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Column: Nebraska Penny-Pinching Forces Matt Rhule to Sue Carolina Panthers

Husker AD Trev Alberts’s efforts to lowball the front end of Rhule’s contract has predictably litigious results

Arizona Cardinals v Carolina Panthers Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

The Nebraska Cornhuskers hired former Carolina Panthers head coach Matt Rhule to great fanfare at the end of the 2022 college football season. Shortly thereafter, the contract details came out for Rhule’s pay structure and Husker Athletic Director Trev Alberts earned yet more praise for having an incentive-stacked contract that backloaded much of Rhule’s pay in what was an obvious effort to force the Panthers’s ownership to subsidize the salary of Rhule early in his new contract.

Predictably, the NFL franchise balked at the boldness of the contract structure and is now refusing to pay up. Next up in the order of inevitable events stemming from the new contract came yesterday in the form of what should have been an avoidable lawsuit by Rhule to force contract arbitration. Had Nebraska used its ample financial resources to structure its new head coach’s salary to be properly competitive among its Big Ten and Power-Five peers, Rhule would have likely not had to pursue litigation and the Huskers’ new head coach could focus his time on coaching and recruiting instead of a lawsuit.

The devil is always in the details and eventually a resolution will be sorted out, but not without first taking up enormous time and financial resources to pay a cadre of lawyers on both sides to argue things out. The situation was entirely avoidable, however, by Nebraska simply having offered a fair-market contract at the outset instead of low-balling the front end.

Over the past five fiscal years, Nebraska has averaged the 20th highest revenue of all Division I programs. In three years, the Big Ten media rights will approach almost $100 million per year in payouts to each member of the league. That will be just year four of Rhule’s contract, when he is slated to be paid $8.5 million. Yet, in his first year, Rhule is slated to make just $5.5 million, only the seventh highest-paid coach in the Big Ten based on 2022 salaries.

There is certainly nothing legally wrong with Alberts’s decision to structure Rhule’s contract such as he did. Rhule also signed off on the contract knowing that Carolina had certain requirements of him to seek a fair-market contract in a new job that would partially offset what Carolina owed him. Everyone involved are adults and did what was believed to be in their best interest.

At the end of the day, though, it is arguably yet another unnecessarily unfriendly look towards its head coach by Nebraska. The Huskers have more than enough money to even out Rhule’s contract such that his $75 million would be more evenly spread across the seven-year contract instead of back-loading it to pay $12.5 million in his final season under the new media rights sums. That is in fact exactly the argument that Carolina is making, per Football Scoop, is that the structure clearly breaks the NFL’s anti-tampering policy, though that policy does not explicitly make clear what a “club” is defined as, causing ambiguity (easily avoided).

Nebraska is a big boy in the Big Ten when it comes to revenue. Instead, Wisconsin, a historically stingy athletic department, will be paying Luke Fickell $2.4 million more than UNL will pay Rhule in year-one. Thus we see Carolina refusing to pay-up likely under the argument that Rhule’s contract — with a school that just paid its last head coach $15 million to leave three weeks early — failed to meet their offset requirements and Rhule having to resort to filing suit to force arbitration.

For a program looking to repair its image in the college football world after 20 years of coaching carousels and terrible administrative decisions, it is yet another moment of self-flagellation because the North Stadium offices can’t get out of their own way.

This article has been updated since it was originally published to include a reference to Football Scoop, which further cites a report from CBS reporter Jonathan Jones regarding Carolina’s and Rhule’s upcoming arbitration dispute.