions even if they weren’t popular ... hearing that from him was great,’’ Rhule said of Johnson.
'Never be satisfied'
It’s too early to tell if the Darnold trade will work for Rhule the way the Walker trade did for Johnson. The Cowboys parlayed their additional draft picks into key players such as running back Emmitt Smith, receiver Alvin Harper, defensive tackle Russell Maryland and safety Darren Woodson.
But so far so good for Darnold. He has completed 68.5% of his passes with three touchdowns and one interception. He has left many of the bad habits from three years with the New York Jets behind.
That and a defense playing lights out has helped Carolina to a fast start. But Rhule is constantly looking for ways to improve by talking to legends like Johnson and by reading and rereading books from great coaches such as Marv Levy, Bill Walsh and Chuck Noll.
He even gets help from David Coggins, a retired Navy seal, ultramarathon runner and author.
“What I learned from everyone is to just keep constantly searching for better, to never be satisfied,’’ Rhule said. “That’s what I’m trying to do. That’s what our team is trying to do.’’
Honor the hardest workers
Johnson may be laid back on his boat, but as a coach he was in-your-face, always pushing and challenging players.
Rhule has a similar style. While he understands the importance of talent, he demands a tough, gritty mindset.
At Baylor, he rewarded the hardest-working players by giving them a single-digit uniform number, a tradition he brought from Temple. So Rhule “loved it’’ when Carolina linebackers Shaq Thompson and Jermaine Carter switched to Nos. 7 and 4, respectively, before the opener.
“We're going to always try to honor and reward the guys who work the hardest and do things the right way,’’ Rhule said.
Carolina safety Sean Chandler is a great example. He went from basically homeless (staying with relatives and friends or in shelters) to the first freshman to get a single-digit number under Rhule at Temple.
How Chandler’s relationship with Rhule began says a lot. Rhule was the only coach who came to visit him in a rough, poverty-stricken area in New Jersey.
“We were sitting on my couch watching ‘American Gangster,’ ’’ Chandler recalled with a laugh. “It was nighttime too. It was like he was one of the guys.
“Once you build that relationship, you’re willing to run through a wall for him.’’
Peanut butter sandwiches
Johnson built the championship Cowboys around the triplets -- Smith, quarterback Troy Aikman and wide receiver Michael Irvin. Alongside them he had a lot of tough-minded role players.
He wants tough-minded role players like Trevor White.
White was a walk-on from Arlington, Texas, when Rhule arrived at Baylor in 2016. He was making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for the team as part of his internship program when Rhule first noticed him.
White soon earned a single-digit jersey.
He reinforced to Rhule the importance of having players with something to prove. Rhule still has a picture on his phone of White “dapping my son up’’ before a game.
Their relationship didn’t end after college. Rhule helped White get a job as a pit-crew member for Stewart-Haas Racing not far from Carolina’s Bank of America Stadium.
“He’s the best coach I’ve ever had for sure,’’ White said. “I would have played a sixth year for him if I could have.’’
The rough waves finally caught up to Rhule’s son.
“He got sick and threw up on the boat,’’ Rhule said with a laugh. “Coach was like, ‘He’s not the first one to do this.’ "
Rhule isn’t the first coach to seek Johnson’s knowledge about transitioning from college to the NFL. First-year Jacksonville coach Urban Meyer, who won three national titles between Florida and Ohio State, also is on that long list.
Johnson tells them all the same thing: There’s a “world of difference’’ between the two, from the length of the season to the age of players to the financial aspects.
“If you’re at one of the top 10 or 12 schools, you’re going to get the best players and you’re gonna win eight or nine games regardless of who the head coach is,’’ Johnson said. “It’s not that way in the NFL.’’
Rhule never led one of the traditional top colleges. A former walk-on at Penn State, he made his mark as a coach by building winning programs. He’s using that philosophy to turn around a Carolina team that hasn’t had a winning record since 2017, including 5-11 a year ago in Rhule’s first season.
“That's what resonated with the coaches in [Texas], why we all wanted to send our best players to him,’’ Wager said.
Wager and many others who crossed Rhule’s path in Texas will be pulling for him Thursday night against the home-state Texans.
Johnson understands. He followed Rhule’s college career and was impressed. He was even more impressed after their fishing trip.
He thinks one day Rhule might be a good fisherman too.
“It’s funny,’’ Rhule said. “I’ve had this problem with my left eye for a year now. I heard him say, ‘Hey, we have to look for birds. The birds will tell you where the fish are.’
“I saw them a couple of times. Coach Johnson said, ‘Man, you’ve got great eyes.’ That was an experience I’ll never forget.’’