Phil Snow has been waiting for a chance to coordinate an NFL defense, and he knows exactly what he wants from it

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CHARLOTTE – Phil Snow has coached a lot of football at a lot of places.

An old school guy? Yeah, that's how Snow would describe himself. With a gruff voice and intensity behind his words, he sounds like one too.

The 64-year-old got his start as a defensive backs coach at the high school and junior college level before bouncing around what's now the Pac-12 and becoming a widely respected defensive coordinator.

"I've coordinated in high school, junior college, I-AA, I-A," Snow said. "My last challenge is the National Football League."

Snow was an assistant with the Detroit Lions from 2005-08, his only other NFL experience. But when Matt Rhule took over as Panthers head coach, Snow's opportunity to coordinate an NFL defense came with it.

When Rhule took over the Temple program in 2013, Snow went with him. When Rhule went to Baylor in 2017, Snow followed.

"I haven't won a game as a head coach without him as my defensive coordinator," Rhule said of Snow.

Rhule and Snow's partnership continues in Carolina, and it's a big step for both men.

"You know, I never wanted to be a head football coach," Snow said. "I knew I wanted to be a coordinator. I wanted to teach. I love to put a playbook together and have that come alive on the football field.

"This is truly a blessing," he said of getting a chance to do it in the NFL. "This is a challenge that I've wanted."

How Snow and Rhule formed a bond

Back in 2001, Snow was the defensive coordinator at UCLA when Rhule, entering just his fourth year of coaching, was brought in as a graduate assistant. He got the job after hounding Snow for a position on the staff.

"For some reason, he really respected me and what we did," Snow quipped. "Matt was really bright and he was a good teacher – you could see that. The kids loved him. He had a lot of great qualities."

Rhule spent just one season with the Bruins, but he stayed in touch with Snow, who became a coaching confidant.

"Matt was coaching the D-line at Temple, and he calls and says, 'Snow, what do you think of me coaching the quarterbacks?'" Snow recalled. "I said, 'Matt, what are you talking about?' He'd been a defensive guy but (then Owls head coach) Al Golden wanted him to coach quarterbacks. He said he wanted to do it, so I told him to go for it.

"When he became the offensive coordinator, he would call me and ask, 'What do you not want to see from an offense?' He was always looking for an advantage. So, as I look back now, you could see all this coming."

Snow could see Rhule was on his way to becoming a head coach, and when that happened at Temple, Snow was eager to reunite with his former understudy. They've been together ever since.

"I've gained his trust. And we both believe in the same things defensively," Snow said. "It's still about how hard you play, how physical you play and how detailed you are. And you can't beat yourself. Those things play a big part in winning and losing, and that's what he calls 'The Process.' That can take time, but we believe in that."

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The blueprint for success on defense

When asked to describe his defensive philosophy, Snow leaned forward and paused. It was like throwing a fastball right down the middle to a power hitter.

"Everybody talks about playing hard, but they don't," Snow said. "A lot of people say they do it and they don't even come close. There is a lot of preparation that goes into doing that. So, that's No. 1.

"No. 2 is how physical you've got to play the game. You can't be good on defense if you are not physical. They told me going in that you can't play defense in the Big 12. But by Year Three, we were running to the football and we were playing real fast and physical."

Once Baylor eliminated little mistakes that led to big plays, Snow said the defense really turned the corner. And takeaways and sacks came as a byproduct of the effort Snow demanded. In 2019, Baylor finished second in takeaways (30), third in interceptions (17) and eighth in sacks per game (3.31).

"If you look at any good defense, they sack the quarterback and they create turnovers," Snow said. "That was the last stage of becoming good at both Baylor and Temple. The goal in college was 40 sacks. We did it at both places and won 10 games when we did."

So what will the defense look like under Snow in Carolina? Expect a variety of looks.

"We'll do quite a bit," Snow explained. "If the offense knows exactly where you are going to be, they are too good. You have to have some disguise and be able to move around to different fronts and coverages.

"And if you don't affect the quarterback and make him hold the ball. Take Drew Brees in our division. He gets rid of the ball in 2.5 seconds – well, you are not going to hit him, right? If you can't make him hold the football, how are you going to beat him? So you have to be multiple enough to challenge the offense. That's the goal."

Yes, the X's and O's are important, but here's one thing Snow can't stress enough: It's not necessarily what you do, it's how you do it.

"I'll say this – the system won't be why we win," Snow said. "It's going to be because of how fast and physical we play."

View photos of defensive coordinator Phil Snow during his three years as defensive coordinator at Baylor with Matt Rhule.

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