CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Phil Snow was the defensive coordinator at UCLA in 2001 when a 26-year-old graduate assistant who’d just lost his job at the University of Buffalo called begging for a job.
Little did Snow know, 12 years later he would be working for that young defensive line coach.
Snow was 45 and already had 25 years of coaching experience. The man he hired had been in the business only three years and was more than a decade from earning his reputation as a rebuilder of programs.
Snow calls it a funny story.
Perhaps funnier, the 64-year-old Snow has been working as Matt Rhule’s defensive coordinator for eight seasons between Temple, Baylor and the now the Carolina Panthers.
He’s as much a reason for Rhule’s rise in the coaching profession and why the Panthers (2-2) are off to a surprising start heading into Sunday’s game against the Atlanta Falcons (0-4) as Rhule himself.
“He’s guided me through this thing of being a head coach with his philosophy and his approach to things,” Rhule said of Snow. “People always say you’ve had success as a head coach, and really it’s Phil Snow who has been with me the whole time.
“Everything I do, everything I talk about has been directly impacted by him or has come from him.”
Defense on the rise
Snow definitely has had an impact on Carolina’s fast start. The Panthers defense is tied for 10th in the NFL in yards allowed at 352.3 yards per game. The Panthers have given up only 37 points the past two weeks in wins over the Los Angeles Chargers and Arizona Cardinals after giving up 64 the first two games.
Carolina has five takeaways the past two games compared to two in the first two games, and the offense has taken advantage with 19 points off the turnovers.
The Panthers have a better pass-rush win rate: 53 percent the last two games compared to 37 percent in the first two.
Snow’s ability to make halftime and game-to-game adjustments has been instrumental to that improvement. In Week 2, for example, Tampa Bay quarterback Tom Brady had 198 yards passing and a touchdown in the first half. He was held to 19 yards with no touchdowns and an interception in the second half.
After getting a league-low six quarterback pressures in the first two games, the Panthers had 21 in the third.
“It’s never been about him,” Rhule said when describing what makes Snow different from other coordinators he’s been around. “He wants to get the football right. He’s not an arrogant guy. He’s a selfless guy. That to me is why you’ve always seen his defenses improve.”
Much was made before Rhule’s first win about key players sharing their stories, a get-to-know-you moment that they’d missed because of the pandemic.
But the speech quarterback Teddy Bridgewater remembered the most came from Snow after Carolina blew a chance to beat Las Vegas and Tampa Bay.
“He’s like, ‘Man, we’ve just got to get rid of that ‘we’re this close.’ Just go out there and do it,’” Bridgewater recalled. “[He said] it’s easy to talk about we’re this close, and all that does is make you feel content, feel complacent.”
Said Snow, “I’ve been in a lot of programs where we’ve had to turn it around. Until you realize close isn’t good enough, you never really get over the hump.”
It was Rhule’s idea to have Snow speak.
“You hear me talking about process,” Rhule said of his rebuilding foundation. “I learned that from Phil.”
Convincing Snow to join him at Temple was one of Rhule’s biggest challenges.
“He did not want to come,” Rhule said. “He had other things going on. He was going to go back to the NFL as a position coach. I said he could run the defense. I told him, ‘C’mon, we’ll have fun.’”
They’ve had fun and success. Temple’s rise began in their second season, when Snow’s defense allowed only 17.5 points a game, which came a year after giving up an average of 29.8.
In 2019, Baylor had the top-ranked defense in the Big 12 as Baylor went 11-3.
Snow doesn’t want the credit for those turnarounds any more than he ever wanted to be a head coach. His goal always was to be a coordinator.
“I wanted to teach,” Snow said. “I love to put a playbook together and have that come alive on the football field.”
Snow’s teaching is matched only by his intensity. No game defines that more for Rhule than a 20-10 victory over No. 21 East Carolina in 2014.
The Temple defense had forced five turnovers and the outcome was safely in hand when the Pirates ran a double-reverse pass that totally fooled the safety.
The safety recovered in time to knock down the pass, but Snow wasn’t celebrating with the rest of the team.
“Phil throws his headset and is screaming out onto the field to the safety that he was supposed to backpedal,” Rhule said with a laugh. “My point, Phil never gets tired of coaching. He coaches 24-7.”
Snow wants the Carolina defense to play hard and fast 24-7. His message to the defense after Sunday’s 31-21 victory against Arizona was they could have played better.
“Phil, man, he just doesn’t hold back,” Pro Bowl defensive tackle Kawann Short said. “What he does for us, we need. How aggressive he is, we like that.”
And it doesn’t matter if you’re a star such as Short or one of the many rookies, such as safety/linebacker Jeremy Chinn and defensive tackle Derrick Brown, who are contributing to the league’s youngest defense.
“Phil’s that guy who is going to tell you whether we’re doing good or bad, what we need to do,” Short said. “There’s no sugarcoating with Phil.”
‘Best coach I’d been around’
Rhule quickly saw that characteristic in 2001, when he practically begged Snow to hire him.
“I thought he was the best football coach I’d ever been around,” Rhule said of Snow, whose defense ranked first in the Pac-10 that year. “He was detailed. He was a great teacher. I just fell in love with him as a coach.”
It didn’t take long for Snow to realize Rhule was destined to be a head coach.
“He fit right in,” Snow said. “Really bright. Good on the field with the players, a good teacher.”
Hiring good teachers is key to Rhule’s process. That’s why he didn’t care that Snow was 34 years older than Joe Brady, whom he made the league’s youngest offensive coordinator.
Brady, 30, quickly has become one of Snow’s biggest fans.
“I love Phil Snow,” he said. “I love Phil Snow’s energy. I’m constantly asking him questions. He has a wealth of knowledge.”
That Snow had only four years of NFL experience — for the Detroit Lions as an assistant defensive coach and linebackers coach from 2005 to 2008 — before coming to Carolina hasn’t been a factor. His unit has played better than the Panthers’ opponent this week. Atlanta, coached by defensive guru Dan Quinn, ranks 31st in total defense, giving up 448.8 yards and 34.5 points a game.
But for Snow, it’s not just about learning his multiple schemes.
“When he starts the year off, he doesn’t start with teaching our defense,” Rhule said. “He teaches guys offense so they understand how they’re being attacked. Typically, it’s taken us a year for guys to truly learn the system.”
That the Panthers have seemed to pick up the system quickly — along with an offense that has been potent — is reason for optimism this team can be a factor in the NFC South.
Rhule doesn’t hesitate to credit Snow.
“He’s a mentor to me,” Rhule said of Snow. “I believe in asking everyone for everything. But in terms of how the game is played, in shaping my football philosophy, that’s Phil.”